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Lexis: changing attitudes
by Jane Herbertson
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"Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed": Wilkins (1). This reflects a change of attitude towards the role of lexis. Sökmen (p239) likens it to a pendulum, comparing the importance of lexis within the Grammar Translation approach (where it was explicitly taught) to the Communication Approach (where it was incidental). She suggests this pendulum has swung back today to the middle ground, being taught both explicitly and implicitly. Nunan (p117) claims it was neglected by Audio-linguists (during the middle of the last century), citing Hockett (1958) "vocabulary was the easiest aspect of a second language to learn and that it hardly required formal attention in the classroom".

I will attempt to explain why I believe lexis is important, before considering the general problems for adult learners of English. I shall then discuss the change in status of lexis and consider one particular approach available to teachers. Finally, I intend to draw general and specific conclusions about my current/future practice.

Why is Lexis Important?

"Vocabulary knowledge enables language use…"(2). And thus communication. Without lexis we will fail to achieve our objectives on occasions. If we enter a shop and want to buy something (which is not visible) then, no matter how much grammar we employ, we will not succeed. Even without the actual word, we can employ strategies to achieve our end but these will generally involve lexis too. Lewis goes further, arguing not only can lexical errors cause misunderstanding and incomprehension but 'in rare cases even offence' (p16 (3)).

One cannot read or listen without a knowledge of vocabulary. How can one appreciate the depth of meaning implied in discourse or become fluent conversationalists if lexis is not involved?

"Lay people believe that knowing a language means knowing words" (4) and students come to classes with this in mind. Lexis is important at every level. Students at low levels complain that they do not have enough vocabulary. As they become more proficient, they acknowledge that they have learnt much of the basic grammar (they will meet nuances in the rules, they will need more opportunities to develop their interlanguage but we are generally not teaching anything absolutely novel). By contrast, with lexis there is always something new to be learnt (even for native speakers) and students need to continue acquiring lexis for a deeper understanding of the language.

General Problems for Adult Learners

'What's the word for….(L1 example given)? is typically heard in language classes. If we can provide a direct translation (sometimes this is not possible (5)), learners face other problems with reception and/or production when meeting a lexical item, some of which are:

• Antonyms are not as straightforward as they first appear - an old book and a new book may be the correct choice of opposites but what about an old man and a new man
Collocation: roaring fire. Choosing the right combination conjures up the right images between listener and speaker expressing certain nuances of meaning which would be lost with say a large fire (although grammatically correct)
Connotations: the famous murderer/notorious murderer - similar to collocational use (ie the learner needs to learn the right partner) to convey an exact meaning
False friends: existing between many languages - Spanish/English: actual /actually
Homonyms: single word with several different meanings: row (a boat)/(stand in a) row
Homophones: deer/dear
Multi-word items (6) (especially those which are relatively opaque: butter up)
Register: is the item appropriate in a certain context?
Synonyms: the pretty little dress/the pretty small dress

These problems are concerned with knowledge of the lexical item and it can be seen that to really know it, one has to go further than its form and surface meaning. Even the sound of the word may be 'distorted' in its spoken form (7).

To this I would add a more general problem, that of exposure. Learners, in their own countries, simply do not meet the lexical item enough to learn it (8). My own experience of listening to Spanish radio daily (presenting lexical items almost repetitively) provides plentiful opportunities for noticing, guessing the word in context (or checking in the dictionary).

1 Cited by Thornbury (p13) & Lewis (p16) - no references given in either case
2 Nation, 1993a, cited by Nation & Waring
3 Implementing the Lexical Approach
4 Dubin & Olshtain (1986:111-12) cited by O'Dell
5 eg el responsable in Spanish, using a noun (and article) in English would be the person responsible ie responsible can have different usage
6 Moon includes compounds, phrasal verbs, idioms, fixed phrases and prefabs
7 eg contractions, weak forms, native speakers do not pronounce clearly the ends of some words especially when there are consonant clusters
8 see 'General and Specific Conclusions about my Current/Future Practice'

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