A web site for the developing language teacher

The Value of Teaching Lexis in Combination
by Jake Haymes
- 1


The impact of Lewis' Lexical Approach and the emergence of vast computer generated lexicons such as the Birmingham Corpus, together with a move towards more learner centred approaches, appear to have raised the profile of vocabulary in recent years. Since more is now known about the lexis employed by native speakers, the climate is right to implement a more systematic and informed vocabulary syllabus. Previously, either because it was difficult to select, difficult to make systematic, or felt by structural linguists, such as Hocket, (1958) to be the easiest aspect of a second language "Vocabulary was necessary to give students something to hang on to when learning structures, but was frequently not a main focus for learning itself." Harmer (1991). By limiting learners to the minimum lexis required to activate structures, the sentence making machine was only able to produce output which was one dimensional and largely irrelevant to the learner's needs and interests. Patterns were not filled with the colour of vibrant or pertinent language and consequently remained uninternalised.

However, perhaps because lexical items, rather than structures or functions, describe the world and our feelings towards it in an emotionally expressive way, the learner has always had an innate desire to develop lexical competence. Certainly the most common question in my classrooms is 'how do you say…?'

Some areas of difficulty for the Spanish learner

Gairns and Redman (1986) suggest that "languages rarely divide up the world in exactly the same way" and this would seem to be the reason why learners often refer to 8.30 p.m. as the afternoon, wear clocks on their wrists and have fingers on their feet.

Items of vocabulary in L1 which are expressed in many ways in L2 cause considerable difficulty for the Spanish learner. The number 0 is expressed in several ways in English which is not the case in Spanish. Other problematic examples of which the teacher must be aware include how, like and as, take and carry to name a few.

Coe (1987) indicates that as a Latin based language, the Spanish learner has a tendency to employ cognates which, although serve to express meaning on one level, are often inappropriately formal. Students frequently employ permit and responsible in spoken production where a native speaker would prefer allow and in charge. Phrasal verbs in which meanings are more opaque cause particular difficulty partly because they are of Germanic origin and because they often consist of de-lexicalised verbs and particles, thus denying the learner the possibility of referring to Latin cognates or previous knowlegde (of the first meaning they were exposed to) as semantic touchstones.

Anglicisms, which are becoming increasingly pervasive in the L1, are often used erroneously in English. Parking as a concrete noun and footing, for example, do not exist and sueter (sweater) would be considered old-fashioned by most native speakers giving rise to further lexical confusion as well as stylistic inappropriacy.

Another obvious area of lexical difficulty is the use of common collocations. These are frequently mistranslated giving rise to non-standard variations such as a strong breakfast and an important illness. This type of error cannot be attributed to lack of lexical resources; students would be capable of producing a serious illness just as they do an important one, so the problem must lie in the way items are presented. Such items are often considered separately and are not always incorporated into the traditional word lists which focus on a particular semantic field. Thus, students will have a store of vocabulary related to health or food for example, but they are not trained to consider the collocates as intrinsic elements of these fields.

An indication of developing interlanguage is the tendency to employ more nouns and a fewer number of verbs to create multi-word units(1), for example; have a look, have a good time, have a rest. While these high frequency collocations also exist in Spanish, transfer is hampered by lexical and grammatical differences between the two languages, such as the use of a different verb in L1 or the definite article where the L2 equivalent would require a possessive adjective.(2) Similarly, there is a natural inclination to rely on the first items assimilated to express the same idea, so that learners would simply use look, enjoy or rest in this case.

1. In this assignment I have chosen to use multi-word items as the term to describe language which frequently combines to create meaning.
2. For example, to wash your hands and to pull your leg.

To page 2 of 3

To the lesson plan

Back to the articles index

Back to the top

Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us Online Development Courses    Lesson Plan Index
 Phonology — Articles Books  LinksContact
Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page

Copyright 2000-2016© Developing