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LINGUIST List 24.378

Mon Jan 21 2013

Review: Applied Ling.; Language Acquisition: Agustín Llach (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>

Date: 21-Jan-2013
From: Trevor Jenkins <trevor.jenkinssuneidesis.com>
Subject: Lexical Errors and Accuracy in Foreign Language Writing
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/22/22-2995.html

AUTHOR: María del Pilar Agustín Llach
TITLE: Lexical Errors and Accuracy in Foreign Language Writing
SERIES TITLE: Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2011

Trevor Jenkins, Freelance Communication Support Worker/Community (Sign
Language) Interpreter; Computing Scientist

SUMMARY
The study reported here concerns lexical errors (rather than grammatical or
semantic errors) appearing in the writing of second language users. In this
particular study the language pairing is Spanish and English. Errors are
limited to misspellings, borrowings, calques, and other lexical issues.
Grammatical and semantic errors were excluded from analysis. These errors are
used as a metric for assessing written work of a group of language learners.
Two surveys of the same group were taken 2 years apart, conducted after
approximately 400 hours of tuition and then after a further 200 hours.

The book is presented in two separate sections. The first is a review of
previous research into foreign language students’ lexical errors. While there
appears to be a substantial body of work on the general area, the author has
identified that little investigation has been conducted into the errors made
by younger learners (below grade 6). The second is a practical study conducted
by the author, addressing this gap in research.

The first chapter surveys the current theories of vocabulary acquisition by
second language (L2) learners. A brief summary of the organisation of
cognitive lexicons is given with concentration upon how this might be achieved
by children. What few studies there have been of L2 acquisition are split
between bilingual/home acquisition and formal tuition. However more studies
have been conducted of the former than the latter despite the majority of L2
acquisition being gained in a purely taught situation.

The second chapter reviews the published literature for variables in L2
learning that have been proposed by others. A variety of situations are
surveyed, not only those focusing on purely lexical issues but also on
speaking or listening ability, and fluency improvement. One factor from those
previous studies that the author considers at length is learner age. Adult
learners are said to make fewer mistakes in their L2 usage. The author
suggests that this is because their first language (L1) cognitive lexicons are
firmer and more comprehensive, whereas younger learners have not established a
solid lexicon for their L1. Further she identifies that little research has
been conducted on L2 acquisition by children under 11 years of age even when,
as is clearly the case in Spain, long-term formal tuition is given to such
children. Two propositions are made concerning learner proficiency: first that
errors decrease with proficiency and second that the type of errors made
change with proficiency. These two notions are the foundation for the specific
exemplar study reported in part two of the book.

The third chapter looks at vocabulary acquisition and its consequent use in a
written productive setting. Once more the author reviews the existing
literature on both L1 and L2 writing skills.

Chapter 4 concludes the first part of the text by examining types of lexical
errors reported in the literature. Agustín provides a taxonomy of those
reported errors.

The second part of the text covers the author’s own work, and constitutes half
the text (by page count). Some of the description here provides an overview of
the statistical analysis undertaken although the various results are presented
in summary form.

The study is presented in sufficient detail that it could be repeated with a
different language pair from Agustín’s own of Spanish and English.

Chapter 6 is the meat of the book, at over 30 pages, covering the proposition
that Agustín raises in the first part that learners' lexical proficiency
improves while at the same time the errors made are of a more sophisticated
form. This is a longitudinal experiment with the performance of the same group
of learners being studied over a two-year period. The underlying source of the
errors present in the subjects’ samples are analysed and comparisons between
the various kinds of errors presented and analysed.

The following chapter (7) considers whether there is a correlation between
lexical errors and the quality of the written samples. As might be expected
the fewer overall errors in a subject’s text then the better the quality of
it. However, there are surprises with some errors (especially calques) where
their occurrence is an indicator of well composed ideas and structure.

The final chapter of analysis considers the impact that receptive proficiency
has upon productive proficiency. Two aspects of vocabulary development are
covered, how large are subjects’ native language vocabulary and similarly how
large is their corresponding second language lexicon. Agustín raises and
substantiates what would appear to be obvious that the subjects cannot be
expected to use a wide variety of L2 vocabulary if they do not already have a
well developed L1 lexicon. She mentions the subsidiary issue that her young
subjects have not yet solidified their L1 lexicon.

EVALUATION
Agustín’s text provides a useful overview of the SLA literature that
non-specialists pronouncing on the subject would do well to acquaint
themselves with; for example, shortly after this book was published the
British Secretary for Education (Michael Gove) suggested that children as
young as 5 years old should be taught a foreign language a suggestion that
goes against research reported by Agustín that adults make better progress
than such young children [Wintour and Watt (2011)]. So the publication of this
book is timely. It ought to have an effect on the implementation of that
suggestion.

However, the book is not perfect. There are holes in the argumentation and in
the coverage of alternative approaches to evaluating learners acquisition of
second language skills. The author asserts, without support, that the process
of writing is difficult and fails to distinguish between the cognitive
formation of ideas in the writer's own mind and the physical or mechanical
transcription of that on to some shareable medium as the late Russian author
and Nobel Laureate for Literature Solzhenitsyn describes so eloquently in his
book “The Oak and the Calf” (1975).

The author presumes that the dialect of English being evaluated is British,
and does not mention the lexical differences between English and American
English. The selection of this variant of English as the L2 is presumably
because the teaching syllabus and examination materials are mentioned as from
the University of Cambridge. In addition there is no consideration of
register. One example ''My class is huge'', which she asserts is wrong could
be correct for colloquial English as a statement of cohort size, which is the
meaning that Agustín believes her subject intended. Similar no consideration
of regional usage is mentioned. There is a parallel here with the use of a
lexical sign for “business” in British Sign Language; where different regions
lexical signs are treated as either WORK or BUSINESS (Dowe and Squelch, 2010).

The author does not consider the effect that mobile phones may have upon
children and especially their use of “text speech”. It is unclear when the
survey work was conducted, though the references would suggest it occurred
sometime in the mid-/late-2000s but the increasing use of such phonetic
transcriptions in written (typed/keyed) discourse may not have influenced the
subjects too greatly. However, very young children are being given mobile
phones and the use of these contracted orthographies may affect both their L1
and their acquired L2(s).

A glaring failing of the book is that there is little by way of comparison to
L1 learners’ lexical errors other than to the learners’ (involved in the study
itself) not yet having stabilised their own L1 lexicon. It remains to be seen
therefore whether any conclusions drawn from this exemplar project can be
applied to other pairs of L1 and L2. This would need to be addressed directly
in further research.

Neither is there any discussion of the errors made by proficient L1 users. The
British newspaper the Guardian is a cause célèbre and had a reputation for its
spelling mistakes, such that it was and still is referred to as the Grauniad
by its own readers. The problem is not limited to native English speakers in
Britain as the Swedish-based online newspaper The Local publishes an English
language edition, with many of its reports containing similar lexical errors
to those described in this book, for example
http://www.thelocal.se/36734/20111013/ .

The two languages involved in the study (L1 Spanish and L2 English) share
common linguistic ancestry and therefore have relatively similar tense
systems. It is not obvious whether these results would hold for pairs of
languages where one has no tense system (such as Chinese or (British) Sign
Language).

Although the author describes the statistical procedures used, it would have
been helpful to have the source included from whichever package was used.

In any other context it would be inappropriate to consider an author's own
lexical errors. However, when the subject itself is under examination, as in
this text, then it becomes appropriate. One section where they obscure her own
meaning is in the review of lexical errors taxonomies. (She has not been well
served by her copy editor or publisher in this regard.)

In various places we see the author imposing her own synforms (a word that
appears in the text and is defined as “similar lexical forms”). This may
kindly be seen as the notion attributed to computing scientist Brian Randell
who observed that “in English every noun can be verbed” (Jackson 1983). These
synforms become an issue because they raise the reader's processing cost (Gutt
1992) or as Agustín herself says (p98) “lexical errors may greatly irritate or
disturb the interlocutor.'' One such that occurs through this chapter is
''delimitation'', which appears to be a synform for ''delineation'' or the
possibly more natural ''delimited''. The Oxford English Dictionary has its
last quotation for this word as 1884 (OED). This word appears to be used
metaphorically but the domain from which it is drawn (typically trans-national
border disputes) does not truly accommodate such metaphoricalisation (Lakoff
and Turner, 1989; Lakoff and Johnson, 2003; Pinker, 2008).

There are several places in the book where markup in the original typescript
was not correct. Just as inappropriate lexical choices prove irritating for
the reader so are these, which as we have already observed is an issue that
Agustín herself raises.

The sources examined by Agustín would provide a useful introduction to the
field. However, there is a preponderance of Spanish language studies amongst
them. This is most obvious in the reproduction of the learner survey questions
in the native Spanish. We mentioned at the beginning that the references cited
in this text are primarily in Spanish. Although not a problem per se citations
to multilingual documents such as those from the Council of Europe are given
as if in English but then the bibliographic entry itself is presented only in
Spanish. This detracts from the usefulness of the book because the reader
needs to scan through the entire bibliography hunting for the relevant entry.

There is no mention of the use of corpora and their associated techniques
either providing exemplars of L1 usage or of analysis of the written samples.
Although the use of corpora in L2 acquisition is relatively new there is
already a substantial body of literature for it to have either influenced the
original study or the literature survey within part 1. A suitable introduction
to the use of corpora in L2 acquisition work can be found in Tono (2009).

The author's subject group is drawn from different schools but no analysis is
provided on the variability of the teaching methods employed. Teachers and
teaching methods are considered to be homogeneous.

Many of the studies considered have related orthographies, that is, they are
Latinate writing systems. The author has identified that the similarity of
Spanish to English causes students problems when writing and specifically the
phonetic nature of Spanish writing and the non-phonetic nature of English.
There appears to be no mention of work with dissimilar scripts for example,
English/Arabic, English/Chinese or between an L2 with an orthography and an L1
without. Examples of the latter would be the indigenous signed languages
around the world which is a vital issue for the Deaf who are forced to learn
the language of their usually hearing L2 teachers to transcribe their L1.

There is no index. With word processors now pervasive there is no excuse for
an academic study not to have an index; even if it originated as a PhD thesis
prepared for publication.

Even with the issues that this book raises and the omissions and oversights,
it still provides a useful resource for students/researchers commencing work
on L2 acquisition. The literature survey in the general part 1 and the
taxonomical analysis of that literature in the specific part 2 make it a
useful resource.

REFERENCES
Dowe, S. and L. Squelch. (2010). The BSL interpreter: help or hindrance;
benefit or barrier? Supporting Deaf People Conference (SDCP). Online
conference. http://www.online-conference.net/sdp2010/programme.htm#benefit

Gutt, E. A. (1992). Relevance Theory: A Guide to Successful Communication in
Translation. SIL.

Jackson, M. (1983). System Development. Prentice-Hall International.

Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. Second edition.
University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G. and M. Turner. (1989). More Than Cool Reason. University of Chicago
Press.

OED. Oxford English Dictionary. Second edition, 1989; online version September
2011. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/49404

Pinker, S. (2008). The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human
Nature. Penguin Press.

Solzhenitsyn, A. (1975). ''The Oak and the Calf”. Translated from Russian by
Harry Willets, Harper Colophon Books, 1981.

Tono, Y. (2009). Integrating Learner Corpus Analysis into a Probabilistic
Model of Second Language Acquisition. In Paul Baker (ed) (2009) Contemporary
Corpus Linguistics, London: Continuum, pp184-203.

Wintour, P. and N. Watt (2011). Michael Gove proposes teaching foreign
languages from age five. Guardian. Online. Available at
http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/sep/30/michael-gove-teaching-languages
-conference Last accessed 30 September 2011.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Trevor Jenkins works as a Communicator ('community sign-language interpreter')
in England. Most of his assignments are in tertiary (post-16 and adult)
educational or religious settings. He previously spent 30+ years as a
computing scientist in the field of 'text retrieval' and corpus studies
establishing text database for multinational and governmental agencies.
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