LINGUIST List 22.4493

Thu Nov 10 2011

Review: Applied Linguistics: Kersten (2010)

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        1.     Eirene Katsarou , The Mental Lexicon and Vocabulary Learning

Message 1: The Mental Lexicon and Vocabulary Learning
Date: 10-Nov-2011
From: Eirene Katsarou <>
Subject: The Mental Lexicon and Vocabulary Learning
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AUTHOR: Saskia KerstenTITLE: The Mental Lexicon and Vocabulary LearningSUBTITLE: Implications for the Foreign Language ClassroomSERIES TITLE: Language in Performance, 43PUBLISHER: Narr Francke AttemptoYEAR: 2010

Eirene C. Katsarou, EFL State Education in Greece


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

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

The book starts with an introductory chapter that delineates in broad termsrecent developments in the area of L2 vocabulary acquisition research, stressingthe need for more empirical data on different conditions thought to promote orimpede the process of vocabulary acquisition by L2 learners in a variety of EFLcontexts. A brief description of the instruction methodology currently followedin the teaching of L2 vocabulary in German primary schools is provided, whichessentially sets the scene for the context of the intervention study outlined inthe book. Cognitive Linguistics theory is shortly delineated as the maintheoretical background of the study in order to highlight its potentialperspective on FL vocabulary teaching through a series of lessons that wouldenhance young learners' long-term retention of the lexical items they are beingtaught as well as their ability to use them efficiently in productive tasks.

Part 1 of the book contains three chapters that form the theoretical backgroundof the study. Chapter 2, ''The L1 and L2 Mental Lexicon,'' discusses the mentallexicon and attempts a definition of its content based on a short description ofthe most well-known models developed in the psycholinguistics tradition in termsof lexical processing and organization of L1 and L2 mental lexicon. Next, anoverview of the most common psycholinguistic methods of experimentation isprovided, dividing them broadly into two categories: those that look at theresults of language production or judgements about language (off-lineexperiments) and those that look at the underlying processes while they arebeing carried out (on-line experiments). Measurement of the electrical activityof the brain cells and imaging of the (working) brain through positron emissiontomography (PET) and functioning magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) are alsodescribed. Next, there is a discussion of how lexical knowledge is organized,through a review of the most influential lexical processing models, namelyLevelt'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 ActivationModels (McClelland et al 1981). The final part of the chapter discusses thefundamentally different internal organization of the bilingual mental lexicon.

In chapter 3, ''Dynamic Systems Theory,'' the Dynamic Systems theory (De Bot et al2007) in the process of Second Language Acquisition is presented, according towhich a wide range of interrelated factors affect the process and outcome ofacquiring another language. The mental lexicon itself is viewed as a complexsystem nested within a larger system, i.e. language, which is shaped and changedthrough resources within the learning individual, such as the capacity or timeto learn as well as through external resources, like spatial environments, ormotivational resources, such as reinforcement by the environment, and materialresources, such as books and TV.

Chapter 4, ''Cognitive Linguistics and Foreign Language Teaching,'' introduces themain theoretical framework of the study. Its basic principles are elaborated onin relation to its possible implications on vocabulary teaching methodology in aforeign language. Cognitive Linguistics is suggested to be related to the SLAprocess, as it views language as a psychologically real phenomenon incorporatinga usage-based model of language structure according to which the linguisticsystem of a speaker is fundamentally grounded in usage events, i.e. instances inwhich a person produces or understands language. Thus, adopting a CognitiveLinguistics approach in teaching vocabulary in a foreign language, the studyseeks to investigate the extent to which young learners will be able to attain amore profound understanding of the language and better remember words andphrases by appreciating the link between language and culture, given that aword's meaning is comprised of all the events, contexts and uses that it can beassociated with.

Part 2 of the book contains five chapters referring to aspects of vocabularylearning and teaching in another language. Chapter 5, ''Current Issues inVocabulary Research,'' addresses in more detail a number of issues concerningvocabulary learning, such as the questions of what vocabulary L2 learners needto know, how to go about learning it as well as how to assess and monitor theirprogress. The chapter explores terminological issues with respect to thecontroversial nature of the word in definitional terms referring to the basictypes of knowledge involved in the process of vocabulary acquisition, i.e. itsform (both spoken and written), its grammatical position and collocations, itsfunction (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. inevery aspect of knowledge (depth) and (ii) active vs. passive vocabularyknowledge, where the distinction lies in the number of incoming and outgoinglinks a word has with other words and in the degree of activation of words byexternal stimuli (Nation 2001).

In Chapter 6, ''Learning New Vocabulary,'' the processes and principles necessaryfor learning in general are described, with an emphasis on the salient role ofmemory. The psychological notion of memory is further discussed by means of theModal Model (Lefrancois 2006) and each one of its three components, i.e. sensorymemory, short-term memory and long-term memory are further discussed in relationto their contribution to the process of language and vocabulary learning. Thediscussion then turns to the process of vocabulary learning and is described interms of Nation et al.'s (2007) five stages: (i) encountering new words, (ii)getting the word form, (iii) getting the word meaning, (iv) consolidating wordform and meaning in memory and (v) using the word. The implications of the Depthof Processing Hypothesis (Craik & Lockhart 1975) and of implicit vs. explicitvocabulary learning methods are discussed in relation to the general purpose ofthe study, i.e. the retention of lexical items in the long-term memory of younglearners 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 studythrough a discussion of (i) the ways of presentation of new vocabulary in younglearners' classrooms in Germany and (ii) activities that can be implemented inYL classrooms and that can promote learning and long-term vocabulary retention.Such activities include (a) richness activities that aim to increase the numberof paradigmatic/syntagmatic associations attached to a word (e.g. matching ofcollocations to given items, matching and classification activities), (b)information gap activities, (c) activities for structuring new vocabulary forexample along the principles of sense relations, and (d) activities for theintegration of old and new lexical knowledge.

Chapter 8, ''SLA and the Young Learner,'' addresses the issue of conducting SLAresearch in the context of a primary English classroom focusing morespecifically on the teaching techniques employed by German practitioners in theEnglish vocabulary learning process. Given the specific young learners' foreignlanguage learning needs with respect to vocabulary selection (Brewster et al.2002) in terms of demonstrability, brevity, regularity of form, centres ofinterest and learning load, the chapter suggests the adoption of games,pictures, and mimes as effective activities that can aid young learners retainthe meaning of the new words (Cameron 2001). The task-based approach whenaccompanied by appropriate scaffolding (i.e. support by the teacher) is viewedas the most suitable methodology in young learners' EFL contexts since itattributes to the language learning process a sense of realness in outcome wherelearners 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 theprocess of acquiring English vocabulary by young learners, since it enables themto quickly build a corpus of language to use in given circumstance thuscontributing to their confidence in using another language other than theirnative in a range of communicative situations.

Finally, Chapter 9, ''Measuring Vocabulary Knowledge,'' stresses the pronouncedlack and therefore the need for the development of appropriate vocabulary testsand tasks suitable for research as well as assessment purposes in the younglearners' EFL classroom. The selected-response task is adopted for the purposesof 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 interventionstudy with respect to vocabulary teaching implications for German young learnersof English. Chapter 10, ''From Theory to Practice,'' provides information withrespect to the principles followed in the selection of the lexical items thatwere included in the vocabulary lessons of the main study for Grade 3 and 4young learners of English in two different primary schools in Germany. The mainobjective of the study is set forth, namely, to adapt laboratory findings andrelevant L1 vocabulary acquisition research results in order to devise a way toteach vocabulary that might prove to be beneficial for foreign language learnersin primary educational contexts

Chapter 11, ''Outline of the Study,'' offers a detailed description of theprocedures, demographic characteristics of the participants, the maininstruments used for the elicitation of the data followed by a complete analysisof the data in quantitative and qualitative terms. The main sample for the studyconsisted of six primary school classes, four Grade 3 and two Grade 4, eachclass being taught six lessons. An example plan for these vocabulary lessons andthe exact procedures followed by the teachers participating in the experimentare presented. Participants were randomly assigned to form the intervention andcontrol group of the study and were specifically asked to complete a set oftests for measuring learners' short and long-term retention of the vocabularyitems that were taught as well as self-assessment questionnaires asking learnersto rate the effectiveness of the games used as a technique during instruction interms of vocabulary retention. Analysis of the main results of the study offeronly limited proof with respect to the success of the intervention in terms oflong-term retention of the lexical items by Grade 3 and 4 primary students ofEnglish. Even though they had been encouraged to elaborate on words they did notknow and, later try to use them in meaningful communication, EFL students didnot show a statistically significant increase in their lexical repertoire atthis stage. The chapter ends with a discussion of the main results of the studyin relation to pedagogic implications for the young learners' EFL vocabularylessons.

Chapter 12, ''Conclusions,'' summarizes the findings of the study and discussesthem in relation to current and future research efforts in relation to L2vocabulary learning and teaching in young learners' EFL contexts. It is stressedthat there is a need to develop a set of standardized test instruments that canbe used to measure vocabulary knowledge and gain in both breadth and depth inEFL primary contexts.


This book constitutes one of the still relatively few research efforts in thearea of second language vocabulary acquisition and pedagogy with respect to L2learners attending primary schools. It has a very clear structure and the studyit is based on follows all the steps of well-conducted empirical work. Its mainfindings are clearly presented and related to pedagogical issues for L2vocabulary learning and teaching in young learners' classes.

The book should be of interest to EFL practitioners teaching English in thecontext of primary education as it provides useful information and furtherinsights into (i) the need for the implementation of alternative pedagogicallywell-informed instructional practices and techniques in the process of learningL2 vocabulary by young learners based on empirical research, (ii) the specialnature of research methodology applied in primary school contexts mainly interms of the procedures followed as well as the instruments used for thecollection of valid empirical data and (iii) the necessity to bring into lighthidden corners of the young learners' EFL vocabulary learning process byconducting 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: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Craik F. I. M. and R.S. Tulving (1975) Depth of processing and the retention ofwords in episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104(268-294).

De Bot, K., W. Lowie and M. Verspoor (2007) A Dynamic Systems Theory approach tosecond 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.) LinguisticDisorders and Pathologies. An International Handbook (1-15). Berlin: Mouton deGruyter.

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

McClelland, J.L. and D. Rumelhart (1981) An interactive activation model ofcontext 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.


Eirene Katsarou is a full-time EFL teacher at the state sector in secondaryeducation in Greece. She holds a BA in English Language & Literature(Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece), an MA in AppliedLinguistics (University of York, UK) and a PhD in Descriptive & AppliedLinguistics (University of Essex, UK). Her research interests include L2vocabulary and idiom acquisition, language learner strategies, and researchmethods in applied linguistics.

Page Updated: 10-Nov-2011