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Review of The Mental Lexicon and Vocabulary Learning
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 lessons.
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.
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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.
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Nation, I.S.P. (2001) Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
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.