The American Scholar: The Vocabulary Problem



The vocabulary problem, as described in a New Yorker article on neuroscience research, is a problem for people who index databases, such as indexes for human-computer interaction. The problem arises because people use different words for the same thing. Your wallet is stolen and you google what to do. But what term to use? Police Where Support? Flight Where Security? Security, it turns out, is the answer, as you discover after wasting time on several futile guesses. It is however also the term for other matters, and it is slow to locate in all the abundance of information the little you want on your wallet.

The process would be streamlined if, instead of looking up a word, you could look up the thought behind the word – a brain state. An MRI scan can show thoughts as activity in particular areas of the brain; a map of brain activity in response to a verbal prompt is a mental representation of that word or idea. People have remarkably similar representations for an idea, or even a series of ideas. The researchers believe that eventually, through the use of a so-called “thinking hat” that can detect and map activity, people will be able to compare ideas directly. You can, for example, teach languages ​​by matching a learner’s mental representation of a word with that of a native speaker. The ultimate result could be direct mind-to-mind communication in thought, without the need to translate from one language to another.

Communicate directly? Without the work, without the trouble? No trial and error to find the right words to express your thoughts, no doubts, no wasted time? How exciting. Or not? Without the trial and error and building tension, would you lose the thrill of achieving communication? You’d miss the joyful relief when the other suddenly bursts into a smile, indicating that two minds have finally connected through an expanse of difference. Or three spirits, in my case and, after I introduced them both one August evening, my mother and my neighbor. It was at the beginning of my mother’s extended visit, and she and I were returning from a walk when I saw my neighbor across the alley, behind the horror in his garden. We slowed our steps, smiling in his direction as he rushed towards us. Hello, hello, we said, hello, he answered, and I made the introductions.

Years ago, after my brother and I moved to Spain, my mother studied Spanish for a while. She has now forgotten much of what she learned, but not everything. On this occasion, however, to use some of the phrases she still remembers, what came out of her mouth was not Spanish, but French. “Delightedshe said, to his surprise.

Before she could correct herself, my neighbor answered, also in French. Even though my mother denied any knowledge of French, my neighbor came back in Spanish to explain that he was studying French. ” No French ? » my mother asked, and in Spanish my neighbor said that although he had studied English for his degree in mining engineering, there was nothing left. Her son, however, is fluent in English. He was soon to leave for Amsterdam where he would do a master’s degree. I translated into English for my mother, and when she talked about her Spanish studies, I translated into Spanish for my neighbor. We went. He explained that he was now retired and French was a hobby for mental exercise. A French woman from a nearby village gives him lessons. My mother said her French was leftover from summer trips through France as a student. She couldn’t remember any of the French she had learned at the time, and yet, she marveled, there it was, ready to go out. Memory is tricky, the mind is a mystery, and young people today take so much for granted.

It is the result of the conversation. It took the three of us 15 minutes to achieve this exchange of information and goodwill. During this time, there have been many stops, starts and twists. It was a thoroughly enjoyable quarter of an hour. If we had understood each other instantaneously, we would have conversed for two minutes, and our exchange of greetings would not have led to Malta, to Amsterdam, to lost luggage, to fading memories, or to a Frenchwoman in a neighboring village overlooking language lessons at home. Without a vocabulary problem, we wouldn’t have laughed so cheerfully. Without a vocabulary problem, we would have had a different problem: fluid communication as sterile as talking to oneself.

Permission required for reprint, reproduction or other uses.


Comments are closed.