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Review of  The Mental Lexicon and Vocabulary Learning

Reviewer: Eirene Katsarou
Book Title: The Mental Lexicon and Vocabulary Learning
Book Author: Saskia Kersten
Publisher: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH + Co. KG
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 22.4493

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AUTHOR: Saskia Kersten
TITLE: The Mental Lexicon and Vocabulary Learning
SUBTITLE: Implications for the Foreign Language Classroom
SERIES TITLE: Language in Performance, 43
PUBLISHER: Narr Francke Attempto
YEAR: 2010

Eirene C. Katsarou, EFL State Education in Greece


'The Mental Lexicon and Vocabulary Learning' is a monograph based on a PhD
doctorate for Hildesheim University, Germany.

The main objectives of the study are (i) to provide a description of the
theoretical background of the lexical knowledge humans possess as well as the
organization of this knowledge in the mono- and bilingual mind within the
framework of Cognitive Linguistics theory and (ii) to investigate the potential
and implications of Cognitive Linguistics on foreign language vocabulary
learning and/or teaching for primary school learners of English in Germany.

The book starts with an introductory chapter that delineates in broad terms
recent developments in the area of L2 vocabulary acquisition research, stressing
the need for more empirical data on different conditions thought to promote or
impede the process of vocabulary acquisition by L2 learners in a variety of EFL
contexts. A brief description of the instruction methodology currently followed
in the teaching of L2 vocabulary in German primary schools is provided, which
essentially sets the scene for the context of the intervention study outlined in
the book. Cognitive Linguistics theory is shortly delineated as the main
theoretical background of the study in order to highlight its potential
perspective on FL vocabulary teaching through a series of lessons that would
enhance young learners' long-term retention of the lexical items they are being
taught as well as their ability to use them efficiently in productive tasks.

Part 1 of the book contains three chapters that form the theoretical background
of the study. Chapter 2, ''The L1 and L2 Mental Lexicon,'' discusses the mental
lexicon and attempts a definition of its content based on a short description of
the most well-known models developed in the psycholinguistics tradition in terms
of lexical processing and organization of L1 and L2 mental lexicon. Next, an
overview of the most common psycholinguistic methods of experimentation is
provided, dividing them broadly into two categories: those that look at the
results of language production or judgements about language (off-line
experiments) and those that look at the underlying processes while they are
being carried out (on-line experiments). Measurement of the electrical activity
of the brain cells and imaging of the (working) brain through positron emission
tomography (PET) and functioning magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) are also
described. Next, there is a discussion of how lexical knowledge is organized,
through a review of the most influential lexical processing models, namely
Levelt's Blueprint for Speech Production and Comprehension (Levelt 1989, 1993),
The Logogen Model (Singleton 1999, 2000), The Cohort Model (Marslen-Wilson &
Tyler 1980) as well as Connectionist (Lefrancois 2006) and Spreading Activation
Models (McClelland et al 1981). The final part of the chapter discusses the
fundamentally different internal organization of the bilingual mental lexicon.

In chapter 3, ''Dynamic Systems Theory,'' the Dynamic Systems theory (De Bot et al
2007) in the process of Second Language Acquisition is presented, according to
which a wide range of interrelated factors affect the process and outcome of
acquiring another language. The mental lexicon itself is viewed as a complex
system nested within a larger system, i.e. language, which is shaped and changed
through resources within the learning individual, such as the capacity or time
to learn as well as through external resources, like spatial environments, or
motivational resources, such as reinforcement by the environment, and material
resources, such as books and TV.

Chapter 4, ''Cognitive Linguistics and Foreign Language Teaching,'' introduces the
main theoretical framework of the study. Its basic principles are elaborated on
in relation to its possible implications on vocabulary teaching methodology in a
foreign language. Cognitive Linguistics is suggested to be related to the SLA
process, as it views language as a psychologically real phenomenon incorporating
a usage-based model of language structure according to which the linguistic
system of a speaker is fundamentally grounded in usage events, i.e. instances in
which a person produces or understands language. Thus, adopting a Cognitive
Linguistics approach in teaching vocabulary in a foreign language, the study
seeks to investigate the extent to which young learners will be able to attain a
more profound understanding of the language and better remember words and
phrases by appreciating the link between language and culture, given that a
word's meaning is comprised of all the events, contexts and uses that it can be
associated with.

Part 2 of the book contains five chapters referring to aspects of vocabulary
learning and teaching in another language. Chapter 5, ''Current Issues in
Vocabulary Research,'' addresses in more detail a number of issues concerning
vocabulary learning, such as the questions of what vocabulary L2 learners need
to know, how to go about learning it as well as how to assess and monitor their
progress. The chapter explores terminological issues with respect to the
controversial nature of the word in definitional terms referring to the basic
types of knowledge involved in the process of vocabulary acquisition, i.e. its
form (both spoken and written), its grammatical position and collocations, its
function (in terms of frequency and appropriateness), as well as its meaning.
Next, vocabulary knowledge is further discussed in terms of (i) breadth vs.
depth, where the question is not only how many words an L2 learner should learn
(breadth), but also whether all items are acquired in their entirety, i.e. in
every aspect of knowledge (depth) and (ii) active vs. passive vocabulary
knowledge, where the distinction lies in the number of incoming and outgoing
links a word has with other words and in the degree of activation of words by
external stimuli (Nation 2001).

In Chapter 6, ''Learning New Vocabulary,'' the processes and principles necessary
for learning in general are described, with an emphasis on the salient role of
memory. The psychological notion of memory is further discussed by means of the
Modal Model (Lefrancois 2006) and each one of its three components, i.e. sensory
memory, short-term memory and long-term memory are further discussed in relation
to their contribution to the process of language and vocabulary learning. The
discussion then turns to the process of vocabulary learning and is described in
terms of Nation et al.'s (2007) five stages: (i) encountering new words, (ii)
getting the word form, (iii) getting the word meaning, (iv) consolidating word
form and meaning in memory and (v) using the word. The implications of the Depth
of Processing Hypothesis (Craik & Lockhart 1975) and of implicit vs. explicit
vocabulary learning methods are discussed in relation to the general purpose of
the study, i.e. the retention of lexical items in the long-term memory of young
learners thought to be feasible only through the processes of noticing,
retrieval, and creative use of the new lexical items.

Chapter 7, ''Teaching Vocabulary,'' essentially sets the scene for the main study
through a discussion of (i) the ways of presentation of new vocabulary in young
learners' classrooms in Germany and (ii) activities that can be implemented in
YL classrooms and that can promote learning and long-term vocabulary retention.
Such activities include (a) richness activities that aim to increase the number
of paradigmatic/syntagmatic associations attached to a word (e.g. matching of
collocations to given items, matching and classification activities), (b)
information gap activities, (c) activities for structuring new vocabulary for
example along the principles of sense relations, and (d) activities for the
integration of old and new lexical knowledge.

Chapter 8, ''SLA and the Young Learner,'' addresses the issue of conducting SLA
research in the context of a primary English classroom focusing more
specifically on the teaching techniques employed by German practitioners in the
English vocabulary learning process. Given the specific young learners' foreign
language learning needs with respect to vocabulary selection (Brewster et al.
2002) in terms of demonstrability, brevity, regularity of form, centres of
interest and learning load, the chapter suggests the adoption of games,
pictures, and mimes as effective activities that can aid young learners retain
the meaning of the new words (Cameron 2001). The task-based approach when
accompanied by appropriate scaffolding (i.e. support by the teacher) is viewed
as the most suitable methodology in young learners' EFL contexts since it
attributes to the language learning process a sense of realness in outcome where
learners work together to do things like solving a problem or playing a game.
The use of pre-fabricated chunks of language is also deemed to be salient in the
process of acquiring English vocabulary by young learners, since it enables them
to quickly build a corpus of language to use in given circumstance thus
contributing to their confidence in using another language other than their
native in a range of communicative situations.

Finally, Chapter 9, ''Measuring Vocabulary Knowledge,'' stresses the pronounced
lack and therefore the need for the development of appropriate vocabulary tests
and tasks suitable for research as well as assessment purposes in the young
learners' EFL classroom. The selected-response task is adopted for the purposes
of the present study where learners are expected to select a response from input
(e.g. multiple-choice items, picture cloze, picture-matching vocabulary items).

Part 3 of the book contains three chapters that describe the main intervention
study with respect to vocabulary teaching implications for German young learners
of English. Chapter 10, ''From Theory to Practice,'' provides information with
respect to the principles followed in the selection of the lexical items that
were included in the vocabulary lessons of the main study for Grade 3 and 4
young learners of English in two different primary schools in Germany. The main
objective of the study is set forth, namely, to adapt laboratory findings and
relevant L1 vocabulary acquisition research results in order to devise a way to
teach vocabulary that might prove to be beneficial for foreign language learners
in primary educational contexts

Chapter 11, ''Outline of the Study,'' offers a detailed description of the
procedures, demographic characteristics of the participants, the main
instruments used for the elicitation of the data followed by a complete analysis
of the data in quantitative and qualitative terms. The main sample for the study
consisted of six primary school classes, four Grade 3 and two Grade 4, each
class being taught six lessons. An example plan for these vocabulary lessons and
the exact procedures followed by the teachers participating in the experiment
are presented. Participants were randomly assigned to form the intervention and
control group of the study and were specifically asked to complete a set of
tests for measuring learners’ short and long-term retention of the vocabulary
items that were taught as well as self-assessment questionnaires asking learners
to rate the effectiveness of the games used as a technique during instruction in
terms of vocabulary retention. Analysis of the main results of the study offer
only limited proof with respect to the success of the intervention in terms of
long-term retention of the lexical items by Grade 3 and 4 primary students of
English. Even though they had been encouraged to elaborate on words they did not
know and, later try to use them in meaningful communication, EFL students did
not show a statistically significant increase in their lexical repertoire at
this stage. The chapter ends with a discussion of the main results of the study
in relation to pedagogic implications for the young learners' EFL vocabulary

Chapter 12, ''Conclusions,'' summarizes the findings of the study and discusses
them in relation to current and future research efforts in relation to L2
vocabulary learning and teaching in young learners' EFL contexts. It is stressed
that there is a need to develop a set of standardized test instruments that can
be used to measure vocabulary knowledge and gain in both breadth and depth in
EFL primary contexts.


This book constitutes one of the still relatively few research efforts in the
area of second language vocabulary acquisition and pedagogy with respect to L2
learners attending primary schools. It has a very clear structure and the study
it is based on follows all the steps of well-conducted empirical work. Its main
findings are clearly presented and related to pedagogical issues for L2
vocabulary learning and teaching in young learners' classes.

The book should be of interest to EFL practitioners teaching English in the
context of primary education as it provides useful information and further
insights into (i) the need for the implementation of alternative pedagogically
well-informed instructional practices and techniques in the process of learning
L2 vocabulary by young learners based on empirical research, (ii) the special
nature of research methodology applied in primary school contexts mainly in
terms of the procedures followed as well as the instruments used for the
collection of valid empirical data and (iii) the necessity to bring into light
hidden corners of the young learners' EFL vocabulary learning process by
conducting further and more consistent research in the area.


Brewster, J., G. Ellis and D. Girard (2002) The Primary English Teacher's Guide
-- New Edition. Harlow: Penguin.

Cameron, L. (2001) Teaching Language to Young Learners. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Craik F. I. M. and R.S. Tulving (1975) Depth of processing and the retention of
words in episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104

De Bot, K., W. Lowie and M. Verspoor (2007) A Dynamic Systems Theory approach to
second language acquisition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10 (7-21).

Lefrancois, G. R. (2006) Theories of Human Learning. What the old woman said.
(5th edition). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Levelt, W.J.M. (1989) Speaking: From intention to articulation. Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press.

Levelt, W.J.M. (1993) The architecture of normal spoken language use. In G.
Blanken, E. Dittmann, H. Grimm, J. Marshall & C. Wallesh (eds.) Linguistic
Disorders and Pathologies. An International Handbook (1-15). Berlin: Mouton de

Marslen-Wilson, W. D. and L. Tyler (1980) The temporal structure of spoken
language understanding. Cognition, 8 (1-71).

McClelland, J.L. and D. Rumelhart (1981) An interactive activation model of
context effects in letter perception, Part I: An account of basic findings.
Psychological Review, 88 (375-405).

Nation, I.S.P. (2001) Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Nation, I.S.P. and Gu, P.Y. (2007) Focus on Vocabulary. Sydney: NCELTR Publishing.

Singleton, D. (1999) Exploring the Second Language Mental Lexicon. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Singleton, D. (2000) Language and the Lexicon. An Introduction. London: Arnold.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Eirene Katsarou is a full-time EFL teacher at the state sector in secondary education in Greece. She holds a BA in English Language & Literature (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece), an MA in Applied Linguistics (University of York, UK) and a PhD in Descriptive & Applied Linguistics (University of Essex, UK). Her research interests include L2 vocabulary and idiom acquisition, language learner strategies, and research methods in applied linguistics.

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