Are You a Learner?

Posted: May 4, 2011 in Education, Life

How many of us were taught as children the saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me.”? Boy, is that a crock! It would be more accurate to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will completely devastate me, scar me for life and cause me to seek out therapy later.”

Words have power. They can build up or tear down, create or destroy, encourage or discourage, inspire us to new heights we never before imagined or leave us lying in the dust of humiliation. Words can convey the simplest thought or the deepest truth.

When you are reading something and come across a word you don’t know, how do you respond? Are you annoyed or glad? Do you view it as a bother or an opportunity? Do you skip over it or take the opportunity to increase your vocabulary.

In college I had an English professor, a batty lady who was a real hoot in class and out, who revealed that she probably had more dictionaries than any other person alive. She had one on her desk, carried one in her purse, had one in her car, by the phone at home, on her night stand … pretty much anyplace she might run into a new word, she had a dictionary there for easy reference. And just incase she was without a dictionary (or couldn’t for some reason look the word up right then, she carried a small notebook with her wherein she’d write the word for later reference. She loved words and learning new words.

While I am hesitant to ever hold myself up as a person has a handle on anything or has it figured out or as a model to emulate (for more than anyone short of God and my wife I know how far off the mark I am) I borrowed a page from her book. I have an Oxford Dictionary of American English on my desk and another at the house. I have it on my kindle and kindle apps on my computer and phone. It’s the default dictionary on my computer. A couple years ago I started carrying a notebook around with me (not just for words, but all the crazy ideas I have so I don’t forget stuff). I love words. I love discovering new ones.

In my short life I’ve been able to learn one foreign language fluently and a smattering of other languages. I’m amazed at the number of times a language will have a single word that takes a whole sentence to translate back into english. An example common to many Christians is the word Love. Classical and Koinonia Greek have four common words for love, each conveying a different meaning and nuance. English has to muddle along with one and tack on adjectives and modifiers to make sure the correct meaning is conveyed. Often, however, upon further research, I’ll find that there is an english word which conveys the intended meaning of a foreign word, it’s just fallen out of use and we’ve forgotten it. Our language and thus culture is poorer for the loss of these words.

I’ve had people express to me that they feel dumb or inadequate when they read books or articles with words they don’t know. I am truly sorry about that. It saddens me. Somewhere in the past these people were programmed to think they had to already know everything. Why do we ridicule ignorance. Ignorance is no crime. Even the word ignorance has a negative connotation (an idea or feeling that a word invokes in a person in addition to its literal or primary meaning) when all it really means is a lack of knowledge. (Denotation: the literal or primary meaning of a word, in contrast to the feelings or ideas that the word suggests.) Much in our culture is that way. How many times has someone talked about something you didn’t understand, but you pretended you did so as not to seem ignorant? I’m guilty of it too. We don’t want to appear to stupid so we lie and pretend we know something we don’t.

Feelings are feelings and I can’t tell someone to stop feeling a certain way. I do hope they’ll work through that emotion and learn despite their previous negative programming. I further hope that I never ridicule someone for a simple lack of knowledge. I further hope, even pray, that those whom I teach, and even simply interact with, will come to trust me enough to ask when I use a word or concept they don’t yet know.

Mortimer Adler, American philosopher and educator, said, “The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as long as we live.” Proverbs 1:5 reads (in the ESV), “Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.” God never intended for us to stop growing mentally. What’s your attitude about learning?

Read books with big words. Learn something new. It all boils down to attitude.

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Comments
  1. Ed Hurst says:

    Yep, I’m a big vocabulary guy, but not intentionally. I don’t remember when it started, only that I knew words most folks didn’t before I ever started college. I knew words I hadn’t seen, and tended to pronounce them in the orthodox fashion.

  2. I’d remembered the quote, but not who said it. A thank you to my friend Chris who reminded me:

    “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” — Albert Einstein

  3. […] other day I wrote about learning new words.  Today I stumbled upon a page purporting to list the one hundred most beautiful words in the […]

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