Ask Reading Kingdom: Does a broader vocabulary allow you to think faster?


Marc (high school student asks):

Does a broader vocabulary allow you to think faster?

Dr. Marion Blank answers:

Often language and thinking are seen as almost synonymous terms with some people believing that it is impossible to think without language. That is far from the case. Thinking exists in many domains—not all of which involve language. For example, many visual-spatial skills do not require language. However, for tasks that do involve language, a broader vocabulary can allow you to think faster. Assigning a label, which is basically what a word is, to a concept, allows it to be used more easily in your brain.

For example, one study looked at differences in counting ability and counting memory between speakers of English and speakers of Piraha (an Amazonian tribe). The Piraha language is notable for many features, one of which is its lack of any words for numbers or counting. What they found is that the Piraha can still recognize quantities – not surprising. However, their memory for quantities was worse than English speakers.

Not only is vocabulary relevant to faster thinking, it is also relevant to having possession of certain concepts. For example, very young children who have no words for numbers can tell the difference between small quantities such as two pennies and four pennies. But when the quantities are larger than that (e.g., eight vs. ten) in the absence of words, they cannot perceive the difference between the two.

Also certain verbal concepts make thinking far more efficient. For example, imagine not having words for concepts such as democracy, revolution, space exploration, etc. It would be possible to discuss them – but many, many words would be needed to convey what a single word can express. Effective vocabulary is certainly a powerful force.

In this connection, there is another feature that is worthy of note. Intelligence tests such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scales are designed with sub-tests that assess a number of skills such as spatial arrangement, sequencing, math, etc.  The single sub-test that has the highest correlation with IQ is vocabulary.  But keep in mind that after grade 4 vocabulary growth is largely driven through literacy (not through speech).  This means that reading plays a powerful role in adult thinking.

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