Thursday, March 19, 2015

Gaining New Words: Learning vs. Acquiring

When we come to understand the difference between learning and acquiring, we can come to understand the apparent and relative ease of learning some things over others.

For example, almost everyone believes physics and chemistry are more difficult than literature and philosophy. But that would depend on what we mean by "difficult." If we are talking about the complexity of a subject, literature and philosophy are by far the more difficult. But if we are talking about gaining the vocabulary needed to understand the subject, it is physics and chemistry which are the more difficult subjects. The reason is that much of the vocabulary of literature and philosophy are acquired, whereas the vocabulary of chemistry and physics are learned.

A word is acquired when you hear it in context and understand what it means. You acquire most of your vocabulary before you hit puberty -- which is the prime time to learn languages. Some of these words we acquire in the context of school -- the word "plot," for example -- and some of these we acquire at home, etc. When do we acquire the word "mind," for example? How often do we hear phrases like "change your mind" or "mind your manners"? When we get around to learning the word's psychological or philosophical meanings, we already have an understanding of what the word means. We adjust that meaning to the new context, which is easier than learning a new word and its meaning/referent.

You learn a word when you are simultaneously given the context for it. It is unlikely you heard of the word methionine (if you have heard of it) prior to learning its chemical structure and the fact that it is an amino acid with the following chemical formula: HO₂CCHCH₂CH₂SCH₃

It is difficult to remember all of the amino acids and their chemical structures. More difficult, at least, than is adapting your understanding of the word "mind" to psychology and philosophy. When we are taught new vocabulary words in elementary school, not only did we have to learn the dictionary definition, but we also had to use the word in a sentence. We did the latter to ensure we created a context for the word. It's even better if we read the word in the context of a story or short essay. Learning occurs best if you can manage to create a context in which acquiring takes place.  

Since in physics and chemistry most of the vocabulary must be learned -- and it must be learned at the same time as the referents are learned -- we experience learning physics and chemistry as difficult. But since we have already acquired much of the vocabulary of literature and philosophy, we experience learning literature and philosophy as easy, even though they are far more complex forms of knowledge than are chemistry and physics. 

But supposed you had someone who acquired much of the vocabulary of the hard sciences when he or she were young. One would expect areas like chemistry and physics to be easier to learn for them than it would be for others. That would mean they would have to be raised in a social context in which the concepts of chemistry and physics were relatively commonly discussed. While it's unlikely most households are prepared to do that, it's not impossible to have children's shows which discuss the concepts of physics and chemistry. Good stories with good visuals would be able to contextualize ideas from the hard sciences such that they are acquired rather than learned. If we really want students to learn math and science, a cartoon about Captain Einstein would go a long way to actually accomplishing that.
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