Acquiring Foreign Language Vocabulary Through Meaningful Linguistic Context: Where is the Limit to Vocabulary Learning?

Abstract

The present studies examined the effects of varying degrees of unfamiliar vocabulary within written discourse on individuals’ abilities to use linguistic context for the purposes of translation and comprehension (i.e., lexical inferencing). Prose varied in the number of foreign words introduced into each sentence (e.g., 0 through 7 content words per sentence). Furthermore, Krashen’s Input Hypothesis and the Evaluation component of the Involvement Load Hypothesis were tested to determine the degree at which non-comprehensible input hinders the ability of a learner to successfully use linguistic context for translation and comprehension. Results indicated that, as the number of foreign words per sentence, i.e., non-comprehensible input, increased the ability to successfully translate foreign words and create situational models for comprehension begins to decrease especially beyond five unfamiliar words per sentence. This result suggests that there is an optimal level of effectiveness in the use of a linguistic context strategy for learning foreign language vocabulary, but also that there is a limit to the strategy’s effectiveness. Implications and applications to the field of foreign language learning are discussed.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Even though categorization of bilingualism status was based on a binary choice task (i.e., Yes or No), a secondary method to identify bilingualism status was used. A self-report Likert scale (1–9) required participants to self-evaluate themselves on four dimensions of language knowledge (i.e., Reading, Writing, Understanding, and Speaking) for English and Spanish. Participant averages were created across the four dimensions to create one average proficiency score for each language. Subsequently, all participants who met the criteria of obtaining an average Spanish and English proficiency self-rating of 7 or greater, higher scores indicating higher self-perceived proficiency beliefs, and who self-categorized as bilingual, were categorized as bilingual. Participants who self-categorized as bilingual but did obtain the criteria of 7 or greater, were excluded from the study. Although using a self-rating scale is not standard practice for identifying proficiency levels, Grosjean (1998) has suggested that the use of self-ratings significantly correlate with standardized measures of proficiency and can be used as a valid method by which to identify general proficiency levels. As such, through the use of the binary choice task and the self-report measure of proficiency, bilinguals in this study are believed to be a representative sample of the population.

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Correspondence to Bernardo de la Garza.

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de la Garza, B., Harris, R.J. Acquiring Foreign Language Vocabulary Through Meaningful Linguistic Context: Where is the Limit to Vocabulary Learning?. J Psycholinguist Res 46, 395–413 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10936-016-9444-0

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Keywords

  • Linguistic inferencing
  • Context learning
  • Vocabulary learning