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L2 Vocabulary

What do we know if we know the word "man"?

pronunciation: /
m(ash)n/, /m(schwa)n/ in compounds (chairman)
    spelling: <man>, double <n> before V, <manning>
Grammatical properties:
    grammatical category:
usually Noun, rarely Verb
    possible and impossible structures.
Verb (animate subject)
    idiosyncratic grammatical information.
Plural /men/, <men>. Countable or uncountable
Lexical properties
    word combinations;
'my good man', 'man-in the street', 'man-to-man', 'Man of God', 'my man Jeeves'
'my man' may be used as a form of address 'Hi my man'.
'male', 'adult', 'human being', 'concrete', 'animate'.
17 in OED from 'A human being (irrespective of sex or age)' to   
      'One of the pieces used in chess'.

The ten most frequent English words
7 year old native children: and the a I to was it he we in
Jane Austen’s narrative: the to and of a her I was in it
COBUILD native speakers: the of and to a in that I it was
Japanese learners of English: I to the you and a my in it for

Berlin&Kay Figure

L2 examples
Bahasa Melayu: saltiness (masin kitchup ‘salty like soy sauce’, masin ayer laut ‘salty like sea water’, masin garam ‘salty like salt’, masin maung ‘horribly salty’ (O’Mohaney & Muhuideen, 1977)
Korean: paran sekj ‘blue’ (bluer to L2 users of English) (Caskey-Sirman et al (1977)

Prototype Theory
basic terms ("potato") are learnt before subordinate ("Idaho potato") and superordinate terms ("vegetable")

Some examples of levels of categories in English






Cox's Orange Pippin



cling peach



 claw hammer






Phillips screwdriver



wild salmon



rainbow trout



smoked herring

reading matter 





The Times



business letters

Components theory:
the meanings of words break up into components, which are learnt separately

Components of the meaning of drinks
tea                 +hot –alcohol
cola                –hot –alcohol
lemonade        –hot –alcohol
China tea        +hot –alcohol +’China’
Indian tea       +hot +alcohol +’Indian’
beer               –hot +alcohol
whisky            –hot +alcohol
Scotch whisky –hot +alcohol +’Scotch’
Irish whiskey   –hot +alcohol +’Irish’
single malt      –hot +alcohol +’Scotch’ +’single’
Campbeltown  –hot +alcohol +’Scotch’ +’single’ +Lowland
Laphroaig        –hot +alcohol +’Scotch’ +’single’ +Island

Semantic fields
meaning can be divided up into fields differently across languages

boil  fry  broil  bake
simmer  (full) boil  sautée  French-fry grill   barbecue  plank  roast  shirr  scallop
pan-fry  deep-fry


Apples (Williams et al): The most frequent adjectives used by professional tasters tasting Cox's Orange Pippins (with peel) in order of frequency:

juicy crisp chewy acidic tough astringent floury sweet green sharp stringy bitter Cox-like estery fruity sugary musty alcoholic scented core-like pear-like pineapple-like phenolic spicy fatty sulphurous banana-like

Word associations:
– clang: rhyming words, blue > shoe
– syntagmatic: continues a structure, blue > sky
– paradigmatic: chooses word from same word type, blue > red

Teaching uses:
— basic level words should be taught first
— some words may be taught through components of meaning
— it is how the word is practiced not how often, that is important
— remember students transfer L1 meanings as well as the words themselves 
— teaching should not separate words from their structural context


Appel, R. (1996), The lexicon in second language acquisition, in Jordens, P. & Lalleman, J. (eds) Investigating Second Language Acquisition, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 167-186

Arnaud, P. & H. Bejoint (eds.). 1992. Vocabulary and Applied Linguistics. Basingstoke:

Cieslicka-Ratajczak, A. (1994). The mental lexicon in second language learning, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 29, 105-117.

Cohen, A 1987 The use of verbal and imagery mnemonics in second-language vocabulary learning. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 9: 43-62

Cook, V.J. (1982), 'Kategorisierung und Fremdsprachenerwerb', Gegenwartige Probleme and Aufgaben der Fremdsprachen-psychologie, Karl Marx University, Leipzig (on-line)

Cook, V.J. (1992) 'Evidence for multi-competence', Language Learning, 42, 4, 557-591

Bahrick, H.P. & Phelps, E. (1987), 'Retention of Spanish vocabulary over eight years', J. Exp. Psychol: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 13, 2, 344-349

Dollerup, C., Glahn, E., & Hansen, C.R. (1989), 'Vocabularies in the reading process', AILA Review, 6, 21-33

Gairns, R. & Redman, S. (1986). Working with words: a guide to teaching and learning vocabulary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Groot, A.M.B. de (1992), Bilingual lexical representation: a closer look at conceptual representations. In Frost, R., & Katz, L. (eds.) Orthography, Phonology, Morphology, and Meaning, North Holland, Amsterdam

Grosjean, F. (1989), 'Neurolinguists, beware! The bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person', Brain and Language, 36, 3-15

Huckin, T., Haynes, M., & Coady, J. (eds.) (1993), Second Language Reading and Vocabulary, NJ: Ablex

Kellerman, E. (1986), 'An eye for an eye: constraints of the L2 lexicon', in Kellerman, E., & Sharwood-Smith, M. (eds.), Crosslinguistic Influences in Second Language Acquisition, Pergamon

Nation, P.1990. Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. New York: Newbury House/Harper Row.

Nation, I.S.P. (2001), Learning vocabulary in another language, CUP

Ridley, J. & Singleton, D. (1995). Strategic L2 lexical innovation: case study of a university-level ab initio learner of German, Second Language Research 11.2, 137-148.

Rosch, E. (1977), 'Human categorisation', in N. Warren (ed.), Studies in Cross-Cultural Psychology, New York, Academic Press

Schreuder, R. & Weltens, B. (eds.) (1993), The Bilingual Lexicon, Benjamins, Amsterdam

Service, E., & Craik, F.I.M. (1993). Differences between young and older adults in learning a foreign vocabulary. Journal of Memory and Language, 33, 59-74

Singleton, D. (1994). Learning L2 lexis: a matter of form? In G. Bartelt (ed.), The dynamics of language processes: essays in honor of Hans W Dechert. Tubingen: Narr.

Singleton, D. & Little, D. (1991). The second language lexicon: some evidence from university-level learners of French and German, Second Language Research 7.1, 61-82.


Models for L2 Vocabulary

From V.J. Cook Background to the L2 user, in Portraits

Mental Dictionaries; do L2 users have one or two lexicons?

a) inter-relationship between two lexicons. Caramazza & Brones (1979): reaction time for a word is sensitive to the frequency of its cognate in a second language. Cristoffanini et al (1986) morphemically unrelated translations do not influence performance while morphemically related words do. 'where individual words are concerned, the gist of our argument is that representation is language-specific, but only as an artifact of morphological independence. When this contrast is relaxed as it is with cognates, language is not a critical factor, and this conclusion must hold for individual units and for the lexicon as a whole' (Kirsner, 1986). Grosjean (1990) differential processing of non-words by L2 users suggests that the other language is still residually activated when a bilingual is in a monolingual mode as does evidence that bilinguals take longer to access codeswitched words in the bilingual speech mode than base language words in the monolingual speech mode.

b) neutral store leading to two lexicons. Miljkovitch (1980): word-list learning shows bilinguals group words from two languages into categories that exist in neither language. Potter et al, 1984 concept mediation hypothesis: the two lexicons are connected via 'an underlying amodal conceptual system'. Schwanenflugel et al (1986):semantic priming is mediated by a conceptual system shared by both the bilingual's languages. Beauvillain & Grainger (1987): words are treated differently that look the same in two languages but have different meanings, for example "coin" (English: piece of money) versus "coin" (French: corner). Grainger & Beauvillain (1987) used a similar logic to compare language-specific orthography such as "vieux" (French) and "month" (English) with language non-specific orthography, such as "brain" or "sapin". Neufeld (1976, p.32) put it, 'there is ample reason to question the popular concept that an individual who knows two languages possesses a separate internalised dictionary for each language'.

c) independent L1 and L2 lexicons. Lopez & Young (1975): memory for word-lists is 'supportive of the language interdependence hypothesis'. Kirsner at al (1980): 'lexical representation in bilinguals is language specific', i.e. stored by the word not by the lexicon. Clifton et al (1978): a translated word recognition task shows that L2 users store the words themselves in a language specific form.