Vocabulary learning

Lately I’ve been reading, among other things, Joe Barcroft’s Vocabulary in Languge Teaching, one of the e-modules in the Routledge E-Modules on Contemporary Language Teaching. And it’s been helpful in thinking through some issues about vocabulary acquisition.

Like many, I studied quite a few historical languages in a very traditional mode. And, I excelled at it – I walked out of 2hr Greek exams in 20 minutes, used space repetition to memorise New Testament vocabulary down to 3 occurrences, and other such feats. But, I also came to think that this approach is basically non-productive of acquisition, and a huge mis-investment of time. By the time I came to study Mongolian, I rarely if ever spent any time explicitly learning glosses for Mongolian words.

And partly that’s due to a shift in how I conceived of lexical items. “Vocabulary” does not mean learning that ἄνθρωπος means “man” or “person” or “human being”. In fact, it doesn’t mean any of those things. Those are, at best, sometimes-appropriate translations of ἄνθρωπος. (And so, when I mark essays, I regularly correct students for mistaking ‘translation’ for ‘meaning’).

Rather, lexical items exist in our mental lexicon as items with a whole set of associated data. We have a core meaning for most of these terms, e.g. table tends to mean “piece of furniture with flat top surface and one or more legs, useful for putting things on”; but we also store alternative, derivative, metaphorical, extended meanings; e.g. table as, say, a set of figures in columns and rows. We also store collocations and phrases, table talk, turn the tables, etc.. And we store things like arguments, i.e. that put requires an agent, patient, location. And we store relations between words, including synonyms, antonyms, homonyms (a different kind of relationship, but one very necessary for puns!) near-synonyms and how the differ, etc.. And we store connotations, and so on…

And this is why giving students a list of words and one or two key glosses, not only is incredibly boring and dull, but is misleading about the nature of vocabulary learning. It suggests that learning vocabulary is simply about mapping a 1 to X set of correspondences between L2 words and L1 words. That, itself, is false. It may be a useful starting point (though I think this is debatable), but to the extent that it reinforces this “laundry list of glosses” notion of what vocabulary is, it misleads students (and to the extent this myth persists among teachers, demonstrates their misledness).

How then do and should we learn vocabulary? Well, unsurprisingly we learn it by input. Repeated exposure to meaning-bearing instances of the novel lexical items, in communicative contexts. The more, the better. And, in fact, this is how you solidify not just a ‘core gloss’, but the variety of meanings, nuances, connotations, collocation, proverbial sayings, etc..

To return to my impetus for his post, Barcroft, he distinguishes between three components of vocabulary (form, meaning, mapping; that is “what the word sounds like, what it means, and the connection”) and suggests that various activities prioritise each of these components, i.e. attention “processing resources” can be devoted more to form, to meaning, or to mapping, but at the detriment of the other two components. I think this is where two of his modules most interesting points (to me) occurred: (1) that using multiple talkers to repeat input of novel items (keeping other values constant), saw increases of 38-64% in target word learning. That’s quite an effect size! (2) that word copying, i.e. copying the target words, actually has a detrimental effect on L2 word form learning.

Barcroft himself articulates (in a separate 2012 book, and briefly in this module), an Input-Based Incremental approach.  Which, I’d largely endorse. It’s core is promoting frequent, and repeated, input of novel words in meaning bearing comprehensible input. Limiting output, especially in the early stages, and promoting L2-specific meanings and usage over time.

I confess, in my own learning I have become very laissez-faire about vocabulary acquisition. I just figure that more input over time means more exposure to vocabulary, and I’ll learn whatever is frequent and relevant. Which is true, but it’s an entirely incidental and haphazard approach. I myself could be more intentional in structuring my own studies, and in lesson planning.

But, at the end of the day, the one thing I would want everyone to go away with, is that “vocabulary” never equals “rote learning a set of L1 correspondences”. It’s anything but that.



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