Potential Differences in Adult Male Jordanians’ Employment of Morphology, Phonology, Syntax and Semantics-Knowledge in Incidental English Lexical Acquisition

Elaboration, 2016

23 Pages, Grade: 91.1




Research Questions

Literature Review

Deep lexical knowledge

Linguistic knowledge-based processes leading into incidental lexical acquisition

Linguistics knowledge source-clues

Morphology knowledge-based incidental lexical acquisition: Morphological analysis of word structure

Phonological knowledge-based incidental lexical acquisition

Syntactical knowledge-based incidental lexical acquisition

Semantic field knowledge-based incidental lexical acquisition


Data collection procedures and instrument

Data Categorization

Results and Discussion


The used LKSs and their frequency







This study aims at investigating the potential differences in employing different linguistic knowledge sources by adult male Jordanian English speakers. To this end, a lexical inferring test was used to instigate any previously acquired knowledge in morphology, phonology, syntax and semantics by 16 Jordanians. Data were then analyzed statistically and categorized according to the employed linguistic knowledge sources. Results showed that participants generally tended to use single linguistic knowledge source at a time. They relied more heavily and successfully on their previous knowledge in semantics followed by morphological analysis, whereas reliance on syntax was least used, followed by dependence on phonological relationships which was the most misleading. Differences appeared in terms of the frequency of using each linguistic knowledge source as well as the success of making use of each source. Differences can be ascribed to variance in length of individual's previous English learning experience and time given to formal instruction on applying their knowledge to reading-based lexical learning tasks. The study highlights the importance of knowledge in linguistics as a prerequisite to support cognitive processing, to overcome limited lexical knowledge and to facilitate lexical acquisition. The study has implications for lexical studies and second language acquisition.

Key Words: linguistic knowledge source, linguistic clue, lexical acquisition, cognition.


Given the popularity of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) as a research field for the learning of foreign languages, it is appropriate to examine the relationship of English lexical acquisition to other relevant areas of inquiry with the intention to help learners of English as a second language. This study aims at investigating the potential differences in the role of previously learned linguistic knowledge in Jordanians’ incidental English lexical acquisition. It explores the primary and secondary linguistic knowledge sources (LKSs) that are used by the adult male Jordanians to process and obtain the meaning of unfamiliar lexical items incidentally. By incidental lexical acquisition is meant the portion of second language (L2) vocabulary knowledge acquired in the sense that lexical items are acquired as a natural by-product of learners performing everyday linguistics activities and tasks. The study also highlights the most misleading LKS used.

The linguistic system of a natural language consists of four essential components: the lexicon, the syntax, the phonology and the semantics (Al-Najjar, 2007:15). The printed lexicon of the standard sociolect of a language comprises complex information about the vocabulary. Therefore, for one to acquire all English lexis is farfetched even to native English speakers, and it is much harder for English as a second language (L2) learners, especially if we take into consideration that "the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's third edition each contains about 500,000 words", exclusive of specialized and scientific terms (Davies, 1999:108).

Acquiring a certain level of lexical knowledge is a requirement for understanding, because of the direct causality-link between lexical knowledge and understanding a reading text (Laufer, 1992). Saying that, every time a reader faces new lexical item, he/she finds it inevitable to attempt to rely on some previously acquired linguistic knowledge (including sentence-level grammatical knowledge, word morphology, punctuation, discourse/text, homonymy, word associations, cognates, morphology, phonology, syntax, and semantic knowledge, etc.) to process information in an attempt to elicit and then acquire the meaning of that new item. Lawson and Hogben (1996:106) argue that good learners do not only use more linguistic knowledge-based strategies, but they also rely more heavily on certain processes than the less competent learners.

Applied Linguistics is an interdisciplinary field that mediates between the theory and the practice of language study, investigating the relationship between language forms and use, and between different kinds of discourse (Kramsch, 2002). Applied linguistics aims to introduce solutions to language related problems, and in this sense it can help L2 learners overcome the challenge of encountering new lexical items whilst reading.

Applied linguistics is presupposing linguistics, and one cannot apply what he/she does not possess (Davies, 1999:6). Along Davies’ line of thought, major areas of research of applied linguistics such as language acquisition and L2 literacy bring lexical acquisition into the heart of interest of applied linguists, even to researchers who have realized the significance of cognitive processing to acquire new lexical items (c.f., for example, Geeraerts, 1995). Cognitive linguistics sees language, including its lexical items, as embedded in the overall cognitive capacities of man (Geeraerts, 1995:111). Cognition is the process of knowing which in its completeness includes perception and judgment. Cognition includes all processes of consciousness by which knowledge is accumulated, such as perceiving, recognizing, conceiving and reasoning (Britannica.com).

By the term ‘lexical item’ the researcher means a unit of vocabulary; all types of words may be referred to as lexical items (Al-Najjar, 2007:95). A lexical item forms the basic element of a language's vocabulary, and it is either a single word such as push, or a chain of words such as look forward to. The lexical item-store of a language is called its lexis. Being in the heart of interest of applied linguists, lexical acquisition has recently been studied more thoroughly than ever, even more than grammar. The great interest in lexical items acquisition is due to a shift toward recognition that learning vocabulary prior to learning grammar and sentences leads to more success, and building lexical capacity is considered a solid foundation for tackling any other aspect of the language, and lexical knowledge is, therefore, considered "the building block of language" (Schmitt, Schmitt and Clapham, 2001:53). Lexical knowledge is one type of knowledge that is correlated to learners' understanding and reading ability (Nassaji, 2004), and it is essential for building linguistic capacity and communicative competence. For this and with the intention to help learners of English as a second language, lexical acquisition area of research has received an upsurge of interest (Paribakht and Wesche, 2009).

Krashen (2004) argues that vocabulary is best learnt through reading. This may justify the use of reading-based tasks in structured second language acquisition. Reading itself helps in lexical acquisition by creating opportunities for processes like inferring word meaning in context (Krashen, 2004). Moreover, lexical knowledge is sometimes looked at as “the single best predictor of English learners' academic achievement [which entails that] effective vocabulary instruction must be a goal of all educators working with English learners” (Wessels, 2011:1), even in the era of digital revolution we live in. Today, learners tend to read e-texts, instead of printed texts, as an electronic variety of written texts they may get access to on the internet, on a computer or on a personal mobile phone.

Saying that, exposure to digital media of reading texts could be either comprehensible or incomprehensible to the second language (L2) reader. Incomprehensibility underlines that unfamiliar lexical items are often a challenge for L2 learners (Segler, Pain and Sorace, 2002). Nevertheless, certain linguistic clues in the context of the lexical item itself may help make incidental lexical acquisition with the help of previous linguistic knowledge. This use of linguistic clues may compensate for one’s limited lexical knowledge.

Research Questions

This study aims at investigating the potential differences in the role of different LKSs in incidental lexical acquisition. It describes the nature of how a previously learned linguistic knowledge underlies the incidental lexical acquisition by L2 readers. It examines the utilized linguistic clues which will in turn highlight the employed LKSs (morphology, phonology, syntax and semantics). It sheds light on the process of “word-attack” (to use Oxford's, 1990, term), i.e. how readers may deal with the word itself as well as its co-text. In compliance with this aim, this study has the following focus research questions:

(1) What are the primary sources of linguistic knowledge that are used by adult advanced Jordanian English learners in incidental lexical acquisition?
(2) What are the secondary sources of linguistic knowledge that are used by adult advanced Jordanian English learners in incidental lexical acquisition?
(3) What are the common combinations of LKSs used, if any?
(4) What is the most misleading LKS used by Jordanian English learners?

Literature Review

In terms of word-formation, the vocabulary of the English lexicon is a composite of simplex words (e.g. great), complex words (e.g. co-operate), compound words (e.g. greenhouse), and complex-compound words (e.g. absent minded) as well as phrase-compounds that are lexicalized syntactic structures (e.g. dog in the manger) (Al-Najjar, 2007:59-60). The following sub-sections display some studies carried out on issues correlated to the area of research of the current study. This would help build up a clear picture of the issue under study.

Deep lexical knowledge

Various texts require varied levels of lexical knowledge, and “the higher the academic level, the greater the [lexical] mastery needed” (Paribakht and Wesche, 1999:196). This mastery is linked to the breadth and depth of lexical knowledge that are inseparably related (Li, 2003). This inseparability is well stressed in Qian and Schedl’s (2004) description: lexical knowledge includes four correlated aspects within the process of lexical use and development, namely, vocabulary size, depth of vocabulary knowledge, lexical organization which includes storage and connection of words in the mental lexicon, and automaticity of receptive-productive knowledge.

Broad lexical knowledge is related to the size of vocabulary, i.e. how many words a learner knows their meanings. Cobb (2007) sees that 2,000 most frequent vocabulary items are essential for basic L2 reading because they are likely to cover approximately 80% of the words in a text in general. Nation (2006) contends that much more vocabulary is necessary to read authentic texts, and she argues that 8,000–9,000 word families are required for better comprehension of texts. Saying that, studies (cf., for example, Cobb, 2007; Nations, 2006) reveal that there will always be a need to deal with new lexical items based on what texts you are reading.

Regarding the deep lexical knowledge, L2 learners need to have more than just a superficial understanding of the meaning. The depth dimension should cover such components as pronunciation, spelling, meaning, register, morphology, syntax, collocational properties, and frequency (Qian, 2002). Qian’s framework shows that the depth of lexical knowledge is as an important as vocabulary size and it comprises lexical characteristics such as phonemic, morphemic, semantic, collocation, and graphemic properties that play a significant role in reading comprehension.

Nation’s (2001:27) model of the distinction between receptive and productive word knowledge includes three main aspects: (1) form, including spoken form (how the word is pronounced), written form (How the word is written and spelled), and word parts (what parts in the word are recognizable), (2) meaning, including form and meaning (what meaning the word form signals), concept and referents (what items the concept can refer to), associations (what other words does this make us think of), and (3) use of the word, including grammatical functions (in what patterns the word occurs), collocations (what words or types of words occur with this one), and constraints of use (where, when, and how often would we expect to meet this word: register, frequency, etc.).

Laufer (1990:148) highlights six linguistic components of lexical knowledge: form (recognizing the spoken and written form, being able to pronounce and spell the word correctly), word structure (recognizing the basic morphemes and word derivations), syntactic pattern in a sentence, meaning, lexical relations with other words (synonymy, antonymy, hyponymy), and common collocations.

According to Nassaji (2004) study, in which he examined the relationship between L2 learners depth of lexical knowledge, learners' lexical inferencing, and their success in deriving word meaning from context, concludes that there is a significant relationship between the depth of lexical knowledge and the type of strategy used and the degree in success achieved. Nassaji’s (2004) results indicate that the students with stronger depth of lexical knowledge use certain strategies (morphological analysis, and grammar-based strategy) more frequently than those of weaker depth of lexical knowledge; and depth of lexical knowledge has made a significant contribution to success in making inferences about unfamiliar lexical items.

Linguistic knowledge-based processes leading into incidental lexical acquisition

Fraser (1999) carried out a study on lexical processes and has found that L2 learners tend to use various processes once they encounter unfamiliar words in a reading text. Fraser has found that about 50% of the adopted processes are lexical inferring strategies that were based on previous LKSs. This use of previous knowledge is one of the direct strategies which Oxford (1990:9) describes as being "guessing intelligently" compensatory process, which is "used to make up for limited [lexical] knowledge" (Oxford, 2002:128).

Corder's (cited in Davies, 1999) view of applied linguistics, which depicts "applied linguistics" as presupposing "linguistics", emphasizes that one cannot apply what she/he does not possess (Davies, 1999:6), and this suggests that in order to acquire a lexical item’s meaning while reading, L2 readers typically apply their prior linguistic knowledge.. This in turn highlights the role of gaining linguistic knowledge in lexical acquisition. Learning linguistics could become a prerequisite for applying such knowledge in lexical acquisition whilst reading. In this sense, the researcher of the current study assumes that taking advantage of prior linguistic knowledge and applying it to an unfamiliar lexical item in a reading task is one facet of application of linguistics. Saying that, with no prior knowledge in linguistics, efficient employment of viable cognitive processes for incidental lexical acquisition might be questionable. Making “informed” inferences based on prior knowledge in linguistics would involve operations of direct analysis, transformation or synthesis of learning materials (Haastrup, 1991). Such synthesis is based on linguistic clues available in context and it has the potential for leading into incidental lexical acquisition. This study describes learners' task in attempting to achieve lexical acquisition through inferring as a hybrid act that requires achieving two roles: first, acquiring linguistic knowledge (as a prerequisite) and second, being able to employ that knowledge to overcome limited lexical knowledge by inferring the meaning based on processing the clues of already gained linguistic knowledge.

Linguistics knowledge source-clues

For readers to look for linguistic clues to reach a judgment about the meaning of the unfamiliar lexical item, in this sense, their journey of lexical acquisition seems similar to other inference processes carried out by detectives who examine clues in a crime scene. Linguistic clues can be a helpful tool for learners to make informed inferring of the meaning, and at the same time a highlighter of what sources of linguistic knowledge that are used in the lexical acquisition process. Based on the previous accumulated knowledge in linguistics, readers can extract and acquire unfamiliar lexical items (Deschambault, 2012) by referring to linguistic clues and the context in which lexical items appear (Frantzen, 2003). Nevertheless, readers should bear in mind that the outcome of this compensatory process is uncertain and the possibility of failure is there (Rubin cited in Beebe, 1983:46).

According to McKoon and Ratcliff (1992), a clue is a piece of information that is embedded in the construction of a lexical item itself or appears near a lexical item, and offers direct or indirect suggestions about its meaning. Added to that, pieces of evidence/linguistic clues may imply that the more sources of linguistic information you have, the more able you become to activate clues. This might be true in light of Haastrup’s (1991) argument that over-reliance on one type (one linguistic knowledge-based type) of clues by readers means that other types of clues are not being activated, which would result in ineffective inferring and thus ineffective lexical acquisition process.

Many researchers have introduced types of knowledge sources and clues that help in incidental lexical acquisition through making informed guesses/ inferring. Nassaji (2003:655), for example, makes a distinction between learners’ appeals to knowledge sources and the used strategies. Nassaji defines knowledge sources as those “instances when the learner made explicit reference to a particular source of knowledge, such as grammatical, morphological, discourse, world, or L1 knowledge”. Moreover, Haastrup (1991) presents three main types of clues:

(1) Interlingual clues: clues related to the reader’s use of other languages than the target language, including reflections about the origin from which the target word is derived. In other words, interlingual clues-based inferences are judgments made by learners about the similarity in two or more languages.
(2) Intralingual clues: clues related to the reader’s use of the features of the target word such as phonology, orthographic similarity, dealing with morphology (prefixes, suffixes and stems), word class, and collocation. The ability to exploit intralingual clues presupposes that learners already have some knowledge of the target language, in particular.
(3) Contextual clues: clues that involve making use of the text and general knowledge of the world (i.e. that what the participant proposes is not taken exclusively from the text) including beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, factual knowledge, and diagrams, etc.

Haastrup’s analysis of 62 pair think-aloud protocols of Danish-speaking learners revealed that high-proficiency learners make more successful inferences and show more flexibility in using context clues than low-proficiency learners.

A study by Shen (2008) investigated 120 Thai students' abilities, difficulties, and strategy use in lexical inferring. Data were collected from students' retrospections immediately after a lexical inference test as well as a survey on a vocabulary strategy questionnaire. Shen analyzed his self-descriptive data collected from the incorrect answers according to Nassaji’s categories, to examine the students’ difficulties in the use of knowledge sources. Shen's results showed that most students had difficulty in using world knowledge and morphological knowledge to infer word meaning. Among the high-frequency-used linguistic knowledge-based strategies was ‘recognition of cognates’.

Paribakht and Wesche’s (1999) study, which underlined the relationship between reading and “incidental” L2 vocabulary acquisition, relied solely on the term knowledge sources to describe learners’ lexical incidental acquisition (through inferring) strategies, and they condense these knowledge sources under two major headings of clues: linguistic knowledge sources which include intralingual and interlingual clues, and extra-linguistic sources. Linguistic knowledge sources, in particular, will be utilized in this study.

Paribakht and Wesche (1999) conducted a retrospective study of lexical inferring with 10 intermediate-level ESL students in order to find out the knowledge sources and clues they use to understand the meaning of unfamiliar words in a passage. According to Paribakht and Wesche's (1999) results, students seem to regularly use extra-linguistic and linguistic sources of information. Extra-linguistic information includes the readers’ world knowledge, to which McKoon and Ratcliff (1992) refer as global inferences.

Paribakht and Wesche's linguistic sources of information refer to different levels of readers’ LKSs, including sentence-level grammatical knowledge, word morphology, punctuation, discourse/text, homonymy, word associations, and cognates (see Table 1 below, of Paribakht and Wesche’s (1999:2) taxonomy of knowledge source used in lexical inferring).

Table 1: Knowledge sources used in lexical inferring

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Paribakht and Wesche found learners most frequently using grammatical knowledge at the sentence level (35%), followed by morphological analysis of unfamiliar lexical item (15%) and their knowledge of the world (9%). The participants used sentence-level grammatical knowledge in lexical inferring, and sometimes combined that knowledge in grammar with word morphology, punctuation and world knowledge. Individual differences in the knowledge sources were attributed to “the individual's previous L2 learning experience, their L1 and their familiarity with the text topic” (Paribakht and Wesche 1999:214).

Morphology knowledge-based incidental lexical acquisition: Morphological analysis of word structure

In linguistics, morphology is the branch of grammar devoted to the study of the structure or forms of words, primarily through the use of the morpheme construct (Bowen, 1998). Morphology as LKS is essential for building L2 learners lexical capacity, given morphological analysis of word morphology is frequently employed by readers of all levels to infer the meaning of unfamiliar lexical items (Carlisle, 2004; Paribakht and Wesche, 1999).

Morphological analysis here means the process of deriving the meaning of a lexical item by analyzing its meaningful morphemes. Acquiring such a morphological awareness has a facilitative effect on reader’s extraction of constituent morphemes by breaking down unfamiliar words to extract inferences. In addition, readers who distinguish word formation (which studies lexical processes such as derivation, compounding, conversion, back formation, clipping, blending, etc.) and inflection of morphologically complex words can also determine the syntactic structure of the sentence, which doubles chances to extract word and phrase meaning.

It is, therefore, a prerequisite for readers to learn about English morphological formation rules and affixation of an element to a base morpheme, in addition to knowing the meaning of affixes. In this respect, there are three aspects of English morphological awareness: the relational aspect (the ability to determine whether a word can be divided into smaller units like the relation between educate and educator), the syntactic aspect (maneuvering segmented units of a word depending on their syntactic categories, as in the case of adding agentive suffix -or to make terminator) and the distributional aspect (to have an understanding of distributional constraints of segmented units of a word, as in understanding that creating words like printable and readable requires adding the suffix - able to the verb, not to the noun; and creating words like illegal, impossible, unbelievable, and ineffective requires adding the prefix(es) il/im/un/in to the adjective to obtain its opposite meaning).


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Potential Differences in Adult Male Jordanians’ Employment of Morphology, Phonology, Syntax and Semantics-Knowledge in Incidental English Lexical Acquisition
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potential, differences, adult, male, jordanians’, employment, morphology, phonology, syntax, semantics-knowledge, incidental, english, lexical, acquisition
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AWNI ETAYWE (Author), 2016, Potential Differences in Adult Male Jordanians’ Employment of Morphology, Phonology, Syntax and Semantics-Knowledge in Incidental English Lexical Acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/353469


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