Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof : “I only understand train station.” You might hear somebody in Germany say this to express a feeling of confusion or inability to follow a conversation. It comes from the idea that if you’re in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, you might only know a basic tourist phrase like “train station”, and that won’t get you very far! If you’ve ever tried learning a second language as an adult, you know there is a lot to learn, and you may also have realized that vocabulary knowledge plays a crucial role. According to best estimates, adult learners of a second language need to know at least 3000 word families (i.e., groups of words related to a core meaning, like “run” and “runner”) for everyday spoken communication, and a whopping 8000-9000 word families to easily understand written texts.1
But how can adult second language learners acquire so many words? When children are learning their first language, they are typically surrounded by lots of people speaking that language. But often in adult learning situations, the second language is not part of their daily environment. Examples of this include teenagers in high school foreign language classes (yes, teenagers are considered adults in the eyes of second language acquisition researchers!), or businesspeople taking evening language classes for professional development. With only a few hours a week devoted to the second language, there doesn’t seem to be enough time to learn all of the necessary vocabulary.
Adult second language learners face other challenges as well. Research has shown that words that refer to abstract concepts such as “knowledge” are harder to learn than words with more concrete meanings like “book.”2 A further complicating issue is that sometimes a word in a person’s first language has multiple meanings, and each of those meanings corresponds to a different word in the second language. For example, English speakers learning German have to learn that “goal” is translated as Ziel when referring to an aim or objective, and Tor when referring to sports. Research has shown that words with multiple translations are more difficult to acquire.3
Given these challenges, learning vocabulary in a second language as an adult may seem difficult, but don’t despair: There are ways in which it actually helps to be an adult! Unlike children learning language for the first time, adult learners already have a lot of world knowledge, which can serve as a stepping stone.4 Knowledge of their first language can also help. Many languages have cognates, or words that are similar in form and meaning across two languages (e.g., English “apple” and German Apfel), and adult learners tend to acquire these words easily.2 In addition, they are better at quickly memorizing and recalling larger sets of verbal information.5
Several researchers from Penn State’s interdisciplinary Center for Language Science (CLS) know just how important vocabulary is for adult second language learners. A recent study led by CLS faculty members Chaleece Sandberg and Carrie Jackson took up the challenge of helping learners build abstract word knowledge.6 Participants were prompted to think about the meaning of an abstract word (e.g., “grades”) by selecting appropriate descriptive phrases such as “can cause anxiety.” They did this activity with multiple abstract words all from the same category (e.g., “University”). The researchers tested the participants’ knowledge of these words by asking them to recall all of the words they know in the category “University.” Not only did the training help the participants to recall more of the abstract words, but it even helped them to produce concrete words in the category (e.g., “blackboard” in the category “University”) that were not part of the training, a phenomenon called generalization.
Dr. Sandberg and colleagues’ discovery that practice thinking about the meanings and descriptions of abstract words in a specific category leads to generalization to other words in that category provides more than just a useful tool for learning language. It also helps us to understand what it means to know a word. Researchers have hypothesized that people’s mental representations of words involve more than just information about the individual words themselves, and that connections to other words form an important part of a word’s meaning.8,9 Just like people exist in networks, so do words. For adult second language learners who already know a lot of words and concepts in their first language, these networks are especially important. Research like Dr. Sandberg and colleagues’ can give us new insights into how language works and can be used to help people perform the difficult task of learning vocabulary in a new language.
- Schmitt, N. (2008). Instructed second language vocabulary learning. Language Teaching Research, 12(3), 329-363.
- de Groot, A. M., & Keijzer, R. (2000). What is hard to learn is easy to forget: The roles of word concreteness, cognate status, and word frequency in foreign‐language vocabulary learning and forgetting. Language Learning, 50(1), 1-56.
- Bracken, J., Degani, T., Eddington, C., & Tokowicz, N. (2017). Translation semantic variability: How semantic relatedness affects learning of translation-ambiguous words. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 20(4), 783-794.
- Jiang, N. (2000). Lexical representation and development in a second language. Applied linguistics, 21(1), 47-77.
- Chi, M.T. (1976). Short-term memory limitations in children: Capacity or processing deficits? Memory & Cognition, 4(5) 559-572.
- Sandberg, C. W., Carpenter, E., Kerschen, K., Paolieri, D., & Jackson, C. N. (2019). The benefits of abstract word training on productive vocabulary knowledge among second language learners. Applied Psycholinguistics, 40(6), 1331-1362.
- Collins, A. M., and Quillian, M. R. (1970). Experiments on semantic memory and language comprehension. In Gregg, L. W. (ed.), Cognition in Learning and Memory. New York: Wiley.
- Aitchison, J. (2012). Words in the mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon (4th ed.). Chichester, England: Wiley-Blackwell.