How Do We Learn New Words in the Workplace?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Every industry, every company, and every project has its own vocabulary. As humans, we make judgments based on the words people choose. We decide to trust the plumber because he knows the name of the “thing-a-ma-jig” that needs to be replaced. When we say that someone sounds like she knows what she’s talking about (or not), we’re reacting to her ability to use her vocabulary—both the depth and the breadth.

Academics who are experts at linguistics use a concept called a “discourse community.” Fundamentally, a discourse community is a group of people who have developed ways of communicating with each other to get things done. The older members of the community need to teach the language to the newer members of the community. Doesn’t this description sound like a typical workplace?

Neuroscience research via brain scans has discovered that different areas of the brain light up when one is learning new words. There are approximately 1,000,000 words in the English language. With the “kernel lexicon” of 2,400 words, it is possible for one to understand approximately 75 percent of what is read. The average vocabulary ranges from 10,000 to 25,000 words, depending upon experience and education.

Adults learn language differently from children. Children learn language by listening, listening, listening—and then they start speaking. Then they are taught their letters so they can learn to read and write. Adults, however, are more likely to listen and read, then write, and then speak. Only when he is comfortable with a word or phrase and its appropriate usage and context will an adult start using his new words in speech. Passive vocabulary—the words we know for reading and listening—is significantly larger than the active vocabulary used for speaking and writing.


The principles associated with learning English tell us that people need multiple repetitions over time via different neural pathways and in different contexts to learn words and phrases and the concepts that they represent. Let’s dissect this sentence and identify the steps.

  • Seven to 20 repetitions
  • Multiple contexts
  • Reading, speaking, writing, and listening (active plus passive input)
  • Tense, construction, and usage (variations of meaning and significance)

This is how people pick up words on their own over time. It sounds logical. However, there is a very important snag in all this lace.
According to university-sponsored research, when we don’t know a word, we either make up a meaning or ignore the word. Academics knowingly talk about how to infer meaning based on context, word formation, and more. But research is showing us something else: In the real world, the brain might just fill in a meaning. Maybe it will figure out a correct meaning, but maybe not.

It’s the second action, however, that is more disconcerting—when the word is simply ignored. It’s not that the person wasn’t paying attention; rather, the brain simply glided over the word in the written material. In a conversation, confident people ask for meaning. “Huh?” has been identified as a universal word indicating, “I just missed what you said.” But there is no way for someone to immediately convey that she missed the meaning of a written word. And when it comes to the special language of your company, if there’s no glossary, then the best hope is that a knowledgeable co-worker happens to be nearby.

Stay tuned next week for Part Two of this series, The Language of the Workplace.

About the Author
Carol Heiberger, the author of ExecuSpeak Dictionary, believes that glossaries and lexicons need to be re-recognized as valuable tools. Carol has parlayed her Wharton MBA and business experience into business tools for the 21st Century. ExecuSpeak Dictionary® creates toolkits to support the knowledge transfer and language learning needs of patients and professionals. Using our proprietary text analysis software and your electronic documents, we identify, organize, and distribute the glossaries that put technical language, lingo, and acronyms in your pocket.
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