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Review of  Dynamic Vocabulary Development in a Foreign Language

Reviewer: Gloria Cappelli
Book Title: Dynamic Vocabulary Development in a Foreign Language
Book Author: Yongyan Zheng
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 26.645

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Review's Editors: Malgorzata Cavar and Sara Couture


“Dynamic Vocabulary Development in a Foreign Language” is a recent publication reporting on a longitudinal study tracking the vocabulary development of a group of female Chinese learners of English. The study is especially interesting because it is to my knowledge the first book-length publication to apply the principles of dynamic systems theory (DST) to the investigation of vocabulary learning. In the domain of the natural sciences, DST is a framework used to describe the development of complex systems over time. This framework has been successfully applied to the study of various linguistic domains (language acquisition - Laarsen-Freeman 1997, DeBot et al. 2005; lexical semantics - Bertuccelli Papi and Lenci 2007; Languages for Specific Purposes - Cappelli, Franceschi and Lorenzetti 2014). The basic tenet of this approach is that languages can be described as dynamic systems, that is, as sets of integrated and interrelated aspects of the world that change and evolve through time and that can be described in terms of the number and types of their dimensions and of the forms and predictability of their organization. The system’s organization is seen as the result of the interaction among the system’s components and between the system and its environment.


The book consists of eight chapters. The aim of the first chapter is is to underline how innovative the contribution of DST to the study of (L2) vocabulary development can be and to introduce the main concepts on which the study relies. More specifically, the author briefly reviews some of the major competing approaches to vocabulary acquisition found in the literature, namely the qualitative versus quantitative approach to data investigation, the transient versus durative nature of the data collection, the context-free versus situated view of vocabulary development, and the different degrees of importance given to learners’ collective versus individual behavior.

The second chapter, “Towards a DST perspective on L2 Vocabulary Development,” presents a critical overview of some of the most relevant empirical findings reported in the literature on L2 vocabulary development both at the macro (i.e. the entire number of words available to receptive, and controlled- and free-productive vocabulary use) and micro level (i.e. the paradigmatic and syntagmatic knowledge of individual words) so as to provide support to the author’s claim that a DST perspective on second language development can help explain discrepancies between the predictions of existing models and some phenomena observed in the data. The author thoroughly reviews the literature on several relevant topics in vocabulary learning research such as children's L1 semantic development, incidental and intentional vocabulary learning, receptive and productive vocabulary use, lexical plateau, word association studies, and development of paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations. The second half of the chapter focuses more specifically on the DST perspective on L2 vocabulary development. After a brief but complete presentation of basic tenets of the theory, the author introduces the DST perspective on L2 vocabulary development. Concepts such as interconnectedness and constant change are highlighted and used to address issues of non-linearity, asynchrony and asymmetry in the receptive-productive and paradigmatic-syntagmatic dimensions observed in L2 vocabulary learning data. The author proposes to resort to a combination of a three-stage model of adult L2 lexical development, DST and L2 Motivational Self System approach (Dörnyei 2005) and to view L2 vocabulary development as a “dynamic process replete with non-linear changes, and a progressive interaction of relationships between and among resources, for instance, L1, L2, input, output, learners’ orientations and the multiple contexts” (p.62).

The third chapter, “English Vocabulary Learning in China Today,” presents vocabulary learning within the wider context of English language learning in China. In line with the principles of DST and the importance that it attributes to the “contextual variables”, several aspects are taken into account, such as the environment of English language teaching and the sociolinguistic status of English in present-day China. The author discusses formal vocabulary teaching and describes the goals stipulated in the national syllabi for ELT with special focus on college education. The chapter closes with a few sections dedicated to opportunities for vocabulary learning outside school (e.g. international language tests, popular culture, internships, etc.).

The fourth chapter, “Research Design and Methodology,” describes in depth the way in which the study was carried out. The research design of this longitudinal investigation is presented, including informants, data elicitation instruments, data collection procedures and the methods adopted to ensure the multiple-case studies were scientifically sound. The choice for a longitudinal study is in line with the principles of DST, which sees language development as a complex, dynamic process that cannot be satisfactorily investigated through quantitatively-oriented, cause-and-effect experimental design, since the data need to capture the dynamic interaction among many factors involved in the learning experience, such as learners and their cognitive, pedagogical and sociocultural context. Exploring this complex interaction of factors is stated as one of the major goals of the research: “It is hoped, therefore, that the longitudinal case-study design of the present study can reveal, at least to some extent, the dynamic nature of L2 vocabulary development by describing the complex interaction between and among a number of key components in this dynamic system” (p.79).

The fifth chapter, “Macro-level Vocabulary Development”, discusses the findings on the macro-level vocabulary development of four first-year learners and four third-year learners. More specifically, the author reports on findings on receptive, controlled productive vocabulary size and free productive vocabulary use. Interestingly, the data highlight the non-linear nature of macro-level vocabulary development in the participants and unveil greater than expected individual variability in the developmental path followed by the informants. The first-year students appear to undergo a more rapid expansion of their receptive vocabulary knowledge than the third-year students, and to attain a similar level of accuracy in their controlled productive use of words at the end of the academic year. Asynchrony in the development of different types of vocabulary and non-linearity of vocabulary development at large are also evident in the data, which evidence a general stop in the growth of productive vocabulary. The lexical richness of the informants, in fact, appears to deteriorate after one year of study in the English Department: “[...] even though the participants were more able to make use of words when they were prompted to, they became more inclined to recirculate easy, frequent words within a smaller range when left to their own choices” (p.114). The discussion of individual variability in the initial state of the participants with respect to the final output is also interesting, in that it unveils the importance of the interaction of various intrinsic and extrinsic factors in the learning experience. The first-year students, as a matter of fact, showed a relatively unified pattern of growth even though they started from much more varied “initial states” than the third-year students, who followed more diverse growth patterns. “Stronger forces” capable of attracting informants to a more stable mode of behavior seem to be at work, and such forces “are likely to be some contextual factors” (p.115).

The sixth chapter, “Micro-level Vocabulary Development,” focuses on the informants’ in-depth knowledge of the paradigmatic (i.e. senses) and syntagmatic (i.e. collocational properties) features of some specific high-frequency lexical items. This knowledge was assessed through Vocabulary Depth Tests (VDT) and a qualitative analysis of elicited think-aloud protocols (i.e. the recordings of the informants comments when asked to think aloud while performing the tests). Data show that the first-year learners’ performance in the VDT improved more than the third-year learners’ performance. Moreover, the former group saw a more significant improvement in their paradigmatic knowledge whereas the latter group remained relatively steady in their syntagmatic knowledge of the lexical items investigated, with a slight improvement in the paradigmatic knowledge. The author also discusses individual differences in the performance of the participants belonging to the same year cohort and convincingly explains fluctuations through some basic tenets of DST. The central part of the chapter is dedicated to a qualitative examination of micro-level developments in the two groups through the discussion of some comments found in the think-aloud protocols. More specifically, three main factors emerged as relevant in the learners’ vocabulary learning process, both at the paradigmatic and syntagmatic level: incomplete semantization, influence of their L1, and cross-linguistic awareness. The final part of the chapter is devoted to a more detailed discussion of the developmental patterns of the participants’ paradigmatic and syntagmatic knowledge of the lexical items investigated.

The seventh chapter, “Situated Vocabulary Learning Experience,” focuses on the possible role of the educational and sociocultural contexts in the asynchronies, fluctuations and variations observed in the participants’ vocabulary development. Motivational factors are also addressed. The first part of the chapter discusses vocabulary learning within the pedagogical context, both in terms of classroom instruction and interaction. Interestingly, much importance is placed on the role of the teacher. The second part focuses on learning experiences and opportunities outside the classroom, including an interesting section on the “mismatching life contexts”, that is, the real or perceived gap between the vocabulary knowledge acquired in class, the insufficient overlap between their life in China and life in English-speaking countries and the actual need to use English in their everyday life (pp. 195-199).

The eighth chapter, “Dynamic Vocabulary Development in a Foreign Language,” is the closing chapter and summarizes the major findings and the main contributions of the study to L2 vocabulary acquisition research. The most interesting sections are Section 8.2 and Section 8.3. Section 8.2 proposes a model to account for the dynamic process of foreign language vocabulary development by bringing together the Dynamic Model of Foreign Vocabulary Development, the Three-stage Model of Adult L2 Lexical Development, and the L2 Motivational Self System and offers a schematic representation of such a model. The various parts of the diagram are illustrated in details, with special attention dedicated to two crucial aspects of any DST-based account: the complex interaction among the parts of the system and the constant dynamic changes observable in the system. Section 8.3 discusses possible implications of the empirical findings for teaching vocabulary (e.g. promoting motivation-fostering activities, awareness, and self-initiated learning and maximizing output opportunities). The final section offers some suggestions for further research.

The book includes four appendices exemplifying some of the elicitation tests and collected materials.


Over the past few years the DST approach to L2 development and learning has seen rapid development, with many interesting publications on the topic (Ellis 2007, Larsen-Freeman and Cameron 2008, de Bot 2008, de Bot, Lowie and Verspoor 2007, Van Geert 2008, to name but a few) and much interest in the academic community. Zheng’s book is certainly a very interesting and innovative addition to the studies applying this perspective to SLA research.

After the many theoretical contributions, sound empirical research informed by the principles of DST was needed. Much of the previous research was indeed meant to explain how this theoretical framework borrowed from the natural sciences can be successfully applied in linguistics, and why languages can indeed be seen as complex adaptive systems. Adopting DST to describe language acquisition has been a small “revolution” when compared to the traditional approaches to SLA, because they often rely on cross-sectional studies looking for regularities and common patterns of development, causes and effects, and ways to predict development at various levels of the systems. On the contrary, the DST approach focuses on individual preferences, longitudinal investigations and the complex interaction of factors in determining system behavior. This seems to imply the impossibility of making any real prediction regarding the system’s behaviour, and, for this reason, this approach to the study of languages has been described by some scholars as purely “postdictive”, if not merely descriptive. It has not been obvious how applied research should be carried out within this theoretical framework, but “Dynamic Vocabulary Development in a Foreign Language” provides an interesting example.

In line with the tenets of DST, instead of being treated as simple “noise”, non-linearity and individual variability are seen as “a natural consequence and an inherent property during the course of development; […] most likely an outcome of the multiple interplays between and among learners’ goals, learning experiences and the environment” (p.115). The importance that the author attributes to contextual factors in constraining the system behavior is interesting, especially her attempt to identify “control parameters” (that is, awareness and motivation). In a way, this seems to bring back some sort of “predictability”, and to address one of the major criticisms to this approach (i.e. the alleged impossibility to predict system behavior and therefore its essentially posteriori descriptive nature). However, the “control parameters” identified appear to be very complex themselves, and therefore hardly “controllable”, but they still allow Zheng to suggest some ways to make vocabulary teaching possibly more effective. Moreover, besides some extra-systemic factors, the only intra-systemic variables Zheng takes into account are learners-related factors. In a DST-oriented approach, though, interconnectedness, self-organization and stochasticity are seen as crucial properties of every system. Therefore, in order to explain non-linearity, individual variability and asynchrony in vocabulary development, looking into other strictly linguistic, intra-systemic factors would seem quite essential. It is in fact plausible to assume that the fluctuations identified by the author in the learners’ vocabulary development are also due to the changing allocation of the participants’ cognitive resources. This is something which can supposedly be appreciated only if the development of other levels of the linguistic system are investigated (e.g. morpho-syntactic, phonetic, pragmatic abilities). It would have been interesting to have information about the development of the other linguistic abilities in these learners to see if stabilization and fossilization or regression corresponded to progress and development in other areas, and therefore to a reorganization of the entire system.

If we accept the hypothesis that languages are complex adaptive systems, then we must also accept the hypothesis that they are constituted of a series of other nested complex adaptive subsystems. Lexical items themselves can be seen as complex adaptive systems (see the Lexical Complexity Hypothesis -- Bertuccelli 2003, Bertuccelli and Lenci 2007, Cappelli 2010). It would be interesting to see what such a view of lexical items themselves can contribute to the understanding of some of the phenomena observed in vocabulary development, e.g. incomplete semantization, or the way in which paradigmatic knowledge is progressively (?) acquired, and the possible contextual constraints that lead to the stabilization of the self-organizing system over a certain period of time.

Zheng’s work has the merit of having innovatively opened the path for much needed applied research in L2 vocabulary development, which promises to advance our understanding of some of the factors playing a role in the development of non-native linguistic systems.


Bertuccelli Papi, M. (2003), “Cognitive complexity and the lexicon”, in Merlini Barbaresi, L. (ed), Complexity in Language and Text, Pisa: Plus Pisa University Press, 67-115.

Bertuccelli Papi, M. and Lenci, A. (2007), “Lexical Complexity and the texture of meaning”, in M. Bertuccelli Papi, G. Cappelli and S. Masi (eds.), Lexical Complexity: Theoretical Assessment and Translational Perspectives, Pisa: Plus Pisa University Press, 15-33.

Cappelli, G. (2010), “Lexical Complexity. Theoretical and Empirical Aspects”, in L. Pinnavaia and N. Brownlees (eds.), Insights into English and Germanic lexicology and lexicography: past and present perspectives, Monza: Polimetrica International Publisher, 115-127.

de Bot, K. (2008), “Second language development as a dynamic process”, Modern Language Journal, 92(2), 166-178.

de Bot, K., Lowie, W. and Verspoor, M. (2007), “A dynamic system theory approach to second language acquisition”, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10, 7-21.

Ellis, N. C. (2007), “Dynamic Systems and SLA: The wood and the trees”, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10, 23-25.

Larsen-Freeman, D. and Cameron, L. (2008), Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: OUP.

Van Geert, P. (2008), “The Dynamic Systems approach in the study of L1 and L2 acquisition: An introduction”, Modern Language Journal, 92(2), 179-199.
Gloria Cappelli is a researcher and lecturer in English Linguistics at the University of Pisa, Italy. Her interests include lexical semantics, ESP and SLA.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9783034311069
Pages: 262
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