LINGUIST List 24.378

Mon Jan 21 2013

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

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 21-Jan-2013
From: Trevor Jenkins <>
Subject: Lexical Errors and Accuracy in Foreign Language Writing
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AUTHOR: María del Pilar Agustín LlachTITLE: Lexical Errors and Accuracy in Foreign Language WritingSERIES TITLE: Second Language AcquisitionPUBLISHER: Multilingual MattersYEAR: 2011

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

SUMMARYThe study reported here concerns lexical errors (rather than grammatical orsemantic errors) appearing in the writing of second language users. In thisparticular study the language pairing is Spanish and English. Errors arelimited to misspellings, borrowings, calques, and other lexical issues.Grammatical and semantic errors were excluded from analysis. These errors areused 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 afterapproximately 400 hours of tuition and then after a further 200 hours.

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

The first chapter surveys the current theories of vocabulary acquisition bysecond language (L2) learners. A brief summary of the organisation ofcognitive lexicons is given with concentration upon how this might be achievedby children. What few studies there have been of L2 acquisition are splitbetween bilingual/home acquisition and formal tuition. However more studieshave been conducted of the former than the latter despite the majority of L2acquisition being gained in a purely taught situation.

The second chapter reviews the published literature for variables in L2learning that have been proposed by others. A variety of situations aresurveyed, not only those focusing on purely lexical issues but also onspeaking or listening ability, and fluency improvement. One factor from thoseprevious studies that the author considers at length is learner age. Adultlearners are said to make fewer mistakes in their L2 usage. The authorsuggests that this is because their first language (L1) cognitive lexicons arefirmer and more comprehensive, whereas younger learners have not established asolid lexicon for their L1. Further she identifies that little research hasbeen 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 suchchildren. Two propositions are made concerning learner proficiency: first thaterrors decrease with proficiency and second that the type of errors madechange with proficiency. These two notions are the foundation for the specificexemplar study reported in part two of the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, the book is not perfect. There are holes in the argumentation and inthe coverage of alternative approaches to evaluating learners acquisition ofsecond language skills. The author asserts, without support, that the processof writing is difficult and fails to distinguish between the cognitiveformation of ideas in the writer's own mind and the physical or mechanicaltranscription of that on to some shareable medium as the late Russian authorand Nobel Laureate for Literature Solzhenitsyn describes so eloquently in hisbook “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 AmericanEnglish. The selection of this variant of English as the L2 is presumablybecause the teaching syllabus and examination materials are mentioned as fromthe University of Cambridge. In addition there is no consideration ofregister. One example ''My class is huge'', which she asserts is wrong couldbe correct for colloquial English as a statement of cohort size, which is themeaning that Agustín believes her subject intended. Similar no considerationof regional usage is mentioned. There is a parallel here with the use of alexical sign for “business” in British Sign Language; where different regionslexical signs are treated as either WORK or BUSINESS (Dowe and Squelch, 2010).

The author does not consider the effect that mobile phones may have uponchildren and especially their use of “text speech”. It is unclear when thesurvey work was conducted, though the references would suggest it occurredsometime in the mid-/late-2000s but the increasing use of such phonetictranscriptions in written (typed/keyed) discourse may not have influenced thesubjects too greatly. However, very young children are being given mobilephones and the use of these contracted orthographies may affect both their L1and their acquired L2(s).

A glaring failing of the book is that there is little by way of comparison toL1 learners’ lexical errors other than to the learners’ (involved in the studyitself) not yet having stabilised their own L1 lexicon. It remains to be seentherefore whether any conclusions drawn from this exemplar project can beapplied to other pairs of L1 and L2. This would need to be addressed directlyin further research.

Neither is there any discussion of the errors made by proficient L1 users. TheBritish newspaper the Guardian is a cause célèbre and had a reputation for itsspelling mistakes, such that it was and still is referred to as the Grauniadby its own readers. The problem is not limited to native English speakers inBritain as the Swedish-based online newspaper The Local publishes an Englishlanguage edition, with many of its reports containing similar lexical errorsto those described in this book, for example .

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

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

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

In various places we see the author imposing her own synforms (a word thatappears in the text and is defined as “similar lexical forms”). This maykindly be seen as the notion attributed to computing scientist Brian Randellwho observed that “in English every noun can be verbed” (Jackson 1983). Thesesynforms become an issue because they raise the reader's processing cost (Gutt1992) or as Agustín herself says (p98) “lexical errors may greatly irritate ordisturb the interlocutor.'' One such that occurs through this chapter is''delimitation'', which appears to be a synform for ''delineation'' or thepossibly more natural ''delimited''. The Oxford English Dictionary has itslast quotation for this word as 1884 (OED). This word appears to be usedmetaphorically but the domain from which it is drawn (typically trans-nationalborder disputes) does not truly accommodate such metaphoricalisation (Lakoffand Turner, 1989; Lakoff and Johnson, 2003; Pinker, 2008).

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

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

There is no mention of the use of corpora and their associated techniqueseither providing exemplars of L1 usage or of analysis of the written samples.Although the use of corpora in L2 acquisition is relatively new there isalready a substantial body of literature for it to have either influenced theoriginal study or the literature survey within part 1. A suitable introductionto 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 isprovided on the variability of the teaching methods employed. Teachers andteaching methods are considered to be homogeneous.

Many of the studies considered have related orthographies, that is, they areLatinate writing systems. The author has identified that the similarity ofSpanish to English causes students problems when writing and specifically thephonetic 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 L1without. Examples of the latter would be the indigenous signed languagesaround the world which is a vital issue for the Deaf who are forced to learnthe language of their usually hearing L2 teachers to transcribe their L1.

There is no index. With word processors now pervasive there is no excuse foran academic study not to have an index; even if it originated as a PhD thesisprepared 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 workon L2 acquisition. The literature survey in the general part 1 and thetaxonomical analysis of that literature in the specific part 2 make it auseful resource.

REFERENCESDowe, S. and L. Squelch. (2010). The BSL interpreter: help or hindrance;benefit or barrier? Supporting Deaf People Conference (SDCP). Onlineconference.

Gutt, E. A. (1992). Relevance Theory: A Guide to Successful Communication inTranslation. 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 ChicagoPress.

OED. Oxford English Dictionary. Second edition, 1989; online version September2011.

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

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

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

Wintour, P. and N. Watt (2011). Michael Gove proposes teaching foreignlanguages from age five. Guardian. Online. Available at Last accessed 30 September 2011.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERTrevor 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 acomputing scientist in the field of 'text retrieval' and corpus studiesestablishing text database for multinational and governmental agencies.

Page Updated: 21-Jan-2013