First and second/ foreign Language

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

26 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of content

1. Introduction

2. Several Strategies of Lexical Acquisition
2.1 Fast-mapping
2.2 Whole object assumption
2.3 Mutual exclusivity
2.4 Taxonomic constraints

3. L1 Lexical Acquisition
3.1 Lexical Acquisition in infancy
3.2 L1 vocabulary development in the context of the acquisition of literary skills

4. L2 Lexical Acquisition
4.1 Naturalistic L2 acquisition
4.2 L2 lexical acquisition in formal instructional settings

5. L1 and L2 Lexical Acquisition and Grammar

6. L1 and L2 Lexical Acquisition compared
6.1 Similarities
6.2 Differences
6.3 Separation and/or Integration of L1 and L2 in the Mental Lexicon

7. Conclusion: What does it mean to know a word?


1. Introduction

“[T]he major challenge of learning and using a language – whether as L1 or L2 – lies not in the area of broad syntactic principles but in the ‘nitty-gritty’ of the lexicon.” (Singleton, 1999: 4)

With this statement Singleton asserts that syntax learning is comparatively simple to lexical acquisition. Because “language is largely a matter of words” (Singleton, 1999: 8), words are essential for “linguistic communication” (Singleton, 1999: 9). Therefore, many researches on the mental lexicon of the human first language (L1) have been published, and an increasing number of publications on second and/or foreign language (L2) acquisition – in particular L2 lexical acquisition – have raised interest also in this domain.

A crucial basis for research on L2 lexical acquisition is the awareness that the knowledge of at least one language is already present in the situation of acquisition. This basis leads to the following questions:

- How does first language lexical acquisition proceed?
- How does L2 lexical acquisition proceed in comparison to L1 lexical processes?
- To what extent are L1 and L2 mental lexicons separated from or integrated with each other?
- To what extent are L1 and L2 lexical acquisition connected to the acquisition of grammar?
- In what way does lexical processing work and what does it imply for lexical acquisition?
In this paper I do not only want to focus on these questions. Moreover, I want to consider the aspect of Foreign Language Education in terms of lexical acquisition. I will conclude my elaborations with regard to the question, what it actually means to know a word.

Nevertheless, I have to define some important terms which I will use frequently throughout the paper. L1 refers to the human mother tongue which is normally acquired during infancy and within the first few years of life. But L1 can also refer to a second bilingually acquired language with a mother-tongue-competence. On the contrary, L2 can refer to any other language which has been acquired after the acquisition of the native language. This does not necessarily have to be the second but can also be the fourth or sixth foreign language one acquires. Whenever I am referring to language learning, I normally mean lexical acquisition in particular, as this is the main focus of this paper. Moreover, I frequently use terms such as ‘word’, ‘lexical unit’, ‘lexical item’ etc., which I do not further differentiate. I use them rather synonymously.

2. Several Strategies of Lexical Acquisition

Firstly, I want to present some general assumptions about lexical acquisition. There are various circumstances under which it is possible to learn words. Bloom (2000: 6ff) sums up these circumstances in four points: (1) People can learn words without “spatial and temporal cooccurrence between the word and the meaning”. This means that one is able to learn new words without the referents of the words being present at the time of the usage of the new words. This does also include actions, which do not necessarily have to be observable by the language learner. (2) “[C]hildren do not need a full complement of sensory abilities to learn words”. In cases of blindness, deafness or other sensory deficits, people are still able to acquire vocabulary and understand it completely. (3) Language learners do not necessarily need either positive or negative feedback on their language production to learn the meaning of words. It is indeed helpful to receive affirmations or corrections for lexical acquisition but it is not essential. (4) “[C]hildren do not need ostensive naming for word learning”.

2.1 Fast-mapping

Fast-mapping is regarded as the first phase of lexical acquisition in which “grammatical, contextual and communicative information from the linguistic and non-linguistic context are being processed” (translated from Rothweiler, 1999: 253). This processing leads to a map of referent and meaning in the mental lexicon. Language learners are able to access these mental representations when necessary in order to further develop, revise or differentiate their maps. Rothweiler (1999: 256) explains that the frequency of input is an important factor of the quality and speed of fast-mapping. The higher the input rate, the faster and higher are the fast-mapping rates.

2.2 Whole object assumption

This strategy follows the principle that the learner applies a new word to the whole reference object and not only to a certain feature or characteristic of it (Rothweiler, 2001: 303). This means that in case language learners see an object, e. g. a dog, the learner does not refer the name ‘dog’ to only a part of the animal, e. g. the colour of its fur. Children in early language acquisition normally automatically assume that words for objects always apply to the whole object (Rothweiler, 2001: 309).

2.3 Mutual exclusivity

In case, the language learner already knows names for all possible objects present in a specific situation, he/she falls into conflict with the Whole-object-assumption strategy. Then, the learner usually looks for a new referent for the newly encountered word. This happens on the basis of the strategy of mutual exclusivity (Rothweiler, 2001: 309). This strategy makes the language learner assume that there is only one name for each object or category. They exclude names they already know from applying them to other objects which they do not yet know by name so that meanings can not overlap (Rothweiler, 2001: 320f.). In such conflict situations of lexical acquisition, it can also happen that the language learner applies the new name to only a part or feature of the whole object.

There is a major difference between L1 and L2 lexical acquisition through this strategy. When language learners acquire their first language, mutual-exclusivity strategies are very likely to be used. As soon as a language learner starts to learn another language, the learner has to accept that there are counterparts for already known words and concepts of their L1 in the L2. The lexical principle of mutual exclusivity can not be followed anymore, unless the learner differentiates between the two languages, and reapplies the strategy to the L2 in separation from the L1.

2.4 Taxonomic constraints

Another strategy of lexical acquisition is the use of taxonomic constraints which means that language learners relate already known words and objects to either thematic or taxonomic counterparts. For instance, they may relate white trainer socks as a basic already known concept to stockings through a taxonomic relation. A thematic connection would be a foot.

3. L1 Lexical Acquisition

3.1 Lexical Acquisition in infancy

Moore points out that the earliest preconditions for language acquisition are already set during pregnancy – even before the stage of infancy. These conditions – especially the auditory input the child gets – help the infant later to analyse and comprehend auditory information. She sums up the earliest stage of language acquisition, which already takes place in-utero, of one’s mother tongue in four items:

“i.) Individuals begin their oriented learning in utero, especially auditory information.
ii.) Infants are born with certain traits of their individual personality that may have been developed by sensory experiences in-utero.
iii.) During this time, infants habituate to stimuli that are repeatedly in their immediate environment. Following a period habituation, infants orientate to new information […].
iv.) Temporal frequency is important so that as more information of the same kind is mapped onto previous knowledge, increasing neural connectivity [is the result]. [T]herefore, early-learned material will be processed explicitly, whereas later-learned material will be incorporated implicitly.” (Moore, 2004: 87f.)

People often refer to first language acquisition at the stage of infancy, when children first actually process the linguistic input of their environment. This input is provided by all kinds of stimuli. However, Chomsky states that the data which is available to a child “could never provide sufficient evidence for the induction of the highly abstract syntactic foundations” (Singleton, 1999: 42) of a language. He refers to the “poverty of stimulus”, i. e. the linguistic input is not enough for a child to acquire full linguistic competence. Therefore, universalist linguists such as Chomsky assume that every human has got innate linguistic structures which enable one to acquire this competence, independently from the language itself. “Innatism” (Lightbown/Spada, 1999: 36) describes this concept of language acquisition as a “Universal Grammar”, which is an “[innate] conceptual apparatus” (Singleton, 1999: 42) with that a child lexicalizes its world.

However, it is still challenging for them to extract “units from the undifferentiated speech stream” in the first place (Singleton, 1999: 42). Children need to learn how to differentiate speech into meaningful units in order to be able to understand words and speech in general, and later, produce them themselves. This challenge is usually supported by the linguistic input of their caregivers or parents. Caregivers often slow down their speech, lengthen vowels and repeat certain words. This makes it easier for the child to get a grasp of the rhythm and intonation of speech, which is important to be able to extract linguistic units from the speech stream.

Moore (2004: 69) remarks that

“infants [are] […] innately equipped to process tone, stress vowel length, etc. of the world’s languages and they become attuned to phonemic contrasts in their linguistic environment during the first year. […] Once established, these are used to discover regularities in speech, where infants by nine months, show a ‘preference’ for listening to words rather than non-words […]. Infants show a ‘preference’ for listening to phoneme structures conforming to their own language […] implying language regularities are used to hypothesise word boundaries in speech streams. Furthermore, infants use the rhythm-type to decide which segmentation unit to use for further speech analysis […].”

These statements focus more on the receptive abilities of infants to comprehend language. The productive aspect of lexical acquisition in infancy normally proceeds in the way that the child tries to imitate the caregivers’ “sound chains” (Quetz, 1998: 272). It usually takes several months until the child’s sounds are of similar standard as the ones by the caregivers.

Not only the sound patterns but also the meaning of words is not immediately absorbed correctly. A child has indeed inner needs to “conquest an objective world” (Singleton, 1999: 42), and therefore, has to symbolize objects of this world. This means that it is an automatic process that children label objects and lexicalize their world.


Excerpt out of 26 pages


First and second/ foreign Language
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (IEAS)
Hauptseminar HS Applied Linguistics and Second/Foreign Language Education
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ISBN (eBook)
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First, Language, Hauptseminar, Applied, Linguistics, Second/Foreign, Language, Education
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Evelyn Schmitz (Author), 2007, First and second/ foreign Language , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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