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Review of  Categorization and L2 Vocabulary Learning

Reviewer: Liubov Baladzhaeva
Book Title: Categorization and L2 Vocabulary Learning
Book Author: Xiaoyan Xia
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 26.2394

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This monograph represents a study on categorization in second language (L2) vocabulary learning, mainly focusing on the prototypicality effect and the basic level effect (see below).

The author is interested in the relationship between the existing conceptual system of the learner in her first language (L1) and the L2 lexicon: whether there are two separate conceptual systems or it is a single system in the mind of a learner, , or initially L2 words are mapped onto the existing system, while later a new conceptual layer is added for L2 words that do not match the first language concepts. The study is conducted in the framework of experientalism (Lakoff, 1987). According to experientalism, speakers of different languages categorize their experiences differently, which is reflected in the linguistic expression. Therefore, an L2 learner’s original L1 conceptual system is inevitably different from the conceptual system of the language that is being learned. Experientalism pays special attention to two effects in the learning of words: basic-level effect and prototypicality effect. There are two dimensions of conceptual categories. The horizontal dimension involves the separation of conceptual categories at the same level of categorization, such as “cup”, “mug” and “glass” as members of a category “drinking vessels”. The vertical dimension presents levels of organization within a specific category, such as “animal companion”, “dog” and “collie”, where “dog” represents the basic or “middle” level of the category. Basic-level effect is that the conceptual categories at the basic level of the hierarchy are primary in perception and recall. In the first language the words that signify basic-level categories are learned more easily. Each horizontal level of a category has several elements, of which some are more and some are less prototypical. For example, dogs and cows are more prototypical examples of the category “animal” than ants and butterflies. Just as with the basic-level effect, the prototypicality effect means that in the first language more prototypical words in the category are learned and recalled more easily than less prototypical words. The author sets out to investigate whether these two effects would work in second language learning as well, and what happens when there is a mismatch between prototypical examples of the same categories in the first and the second languages.

The study examines these two effects with the example of Chinese native speakers learning English. It consists of several experiments. The first two experiments investigated whether basic-level and prototypicality effects exist in L2 vocabulary learning. The third experiment investigated the issue of cultural differences in prototypicality in L1 and L2 and how these affect L2 vocabulary learning.

The hypothesis of the first experiment was that L2 learners would prefer basic level L2 words, when they are simultaneously introduced to several levels of the same category (superordinate, basic, and subordinate). The participants were Chinese students learning English in a university in Beijing. The experiment consisted of two parts. The first part was designed to study which level of the category would be better remembered. The participants were given lists of three words, such as “wading bird”-“crane”-“red-crowned crane”. The three words were accompanied by Chinese translations for each word and a picture of the word on the subordinate level (“red-crowned crane”) that was presented as reflecting the whole category. The participants were divided into 4 groups and the order of word-level presentation was changed for each group, so that one group saw words presented in “basic-superordinate-subordinate” order, the other one – in “superordinate-basic-subordinate” etc. The participants were told to memorize the words. In the cued recall task they were presented with a picture from the memorization task and were told to name it in English. In the second part of this experiment another group of students was given the same stimuli but told to select only one word out of the three and memorize just this word. Then the participants performed a cued recall task in which they needed to name the pictures from the memorization task. The results showed that in both parts of the experiment in the cued recall group the participants tended to recall basic-level words better than superordinate or subordinate; thus the research hypothesis was supported.

The second experiment’s hypothesis was that the L2 words denoting the prototypical members of the category would be retrieved better than the words denoting the non-prototypical members. Only the words that matched in prototypicality in both Chinese and English were used in this experiment. The participants were Chinese university students from Beijing. Sixteen new words were presented to the participants accompanied with Chinese translations. There were 8 categories of words, 2 words per category; for example, “vulture” and “rooster” exemplified the “birds” category, where “vulture” would be a more prototypical example than “rooster”. The participants were not told that the words belonged to specific categories and the 16 words were presented in a random order. The participants were asked to memorize the words, and in the recall task they were asked to write down words that they remembered as belonging to a specific category. On the whole the participants were significantly more likely to recall the prototypical items than non-prototypical examples of the category; thus the research hypothesis was supported. This experiment was then repeated with the words known to the participants before the study; for example, “table” and “piano” were presented as members of the category “furniture”. With the already known words the prototypicality effect in recall was even more pronounced.

The third experiment was designed to see how the prototypicality effect plays itself out in L2 learning if there is a mismatch between L1 and L2, that is, when one item is a prototypical member of the category in L1, but non-prototypical in L2, and vice versa. First, in a task with native Chinese and native English speakers, prototypicality norms were investigated. Basic-level polysemous words were taken in both languages and the participants were asked to list the “senses” of the words. For example, for the word “green” the following “senses” were listed in English: “inexperienced”, “sick”, “environmental”, “envious” etc. Then the most frequent senses from both languages were put together in a list for the prototypicality rating task. Two other groups of native speakers were given the lists of the senses and asked to rate the prototypicality of each item on a 3-point scale. This allowed the construction of lists of items that were prototypical in one language, but non-prototypical in another. For example, in the category “white” the sense “funeral” was prototypical in Chinese, but non-prototypical in English, while the sense “wedding” was prototypical in English, but non-prototypical in Chinese. In the third part of this experiment, two groups of Chinese university students were given a list of 16 new words to memorize. The list contained 8 conceptual categories with two items in each, one prototypical in Chinese, but not in English, and the other prototypical in English, but not in Chinese. The words were presented one by one in a random order, accompanied by the Chinese translation. It was not stated which category the words belonged to. The students were asked to memorize the words. In the recall section the categories (original polysemous words) were given as cues and the participants were asked to recall English words from the memorization section that fit into these particular categories. In one group, the recall cues were given in English, in another group they were given in Chinese. Both groups recalled the words prototypical in Chinese, but non-prototypical in English better than the other way around. The author concludes that in case of mismatched prototypicality, without additional instruction, L2 learners will assign prototypicality to L2 words according to L1 semantic categories. However, if explicitly taught the cultural differences, they can acquire L2 categories as well. Therefore, initially only one L1 conceptual system exists in the mind of a L2 learner, but after learning about the differences between categories in L1 and L2 the system can be restructured in order to accommodate L2 in addition to L1.


This book presents a very interesting series of experiments, and its conclusions regarding the presence of basic-level and prototypicality effects in L2 learning have important teaching implications. The study has a solid theoretical background in experientalism, and the experiments are carefully designed.

The author acknowledges herself that the presence of Chinese translations in the tasks might have affected the preferences of the participants in memorization and recall tasks, since the Chinese words were organized into the same hierarchy as the English words. In this case, the preference for the basic-level words may partially be a result of reliance on Chinese categories in learning English vocabulary.

I am concerned whether the last experiment on cultural differences in prototypicality in L2 learning indeed tested what it was supposed to test. In this experiment, words “glorious”, “dignified”, “energetic”, “evil” etc. are representative of the category “dragon” and are called “senses” of the word dragon. It seems, that while in some cases, the multiple meanings of the words are used in the experiment (such as “young” as a meaning of “green), in other cases, the senses represent associations and not meanings. I think this would be a great experiment to investigate the effect of associative chains in L2 learning, but it does not seem to be testing the prototypicality effect. The idea behind the experiment is very interesting – for example, that dragons exist in both English and Chinese cultures, but those are very different kind of dragons and different kinds of qualities are associated with them. A picture recall task similar to the first two experiments might be more suitable for investigating the prototypicality effect in case of the mismatch between L1 and L2. For example, it would be interesting to see whether Chinese learners of English recall the word ‘dragon’ faster if they are presented with the image of a classic Chinese dragon than with an image of a dragon from Western mythology.


Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.
Liubov Baladzhaeva is a PhD student at the University of Haifa. She is interested in multilingualism, language acquisition and attrition.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9783631650103
Pages: 315
Prices: U.S. $ 76.95
U.K. £ 47.00