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May 28, 2014

A large vocabulary isn't required to communicate adequately in a language. For example, the Voice of America, which broadcasts worldwide, has programs presented in "special English," a subset of English contained in about 1500 words.[1] This subset includes the words, science, physics, chemistry, biology, engineer (but not engineering), and mathematics. We shouldn't be so amazed that children learn language so quickly.

They say that music is the universal language, and that was proven by the popularity of the Voice of America Jazz Hour, presented by its host, Willis Conover, on the Voice of America. This program was beamed via shortwave radio to Eastern European jazz lovers starting in 1955 and continuing for many decades. A major factor in the program's popularity was its use of special English, precisely enunciated by Conover after its development in 1959.

Willis Conover, 1969

Willis Conover (1920-1996) in a 1969 photograph.

Conover was a celebrity in the Soviet Union, where many people listened to the Voice of America Jazz Hour.

This was their only source of this music, since it was initially banned by their government.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

We search by using keywords, but often we require a key phrase. For example, Pontiac, an Ottawa Indian chief, had quite a few things named after him, notably an automobile brand and a city in Michigan. When I searched for him on Google, using just "Pontiac," he was found on page four of the results. When I searched for "Pontiac Chief," his Wikipedia entry was first in search items, followed by an automobile, the Pontiac Chieftain.

It's obvious that some words are more important to understanding than others, and these words are like keywords for our memory. Scientists from the University of Kansas have demonstrated the existence of keywords in a network of words in our memory. These keywords couple together groups of words.[2-3]

Their study, recently published in the Journal of Memory and Language,[2] showed that individuals were able to recognize such keywords more quickly and accurately than selected "foil" words. The foil words were like the keywords in many respects, but they had a different position in a network model of 20,000 similar-sounding English words. The network analysis was done using a computer program called KeyPlayer. The figure, below, shows a subset of this network in the region where the keyword, "fish," holds together other words.[3]

Figure caption

Fish glue was a useful adhesive in the age before synthetic materials. Here's a fish glue of a different sort. The word, "fish," links together other groups of words in a network model developed by University of Kansas psychology professor, Michael Vitevitch, and his colleagues in 2008. (University of Kansas image by M. Vitevitch.)

The study had participants perform three conventional psycholinguistic tasks, and they reacted more quickly and accurately to keywords than the foils, which were comparable to the keywords in several lexical and network characteristics.[2] Just as in communications networks, where removal of key nodes will fracture the network into smaller networks, the keywords have the same function in memory tasks.

Figure caption

Removal of the keyword, "fish," fractures the network into to smaller networks and the isolated words, "fissure" and "oafish."(University of Kansas image by M. Vitevitch.)

Says University of Kansas psychology professor, Michael Vitevitch,
"Our findings clearly show that there are words that hold key positions on the word network and that we process them more quickly and accurately than similar words that they hold together in our memory."[3]

There are potential applications of these findings. They can give insight into language disorders and suggest possible treatments. People recovering from a stroke might be taught to reconnect their memory through keywords, and keywords might be an aid in learning a second language, as the special English vocabulary has indicated.[3]

Figure caption

Removal of the non-keyword, "dish," does not fracture the network.(University of Kansas image by M. Vitevitch.)


  1. Voice of America - Learn American English with VOA Learning English.
  2. Michael S. Vitevitch and Rutherford Goldstein, "Keywords in the mental lexicon," Journal of Memory and Language, vol. 73 (May, 2014), pp. 131-147.
  3. Keywords hold vocabulary together in memory, University of Kansas Press Release, May 19, 2014.

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