Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition and Computers
California State University, Sacramento
Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition and Computers
Learning a second language is a daunting task, involving mastering a new sound system, grammatical and syntactical forms, vocabulary, and sometimes a new writing system. For the adult second language learner, one of the most frustrating aspects is having an inadequate vocabulary for expressing complex ideas that are so easy to relate in one’s native tongue. The acquiring of new vocabulary becomes one of the most important tasks as one strives for fluency in the second language.
Addressing vocabulary acquisition raises a number of questions: How much vocabulary does an English language learner need? Which words should be learned first? What the best way to learn/teach the vocabulary? Can new technologies assist the process?
How Large a Vocabulary Does a Learner Need?
The questions about how many words an English learner needs to know and how to learn vocabulary are intertwined. Of course, the number of words that are important to a person may depend upon the learner and his occupation and goals. A doctor is going to need a much more extensive vocabulary than a truck driver. But what about a general starting point? Looking at “word families”, Nation and Read (Nation, 1997, p. 6-19) found that more than 80% of the words used in most texts, both academic and non-academic, are from the first 2000 words in the classic word list used by researchers, writers and teachers, the General Service List (GSL). Although it was started in 1936 and, after being interrupted by World War II, finished in 1953, a revision by Robert Waring in 1995 updated the General Service List and made it accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. (Waring, 2005)
Approaches to Learning Vocabulary
Mastering the General Service List is a good starting place for all English language learners. In novels for teenagers, for example, 96% of the words come from the General Service List. This last figure illustrates how vocabulary level can influence the teaching/learning approach. Acquiring vocabulary can be looked at, as consisting of four or two approaches, depending upon your viewpoint. The four point division has (a) direct teaching (teacher explained and peer directed), (b) direct learning (study from dictionary and word cards), (c) incidental learning (guessing from context in extensive reading and use in communication activities) and (d) planned encounters (graded reading and vocabulary exercises) (Nation, 2001).
The other way of dividing the approaches to vocabulary learning is to divide methods into explicit and implicit learning. Explicit learning focuses the learner’s attention on the vocabulary; implicit learning focuses attention on communication and vocabulary learning is incidental (Hunt et al., 2005). Implicit learning has been advocated by key theorists such as Stephen Krashen who divided language learning between acquisition, where the learner has low threshold, subconscious interaction with the target language and the formal, grammar teaching learning approach (Schutz, 2005;Krashen 2003b) .Those who hold to the explicit approach believe that implicit knowledge can be informed by explicit learning, particularly the development of learned patterns that can be reproduce readily and become part of a person’s language inventory (de Graaff 1997)
Research on the Effectiveness of Computers
in Language Learning
Computer and technology aren’t necessarily explicit or implicit; they can enable and support both types of learning. The literature on the effectiveness of using computers to teach language is largely inconclusive. In the past, much of the focus in research was on how you might present language materials on the computer. The effectiveness of the use of computers wasn’t studied as much; often, it was naturally assumed that the computer had to be an effective tool for second language acquisition. (Warschauer, 1998) . The research that has been done has been faulted for a number of problems, including the lack of consensus on what works and doesn’t work, limited populations (especially the focus on university students when most of the ESL students are K-12) use of mixed methodologies that make it difficult to compare studies, and failure to factor in the potential negative (fear and intimidation) and positive (novelty of using a computer) effects (LeLoup, 2003) . In a review of the field of SLA research, Chapelle (1997) offers notes that focusing on the goal of teaching may enable research in the field to be more useful. Since teachers are striving to teach students to be ale to communicate, the goal of research ought to be how the instruction affects the language used by students.
The purpose of this literature review is to inform the teacher/action researcher’s work, by looking at what research has to say about effective vocabulary acquisition activities and the use of the computer in second language vocabulary acquisition. It is hoped that the findings of the review will inform the teacher’s design of sound computer-based vocabulary acquisition activities.
Research on Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition
Some research studies have shed interesting light on the typical classroom practice of teaching vocabulary. Three basic types of vocabulary learning have been the focus for much of the research: explicit , strategy, and implicit. If applied, knowledge of that research shows promise for improving vocabulary teaching and learning. For example, texts and teachers often put similar semantic words like hot and cold together in lessons. However, at least two studies have shown that semantic clustering actually confuses the learner (“Which is hot? What is cold?” and makes it difficult to sort out the meaning of new vocabulary (Tinkham, 1997). Finkbeiner and Nicol found that recall of vocabulary items was much slower for when words were taught semantically instead of randomly (Finkbeiner and Nichol, 2003).
Extensive Reading for Implicit Vocabulary Learning
One aspect of implicit vocabulary learning that has received a great deal of attention is extensive reading. Extensive reading of books self-selected by students, ihas been of interest since promises to provide comprehensible input, a key element in Krashen’s language acquisition theory. The retention and understanding of vocabulary learned through recreational reading at one’s level is much higher than that obtained through explicit learning. (Krashen, 2003b) However, according to Nation and Hu, if a language learner is to successfully learn vocabulary from context and not become frustrated, the vocabulary the student needs to know about 98% of the words in a text (in Waring, 2002).
While extensive reading seems to be one of the best ways to learn vocabulary, the rate of learning is very slow. For one hour of reading, 3-6 new words are learned. In a year, for the average student, that would amount to somewhere between 150-500 words learned. Hill and Laufer calculated that, based on their review of the research, a second language learner “would have to read eight million words, or about 420 novels, to acquire 2000 words (Hill and Laufer, 2003). For all students, but particularly adult students needing to acquire professional vocabulary for study at the university level, reading alone is not sufficient to gain the vocabulary needed. Extensive reading has to be accompanied by focused vocabulary study. The use of academic word lists is suggested. Long term retention of vocabulary learned in such practice has been shown to be problematic (Groot, 2000) .
The most common answer to the need for comprehensible text for language learners is to use graded readers with a limited vocabulary range. However, a study of the use of a graded reader found that the number of times that a word has to be presented to a student in order to be retained over a three month period is about 18, more times than a word would typically be presented in a graded reader. Noticing, drawing more attention to new words by some device such as highlighting, was suggested as a possible answer (Waring, 2003). The ease of making a word stand out in electronic text, through font changes, color, hyperlinks, and size changes provide a possible answer to if indeed noticing is a key part of learning new vocabulary. (Ghadirian, 2005)
Sometimes there is a crossover between implicit and explicit vocabulary learning. One of the more promising findings about vocabulary learning is the value of learning lexical units, words that appear together repeatedly. Learning lexical units enables quicker recall and easier fluency than learning words in isolation. (Porto, 1998). Lexical units are “ideal units for teaching”. (p. 22). Corpus linguistics is a burgeoning field that collects and analyzes actual texts using computers. Resources for teachers and researchers enable the easy identification of lexical units. For example, there are concordancers, specialized computer search engines that can search a large group ("corpus") of texts and provide the surrounding context for a word. In theory, this should provide a learner with a better understanding of how to use the word and which words the word s usually associated with. Teachers who have used concordancers in the classroom report that students have become more aware of the language and more enthusiastic about the learning (Ma, 1993).
Incidental vocabulary learning is apparently most successful when accompanied by exercises where students attention is drawn to new words. Rieder did a study with German English learners where nonsense words were substituted for actual words and then students were tested and interviewed about the words. With reading alone, there wasn’t enough attention paid to new items to have the new words register in the learners’ memories (2003). As is often the case in research, this finding may be contradicted by the work of Hermann, who found there was no significant difference in vocabulary acquisition between ESL learners who were given a vocabulary list before reading the novel Animal Farm and those who were not, when measured over a three week period. (2003).
The type of task that students are asked to do with new vocabulary can significantly improve recall. Hill and Laufer compared three different tasks in a computer-based learning situation where Chinese university students in Hong Kong had access to glosses that gave them Chinese translations and English definitions. The task that focused on selecting a synonym for the target vocabulary produced the best results. The task that looked at the word in a sentence and required giving the meaning of the sentence in which it appeared to give the poorest results (2003) .
Chapelle’s (1997) direction to focus on the communicative aspect of language learning sheds light on the usefulness of studies. For example, a controlled study of students of Spanish examined the effectiveness of teaching the morphological roots of Spanish words. Students in the control and experimental groups did not show any difference in their acquisition of new vocabulary. The experimental group, however, was better able to create “words” that were acceptable to native speakers and second semester students showed more understanding of Spanish morphology. This would seem to indicate that the experimental group students could better use the word in communication (Morin, 2003) .
With the foregoing as background, let’s turn to examining some of what is being done with computers in the field of second language vocabulary acquisition, both implicit and explicit learning, and some of the studies done to determine its effectiveness.
Vocabulary Learning and Computers
.An example of explicit language learning that uses computers is the work done at San Francisco State by Nagata. While some studies have shown little difference between book-based and computer-based language learning, Nagata suggests that the difference may be in design. Using an intelligent program designed to give the user feedback on errors, Nagata found that learners who used the computer for learning Japanese vocabulary were able to produce words much more readily and also had a much better attitude toward their learning (1996) .
While extensive reading for implicit learning is primarily done with books and magazines, there are a few technology tie-ins which are possible. One popular program used with K-12 students is Accelerated Reader, a database of many of the popular books for that age bracket which includes cloze tests to check students’ understanding of what they have read. With Accelerated Reader testing, students or teachers can identify the reading level of the student and then find books that are at that level which fit the student’s interests. The software has mixed reviews, though, largely because of a connected incentive program and the multiple choice testing that are part of the program (Krashen, 2003a;Topping, 1999). Besides Accelerated Reader, there are also tools for teachers to determine the reading level of material. These computer programs allow teachers to collect texts in a computer directory and then the software analyzes the texts and provides information. Two open source programs have been developed In one case, the software sequences the readings according to difficulty level.
Computers and video editing technology offer teachers the opportunity to present pictures, video, and hyperlinked glosses (glosses are short explanations of terms that may be unfamiliar to students) to enable learners to make associations with new vocabulary and facilitate learning.. Using multimedia computers in a doctoral study, Iheanacho (1997) examined the performance of two groups of Japanese language learners, one used motion video and the other used still pictures. The performance and retention of the two groups was similar; both demonstrated the usefulness of the computer in learning vocabulary. Another study comparing students reading texts with still pictures and definitions/glosses and video and glosses found that the group using video scored much higher (Al-Seghayer, 2001). .
The fields of corpus linguistics and web technology open up new possibilities for language learning. In a small study with six struggling students, a web-based concordancer parsed requested news articles and highlighted the frequency of words and the surrounding words (collocations). In this study, then, the participants were doing extensive reading of news articles they searched for, with the additional element of a concordancer, combining explicit and implicit learning. The study’s participants were very positive about the study’s results (Tian, n.d.) .
While the use of multimedia computers in language learning appears to offer very positive effects, sometimes studies present mixed results for the superiority of technology over traditional approaches. For example, Groot approached the problem of learning academic vocabulary through use of the computer, comparing students learning with bilingual lists with those that used a computer program that encouraged students to do intensive processing with words, conjecturing meanings, and providing words for cloze exercises. For immediate learning, the bilingual paper list group scored higher. When tested over time, though, the group that learned with the computer program scored much higher (Groot 2000) .
The Future of Computers and Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition
What does the future hold for computer technology in second language vocabulary acquisition?. A European applied linguistics group’s work provides one potential answer. They’ve developed a web-based application that analyzes web pages, annotates them with clickable text and pictures glosses, enables learners to save words to personal lists for study, and creates a cloze exercise. The project is in the prototype stage so its effectiveness has not been studied, but, based on what we know about vocabulary learning, its design seems very promising.
In another prototype project, MIT researchers have developed a unique implicit approach that involves learners with cutting edge voice recognition and communication-based activity. They have designed a system that responds to an English speaker’s requests for weather information in both English and Mandarin Chinese and gives back answers in Mandarin. Through interaction with the computer, the language student learns to form correct sentences to ask about the weather (Zenoff, n.d.). .
With such exciting technology on the horizon, research needs to continue to determine what is most effective in learning the vocabulary of a second language so that programs be designed to make the most effective use of the technology.
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