by Jane Herbertson
"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
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.
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:
Homonyms: single word with several different meanings: row
(a boat)/(stand in a) row
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
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
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
7 eg contractions, weak forms, native speakers do not pronounce
clearly the ends of some words especially when there are consonant
8 see 'General and Specific Conclusions about my Current/Future
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