Compare L1 and L2 Mental Lexicon

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SSLA, 23, 41–69. Printed in the United States of America.

COMPARING THE L1
AND L2 MENTAL LEXICON
A Depth of Individual Word
Knowledge Model

Brent Wolter
Hokkaido University

This paper explores the possibility that, contrary to the findings of past studies, the L1 and L2 mental lexicon may in fact be structurally similar, with depth of individual word knowledge determining a given word’s degree of integration into the mental lexicon. The paper begins by reviewing the body of evidence relevant to the research question, and then presents the design and results of an investigation comparing nonnative and native speaker patterns of responses in light of depth of word knowledge scores. In discussing the results of the study, a tentative model for the process by which words are integrated into the mental lexicon is proposed, and the long-standing belief that a shift from predominantly syntagmatic to predominantly paradigmatic responses is indicative of lexical development is challenged.

Although researchers have historically been cautious in their attempts to devise any definitive model for the structure of the L2 mental lexicon, the results of L2 studies in this area have generally supported the notion that it is in many ways fundamentally different from that of the L1. Channell (1990) concluded, after reviewing the body of L1 and L2 research, that “evidence that I am indebted to the Editor and Assistant to the Editor of SSLA as well as to the four anonymous SSLA reviewers for suggestions on an earlier version of this paper. Special thanks to Brent Culligan and to all the participants for their help with this study.

Address correspondence to: Brent Wolter, Institute of Language and Culture Studies, Hokkaido University, Nishi 8, Kita 17, Kita-ku, Sapporo, Japan 060–0817; e-mail: wolter@ilcs.hokudai.ac.jp.  2001 Cambridge University Press 0272-2631/01 $9.50

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Brent Wolter

the L2 user’s mental lexicon of a given learner resembles the L1 user’s mental lexicon is sparse” (p. 29). Similarly, Meara (1982, 1984), drawing on the results of a series of word association tests known collectively as the Birkbeck Vocabulary Project, claimed that “there are good reasons for believing that there might be significant differences between the lexicon of a learner and that of a native speaker” (1984, p. 231). More specifically stated, the results of Meara’s studies indicated that (a) the connections between words in the second language learner’s mental lexicon are less stable than the connections of native speakers, (b) phonology appears to play a much more prominent organizing role in the L2 mental lexicon than it does for native speakers, and (c) the semantic links between words tend to differ in a systematic way from those of native speakers.

However, the bulk of the data generated through word association tests for native speakers has been limited to a relatively small number of fairly common prompt words that tend to elicit a similarly limited set of fairly predictable responses. In the few cases in which lower frequency words have been used as prompt words, the pattern of responses has been quite different, resulting in what could be classified as a substantial number of “childlike” or even “nonnativelike” responses (Postman, 1970; Stolz & Tiffany, 1972). Furthermore, research has shown that nonnative speakers tend to demonstrate a developmental shift in patterns of response type, which, on the surface at least, parallels the shift in patterns of response type demonstrated by native speaker children.

When viewed as a whole, the results of past studies are enough to prompt the question of whether or not apparent deviations observed in the responses of nonnative speakers are the result of a structurally different L2 mental lexicon, or perhaps a structurally similar, although in many cases smaller, L2 mental lexicon. The purpose of this study, then, is to attempt to devise and test a model of the L2 mental...
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