14
Feb
12

What’s in a word – A lot!

A subtest on nearly all measures of intelligence is Vocabulary.  So, on the Wechsler IQ scales (one is designed for children; one for adults) the Vocabulary Subtest consists of having the individual look at a printed word, pronounce it (assistance in pronunciation may be given) and then provide a definition of that word.

Margo was a 17-year-old in a private girl’s school.  She was laboring to obtain satisfactory grades, but her teachers were most perplexed by their belief that she “seemed” so much more capable than any of her test scores, especially on essay sorts.  They unanimously agreed that her “writing didn’t reflect her ability”, though their estimates of her ability were necessarily based on impressions and inferences, not on facts or test scores.

Early on in the Vocabulary test, Margo pronounced the word “conceal” and said (in almost invariably halting words and phrases), “to like close something up, closing all ends. . . concealing it. . . keeping it quiet, low-key. . . like a jar?. . keep tightly closed”.  When I asked her whether a person could conceal a gun, she instantly said, “Sure. . hide it. . by hiding it!”

Later, to   commence, she said, “to applause, to praise someone!” (commend?) and defined the word sentence, as “Like a bunch of words; it has a topic (subject) and a verb”. She involuntarily accessed the meaning of commend and found the wrong word for subject. She made these mistakes and others like them again and again, even though it turned out later that they were “not what I meant to say” (see below).

Later on, she defined much less frequent words with much greater sacuity.  She said tangible meant “palpable’, that remourse meant “guilt”  and that sanctuary was “a place to worship, a religious place”.

In the end, it became clear that Margo knew a lot more about word meanings than she could reliably explain or specify.  And instances of inefficient, misguided or tangential recall processes appeared across testing of of her verbal aptitudes.

I learned a lot from Margo and others like her.  I realized that “decontextualized” words (those presented in isolation) can, even for very bright Learning Disabled children, conjure up multiple and diverse” possible meanings”.  It’s as if they can access in memory not just conventional word meanings but also meanings peculiar to a certain circumstance.  What’s more,  other forms of a given word can spontaneously surface (e.g. “concealed” or “concealing” or “concealment”) and complicate the process of defining a word.  Too, words that are similar in sound (or spelling) can contribute their own features.  So, for Margo, “conceal” activated the word “seal” as well as “hide”.  So, the phrase, “conceal the jar” – without additional context, is ambiguous in meaning, at least for Margo.

One can observe just this sort of meaning/sound conflation in her definition of “commence”, which appeared to elicit the meaning of “commend” for Margo.  She subsequently “corrected” her definition when I said, “We commenced the meeting”, “Oh! she exclaimed.  “to begin something,” start it . . . I don’t know where I got ‘praise’ from . . .I’m sorry.  That’s so stupid!”

Margo got a low Vocabulary score; she got no points for words that later on, she instantly defined when I put them in context.

I had to report that score, of course.   But I spent considerable time explaining to the reader of my report why her score was a substantial underestimate of her true word knowledge.  And I explained how high-frequency words were more troubling for Margo than rarer words.  Why?  Because over the years, Margo had heard and read the former more frequently, in various contexts, all of which enriched and expanded their meanings, making their definitions intricate, context-sensitive and multi-layered. And her ability to search through this huge database was inefficient if not altogether undependable. Such languae memory difficulties are seen in many with language disorders.

In some sense, Margo knew “too much” about words, their phonetic structures and relationships, their grammatical features, and most of all, their multiple semantic components.  Her only “problem” was that, in academics, she was requird to “show” what she knew about words and meanings in artificially constrained, one-dimensional ways when little time and context were provided.

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