Help build a small world of words


Are you up for a little word association activity, in the interest of science?

When you think of scientific research, you may think of expensive equipment, lab coats, and grant money. Back when I conducted social science research of my own, there were lots of surveys, a committee that had to evaluate whether I was going to mistreat any of my subjects, and more statistics than I wanted to contemplate.


Though lab coats and expensive equipment are no doubt still a big part of many types of research, these days a lot gets done without them. Recently I was introduced to the concept of citizen science, by which ordinary mortals, you and I, can get involved in furthering understanding of any number of interesting fields.

As an example, let me present “A Small World of Words,” a project designed to help us better understand how language is organized in the brain. Here’s how the website explains it:

“On average, an adult knows about 40,000 words. As scientists studying language and memory, we are interested in the nature or organization of this mental dictionary.”

Participating in the research is simple: you’re presented with a word and asked to type in the first three words that pop into your head (there’s a button for “don’t know this word” and “that’s all I can think of” if you can only think of one or two).

You do that for 18 words, and you’re done. Your contribution of five minutes gets added to the work of all the other folks who typed in their answers, and the research team comes closer to understanding how word meanings get stored and retrieved in our minds. And you have joined the Citizen Science movement, advancing the cause of knowledge. Their appreciation is displayed in an appropriate graphic:

(If you can’t wait another minute to try this out, go ahead.)

The website talks about their aim of mapping this mental dictionary in what they refer to as “the main world languages,” which includes a list of thirteen. As I’m very interested in languages, I was quite surprised to find that I didn’t recognize the name of one of them.

It’s not like I could easily read the names of some of the others on the list, but I figured the Cyrillic alphabet was an indicator of Russian. I accepted that I wasn’t going to be sure of the Asian scripts. The one whose name included “Viet” was a safe guess, and I assumed the other three would include Japanese and a couple of Chinese dialects.

German, Spanish, English, French, Italian, and Portuguese all made sense. One of the chief researchers is from the University of Leuven, east of Brussels, so I could see the reason behind Nederlands/Dutch. But what, I wondered, is Rioplatense, and why have I not heard of it? There are thousands of languages in the world, a great majority of which I know nothing about, but I should recognize the top thirteen.

When I clicked on the link for native speakers of Rioplatense, I understood it all, which let me know that I was dealing with a dialect of Spanish. Rioplatense, it turns out, is spoken in the area surrounding the Rio de la Plata Basin in Argentina and Uruguay. I don’t know if it’s more different from standard Spanish than other Spanish dialects–maybe it’s just that the Universidad de la República Uruguay is very involved in the research, so it made sense to study their particular flavor of Spanish.

The region where the dialect Rioplatense is spoken

I’ve been in touch with one of the lead researchers, Simon De Deyne at the University of Adelaide, and he says that in their non-English research they’ve got a lot of data for Mandarin Chinese, but could use quite a bit more for the other languages. So if you’re a native speaker of Deutsch   Español     Français   Italiano   Nederlands   Rioplatense   Português Pусский   廣東話   汉语 日本語 Tiếng Việt, jump right in. And they’re always looking to expand their data set with English as well. You can do the activity more than once. Feel free to spread the word about helping to build a small world of words.


[Images:,,, fobos92 at]

2 thoughts on “Help build a small world of words

  1. Pingback: Lori Notes turns 300 | Lori Notes

  2. Pingback: All the words in the world. Pronounced. | Lori Notes

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