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Phonological Templates in Development

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Dissertation Information

Title: The 'Noun Advantage' in English as a Second Language: A Study of the Natural Partitions Hypothesis Add Dissertation
Author: K.G. Vijayakrishnan Update Dissertation
Email: click here to access email
Institution: English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, English Language Education
Completed in: 2007
Linguistic Subfield(s): Cognitive Science; Language Acquisition;
Subject Language(s): English
Director(s): Raghavachari Amritavalli

Abstract: First language studies on early vocabulary acquisition have shown a stage
of 'noun advantage' in child vocabulary around one year of age. Gentner
(1982) in her 'natural partitions hypothesis' had argued that nouns are
acquired early because the referents for these concepts or percepts are
readily available in the environment. In a later hypothesis of Division of
Dominance, Gentner and Boroditsky (2001) proposed a distinction between the
acquisition of open and closed classes in terms of their concept-to-word
mapping. Cognitive dominance prevails when concepts are simply named by
language as in the case of nouns. Linguistic dominance prevails when the
clustering of perceptual bits is not pre-ordained and is determined by
language as in the case of verbs. This cross-sectional study shows a noun
advantage in second language acquisition in an instructional setting, grade
five of a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, India. The
explanation offered for this noun advantage is linguistic rather than
cognitive, in accordance with the relational relativity corollary of
Gentner and Boroditsky (2001).

A group of 32 second language learners of English between 9 and 11 years of
age, whose first language was Hindi were studied by recording and analyzing
the learners' spontaneous oral narratives in English and Hindi. A set of
four wordless picture books was used for elicitation of the narratives. The
following properties of the second language data were studied: vocabulary
size and vocabulary diversity. The study of vocabulary size involved a
study of the 'token' frequencies of nouns and verbs, a study of the
comparative development of various word classes (nouns, verbs, determiners,
prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs and adjectives), and a study of the
relationship between the length of narratives and noun advantage.
Vocabulary diversity was measured in terms of the metrics of 'type'
frequencies, 'type-to-token ratios' and the measure 'D'.

Five developmental stages of early second language vocabulary acquisition
are postulated by the study: Noun-only stage, Approximate-to-noun-only
stage, Verb-onset stage, Approximate-to-verb-dominance stage and
Verb-dominance stage. Ten percent of the population showing a clear
dominance of noun tokens over verb tokens is at the Noun-only stage.
Another ten percent of the population showing verb tokens clearly exceeding
noun tokens is at the Verb-dominance stage. The Approximate-to-noun-only
and Approximate-to-verb-dominance stages are similar to the Noun-only and
Verb-dominance stages respectively. The Verb-onset stage shows the
appearance of word combinations resembling the two-word stage of first
language acquisition. There is a marked rise in the number of verbs as well
as closed classes: determiners, prepositions, and conjunctions at this
stage. It is also found that the shortest narratives are produced by
learners at the Noun-only stage. A noun advantage in learners' vocabulary
is also seen in the analysis of the 'type' frequencies. It is shown that
the lexical diversity measure of 'D' fails to capture the lexical richness
of early vocabularies in smaller sample sizes with a restricted variety of
word classes.

This study also highlights a gap between instruction and acquisition in the
second language classroom under study. The differences in student
proficiencies captured in terms of the five developmental stages did not
match student performance on class examinations. Instructional practices
show an overt attempt to suppress differences among the linguistic
abilities of the students. The methodology followed for teaching reading
and writing being heavily dependent on rote learning does not provide for
exposure to the second language in the true sense.