Who knows more words: Americans, Canadians, the British, or Australians? (an update)

I have been running a vocabulary quiz since last spring. After a few months, I noticed something funny in the data:

Since the test was made by an American (me), you might expect Americans to do best (maybe I chose words or definitions of words that are less familiar to those in other countries). Instead, Americans (78.4% correct) are near the bottom of the heap, behind the British (79.8%), New Zealanders (82.2%), the Irish (80.1%), South Africans (83.9%), and Australians (78.6% — OK that one is close). At least we’re beating the Canadians (77.4%).

At the time, only about 2,000 people had taken the quiz. We have more than double that now, so I checked to see if this finding was still holding up. Here’s what I found (number of participants is in parentheses):

South Africa (12) – 80.7%
Ireland (26) – 80.4%
UK (362) – 78.3%
Australia (391) – 77.0%
Canada (190) – 77.0%
USA (1548) – 76.6%
New Zealand (441) – 71.1%

I don’t know what happened to New Zealand, but otherwise the results are very similar, with Americans, Australians, and Canadians down in the rear and the UK, Ireland, and South Africa significantly better. Of course, the effect sizes are not huge, but if you figure that the typical person knows 50,000 words, a 1% effect is a good 500 words.

A fluke?

It’s a little suspicious that the two countries with the highest score also have the fewest participants so far. Data collection continues, and hopefully this will change. But we have enough participants that the UK advantage looks like it might be real.

I’ll keep you posted.

About hartshorne

Joshua Hartshorne is a post-doctoral fellow in the Computational Cognitive Science Group @ MIT. He did his doctoral work in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. http://jkhartshorne.org
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2 Responses to Who knows more words: Americans, Canadians, the British, or Australians? (an update)

  1. mike williams (@memeweaver) says:

    I noticed that the sign up steps have very American language in them – in particular references calling university “school”. The way countries divide up their tertiary education don’t follow US models of high school, college, and beyond. “College” may mean high school in some countries, or it may be a small university offering undergraduate courses in others (or …), and are not intermediary institutions.

    So be careful how you analyse results, the peculiarities of American vocabulary may skew the data.

  2. hartshorne says:

    Good point. What would you suggest that is more culture-neutral but isn’t too convoluted?

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