Free will and vocabulary size

Criminals commit crimes of their own volition.  Society certainly plays a role in creating the conditions that produce crime, but ultimately the criminal is responsible for his or her own actions and should be held accountable as a free individual.

Words have identifiable meanings at their core.  People may use them incorrectly, or their meanings may be corrupted over time, but in order to understand them, use them, and teach them you need to know their real definitions independent of context.

I think both of these statements are wrong, but they have something interesting in common, which is a perceived need to regard certain things in isolation for some purposes when in reality they depend on other things for almost all their characteristics.  I intend here to draw a connection between what I studied in college (criminology) and some issues that haunt my current field of applied linguistics.  The connection that I will draw is one of an ultimately false atomized view of both human agents and words in language, and then I will show that the realization that atomized view is false nonetheless has very limited implications due to institutional restraints on how we can deal with human agency and how we can teach and test vocabulary.


That started off much more formally than I intended.  I guess the issues I’m going to bring up are fairly high-minded, but keep in mind I’m used to dealing with these topics in academic writing.  I will try to address the least educated of my readers.  No, not you.  The other guy.  You know the one.

What I mean by a “false atomized view” in the context of criminology is libertarian free will, which is a concept that is unsupportable scientifically, at least in its most popular conception.  With it falls human agency as well, which our justice system depends on for determining responsibility.

Free will and atomized human behavior

There’s a story I read in some popular science book a while back about the philosopher Wittgenstein, who when he asked his friend why people assumed the sun went around the earth for so long, got the reply, “It just looks like the sun goes around the earth”, to which Wittgenstein replied, “Well, what would it look like if it looked like the earth went around the sun?”  Human free will is similar to the sun’s going around the earth – a universally tempting but incorrect assumption.  Subjective human experience invites the conclusion that our conscious mind is the ultimate cause of the decisions we make, and the reasons that this conclusion is so inviting are hidden and probably innate facts of human mental life.  Something about our psychology forces this illusion on us. Of course, passing a junior high school science course equips you with all you need to disprove the existence of libertarian free will, in that if the motion of atoms is caused, and people are made of atoms, well… it’s hard to find a place in physics for a concept like will to intervene and steer subatomic particles this way or that.  The seeds of human action, like everything else, are physical forces mostly outside our comprehension, and even more so for the causes of any individual action.

So if human action isn’t self-caused, how can we hold people responsible for their actions?  When people are brought before a court of law empowered to determine where ultimate responsibility for a crime lies, how the can individual human in the orange jumpsuit, or any individual human, ever be made to hold all the blame?  It might make more sense for the court to punish the defendant’s parents, his teachers, his peers, his landlord, the city planning board, the county board of education, the New England winter, El Niño, the chemical properties of gunpowder, and the sun in addition to the defendant, if it were tasked with punishing all those responsible for a given crime.

It is simply expedient to punish criminals instead.  Investigating all the social and physical causes of a crime would lead to groups of punishments that more accurately map on the causes of the crime, but it would also break the court’s budget on its first case and take decades to complete.  Criminal courts also can’t force parents to take their kids outside, much less force a city to build more parks.  Because of the difficulty of obtaining an accurate picture of reality that led to the problem facing them now, courts punish the person last and most obviously responsible for the crime instead of all the people and things responsible for it.

(Libertarian free will is sometimes distinguished from compatiblist free will, which based on this Sam Harris podcast sounds more like a political concept than a physical or psychological one.  I’m also assuming for the sake of space that we punish retributively rather than, for example, to deter others.)

You are probably wondering what happened to the ELT portion of this post.  OK, here it is.

Atomized vocabulary

You’ll notice that English learners, when asked to recall irregular past tenses, often recite memorized lists, a la eat, ate, eaten.  I don’t know any native speakers who do this – they all seem to try to fit the words into a sentence until they find the one that sounds right.  That is, they let the surrounding words and situation guide which word is right rather than trying to deduce the answer from first principles.  Our understanding of many if not most of our vocabulary is contextual, and even when we remove words from their native habitats for analysis we are rarely tempted to insert them back in the wrong context based only on factors like grammatical class.  We may see a word like doubloon used in a certain type of novel, and upon looking it up see that it’s a type of currency, but would not consider using doubloon for money next time we’re at the bank.

To take a slightly more academic example, the verb give and other verbs metaphorically related to give can have their direct and indirect objects switched, as in “I told you a secret” and “I told a secret to you”.  Some verbs that appear semantically similar to give, like donate, don’t normally allow this switching.  Most native speakers judge sentences like I donated Red Cross some coins to be wrong, but aren’t always able to explain the reasons (to be honest, I’ve forgotten them too – something having to do with the semantic effect of the verb on its indirect object, I think).  Learners might come across donate in a vocabulary list, find its definition, and be tempted to apply the direct and indirect object-switching rule based on the limited information they have.  They’d be wrong, and the kind of practice that would help them see the difference would probably involve years of statistically-based “getting used to” rather than anything we’d call vocabulary practice in a traditional sense.  Looking at words out of context speeds up the rate at which new vocabulary can be learned, but shears off a lot of contextual information about them, some of which turns out to be rather important.

There is a lot to words besides the information presented as part of a dictionary entry or vocabulary list in a textbook.  That information can get us to a rudimentary level of comprehension of a word, but not a realistic picture of its place within the linguistic ecosystem it comes from.  The ways that words are presented to learners are born of expedience, needing to reach something close to the goal in a little time.  We prosecute words one at a time because we’re working with students who have a few hours a week to devote to language study, much like defendants in the criminal justice system can’t take up thousands of man-hours of labor to get to a more nuanced picture of the causes of their criminal behavior.

Some, in particular “law and order” conservatives and test-oriented language teachers, are prone to taking the expedient view of human action/words as true rather than simply necessary for the institutions that process them.  Reading the comments under any given crime story in the news is likely to yield at least a few along the lines of “Only one person is responsible for this, the criminal” or “No matter how you were raised you can always CHOOSE to do the right thing”, flat denials of the physical origins of human action.  Likewise, teachers who have been working a bit too long with false beginners and the memeplex of excuses that surrounds them are liable to come out with bewildering statements like “they know a lot of words, they just can’t use them”, as if there were something of substance to “know” about a word that had nothing to do with its usage.  Both cases represent confusion over institution-specific, technical, and cloistered definitions of “responsibility” and “vocabulary” with the more objective concepts that those words represent outside criminal courts and outside the TOEFL classroom.

So much like social justice advocates see crimes rates as signs of the necessity of work to improve society in ways not directly related to any individual crime, I believe language teachers should see vocabulary size tests as signs of incipient or potential language learning, not proof of mastery.  That is, being able to pick the right synonym for premier from a group of 4 random words shows that you can read texts or gain greater benefit from input that includes premier, not that your work with respect to that word is complete.


5 thoughts on “Free will and vocabulary size

  1. I’ve heard that (possibly apocryphal) Wittgenstein anecdote before. Would it have quieted ol’ Ludwig up if his friend had simply answered, “From the relative standpoint of a human on planet earth, the sun actually *is* spinning round the earth”?


  2. A great post, Mark. I love parallels of all sorts and this one is daring. My favorite bit from your post is this: “We prosecute words one at a time because we’re working with students who have a few hours a week to devote to language study, much like defendants in the criminal justice system can’t take up thousands of man-hours of labor to get to a more nuanced picture of the causes of their criminal behavior.” You know, such metaphors can be truly helpful because they can make us see problems in a new light. In this case, time is clearly part of the problem. So what can we do to make up for the time we (defendants or English teachers) don’t have? Well, I believe motivation is the key. We can’t possibly teach our students all the English vocabulary, but we can show them what to do outside the English classroom to become autonomous language learners. More autonomy > more vocabulary in context > better language users. Also, by talking about some of the possible reasons behind a crime, we can make people understand and thus make them feel more compassionate. More compassion/understanding > better society > less crime. I hope this doesn’t sound too pathetic but that’s how I see it from the relative standpoint of a human. 🙂


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the in-depth comment! I agree that motivation is often the missing link between in-class content and what we hope students are doing at home to buttress what we’ve covered or touched on as a group. I also agree it’s analogous to the larger social causes of crime and other behavior, in that it’s much more important than institutional processes but of course harder to control and identify the origins of. I had my difficulties getting students to see their language education as anything but a formal process by which knowledge is transferred from my head to theirs in one-hour increments.

      Liked by 1 person

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