The Vocabulary Problem


The vocabulary problem, as described in a New Yorker article about neuroscience research, is a problem for people indexing databases, such as the indexes for human-computer interaction. The problem arises because people use different words for the same thing. Your wallet is stolen, and you’re going to google what to do. But what term should you use? Police or support? Theft or security? Security, it turns out, is the answer, as you find out after time wasted in several futile guesses. It is, however, also the term for other questions, and it’s slow going to locate in all the abundance of information the bit you want about your wallet.

The process would be streamlined if instead of searching for a word, you could search for the thought behind the word—for a brain state. An MRI scanner can show thoughts in the form of 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. Researchers speculate that eventually, by use of a so-called “thinking hat” that can detect and map activity, people will be able to compare their ideas directly. You could, for example, teach languages by matching a learner’s mental representation of a word with a native speaker’s. The ultimate outcome might be direct communication through thought, mind to mind, with no need to translate from one language to another.

Communicate directly? Without the work, without the trouble? None of the fumbling for the right words to express your thought, none of the doubt, none of the wasted time? How exciting. Or not? Without the fumbling and the building tension, would you lose the thrill of achieving communication? You’d miss out on the joyful relief when the other suddenly breaks into a grin, indicating two minds have finally connected across an expanse of differences. Or three minds, in the case of me and, after I introduced the two of them one August evening, my mother and my neighbor. It was at the start of my mother’s extended visit, and she and I were returning from a walk when I spied my neighbor on the other side of the lane, behind the hórreo in his garden. We slowed our steps, smiling in his direction as he hurried toward us. Hello, hello, we said, hello, he answered, and I made the introductions.

Years ago, after my brother and I had taken up residence in Spain, my mother studied Spanish for a while. She has by now forgotten a lot of what she learned, but not all. At this opportunity, however, to again make use of some of the phrases that she still remembers, what came out of her mouth was not Spanish, but French. “Enchanté,” she said, much to her surprise.

Before she could correct herself, my neighbor responded, also in French. Even as my mother denied any knowledge of French, my neighbor dropped back into Spanish to explain that he was studying French. “No inglés?” my mother asked, and in Spanish my neighbor said that although he had once studied English for his degree in mining engineering, nothing of it remained. His son, however, is fluent in English. He was soon to depart for Amsterdam where he would do a master’s degree. I translated into English for my mother, and when she spoke of her Spanish studies, I translated into Spanish for my neighbor. On we went. He explained he was now retired, and French was a pastime for mental exercise. A French woman in a neighboring village gave him classes. My mother said that her French was the residue from summer travels through France as a college student. She didn’t remember any of the French she’d picked up then, and yet, she marveled, there it had been, ready to pop out. Memory is tricky, the mind is a mystery, and youth today take so much for granted.

That is the upshot of the conversation. It took the three of us 15 minutes to achieve that exchange of information and goodwill. During that time, there were many stops and starts and twists. It was an entirely enjoyable quarter of an hour. Had we understood one another instantly, we would have conversed for two minutes, and our exchange of hellos would not have led to Malta, Amsterdam, lost luggage, flagging memories, or a French woman in a nearby village giving language lessons in her home. Without a vocabulary problem, we would not have laughed so merrily. Without a vocabulary problem, we’d have had a different problem: seamless communication that is as sterile as talking to yourself.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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