Review of Paul Nation, Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2001. 477 + xiv pp.
Reviewed by Tom Cobb, Dépt. de linguistique et de didactique des langues, Université du Québec à Montréal, 9 January 2002, for Canadian Journal of Linguistics.
Until recently, vocabulary learning was seen as peripheral to language acquisition, both theoretically and practically. Linguistic theory assigned word learning to a simple functional-associative model which of course could not accommodate syntax, and applied language researchers and teachers largely concurred with this view in an effort to be aligned with proper theories, and also in the knowledge that vocabulary was anyway too vast a quantity for direct instruction (but fortunately could be picked up more or less by itself).
Much of this view has now been reversed. Theoretically, it now seems likely that language acquisition begins with word learning rather than syntax triggering, with words gradually "grammaticalized" through experience on a largely associative basis. Practically, studies throughout the 1980s and 1990s showed that vocabulary skill and knowledge are the precondition for most other language abilities and, in addition, the main source of variance in the final state of such abilities. It now seems clear that vocabulary acquisition does not happen by itself to any satisfactory degree, particularly as needed for first language literacy or a second language generally. Lexical growth must therefore be provisioned in language instruction. Yet one perception that has not changed is that the lexicon is dauntingly vast. It is not obvious that, or how, lexical growth can be affected by instruction to any useful extent.
The applied linguist who has done most to demonstrate that and how a lexicon can be a subject for instruction is Paul Nation, along with his colleagues and students from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. Drawing together several earlier word frequency studies and validating and extending them with computational corpus analysis, Nation and colleagues have argued that the core vocabulary of a language can be identified and used as a systematic and comprehensive basis for testing and instructional design in language teaching. A program of research on this and related ideas extending back to the 1970s and comprising dozens of small, precise experimental studies came together in 1990 in a now classic volume, Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. For anyone who read it, this book definitively returned vocabulary to the ESL/EFL syllabus (or that of any language).
The core idea of the 1990 book is that through careful analysis of both the target language and the needs of particular groups of learners, instructable portions of a second lexicon can be identified and the effects of knowing them predicted. For example, computer analysis shows that about 80% of the individual words in most written English texts are members of the 2000 most frequent word families, so that any second language reading course should ensure that its users meet and know these words. After roughly the 2000 mark, however, the pay off for direct learning trails off, and at that point learners should either rely on inferencing strategies or else move on to direct study of items that are frequent not in the language at large but in chosen areas of study or interest such as academic texts in general or domains of study like economics in particular. Either way, the goal is to arrive at a point where 95% of the running words are known in an average text, which a series of experiments show is the point where independent reading and further acquisition through inference become reliable. The book included a series of frequency based tests to enable course designers to determine where their learners are, lexically speaking, and hence what type of approach will best reward their continuing investment of time and energy. This systematic approach to vocabulary growth contrasts strongly to most of the approaches that preceded it.
So the question that poses itself now is, What's new in 2001? Almost unbelievably, nearly 25% of the roughly 600 studies cited in the new book are post-1990. Vocabulary research has clearly taken off, much of it inspired by the earlier book and its framework. The Nation group appears to be at the centre of a rare occurrence in the fledgling discipline of applied linguistics, the establishment of an abiding program of research. The emphasis in this program is not entirely on the new, however, since another near 25% of the studies are from before 1970 (some long before), confirming the continuity of vocabulary research before and after the Chomskyan interregnum.
Learning vocabulary in another language pushes forward on almost every front; space permits only a brief listing here. Mainly, what it means to know a word is much more developed than in the previous volume. The cumulative nature of word knowledge, the components of word knowledge, the different types of word knowledge (active and passive, declarative and procedural) are incorporated into the framework and moreover into the practical instruments on offer for the course designer or teacher. For example, the tests already mentioned now appear in several standardized versions as well as active and passive formats, along with a new 0-1000 level test that was notably lacking in the previous book (the most frequent 1000 word families comprise 90% of spoken English and hence this test will provide crucial information for designers of speaking and listening courses). The University World List (UWL) of high frequency academic vocabulary across disciplines is replaced by the shorter yet more powerful Academic Word List (AWL) on the basis of coverage evidence from corpus analysis.
Over the course of the book, a number of the sacred cows of vocabulary teaching are toppled by research findings. For example, there is no reason that learners should not use L1-L2 translation equivalents to remember words, and some good reasons that they should. There is no reason that learners should not use bilingual dictionaries. Words should not be presented in closely related groups (this causes interference and forgetting). Natural occurrence will not furnish learners with even a minimal lexicon. The debate that has raged for decades between direct teaching of vocabulary and strategy training is sterile: these are simply applicable to different and definable stages of learning. Teachers may find these ideas counterintuitive, yet the evidence seems clear.
Vast amounts of recent corpus linguistic and psycholinguistic research have been thoughtfully digested and incorporated. New sections deal with recent work on the collocational nature of lexical knowledge, on language testing, on the conditions of vocabulary acquisition, and on the issues attached to strategy training. Complex research is synthesized and summarized in plain language, and unambiguous pedagogical implications invariably follow--the work contains dozens of concrete ideas for teaching, testing, and learning. And throughout, open issues are indicated where Master's studies or instructional design projects might usefully be focused. The whole framework is ripe for application to other languages (such as French). The book is backed up by substantial Internet resources; an even more complete bibliography of vocabulary research is available online, as are most of the wordlists and software tools used in the various studies.
However, the book is not without imperfections. In some places, it may have been let down by its editors at Cambridge University Press. There are references to line number in texts without lines (p. 186); the UWL and AWL word lists are confused at least once (p. 17); similarly the terms "decontextualized" and "contextualized" (p. 64). On another level, the chapters of the book have clearly been written as somewhat independent modules, and the editors have sometimes failed to weave these together. Studies that have already been cited in one context are sometimes cited later in another, but without signposting words like "In a study previously mentioned…" Readers are unlikely to remember every study they have previously encountered, and even the author himself has occasional difficulty holding it all together. In one study of acquisition from story reading, a correlation of .42 between word learning and importance of word to plot is described as "moderate" (p. 64) and then later as "strong" (p. 118). A sharp editor might have queried this; however, not every slip can be laid at the editor's door. In referring to a Quebec study of the classroom as a lexical environment (Meara, Lightbown & Halter, 1997), the author writes that "the learners were exposed to plenty of unknown words" while the actual finding was that they were exposed to no more words than they would have been in a 1960s audiolingual classroom with explicit limitations on new vocabulary.
On another level, as a vocabulary researcher myself I wonder about some of Nation's emphases and omissions. For example, he devotes a chapter to acquisition strategies and the instruction thereof. There is an unresolved question about strategy training for language learners, which is that any strategy we are imparting may already exist in the learner's first language (L1) repertoire but cannot be activated in L2 until a certain threshold of language proficiency is reached. And, hence, do we not serve learners better by helping them across the proficiency threshold rather than teaching them the strategies they (probably) already have? Since all L2 learners have acquired one lexicon in their lives, presumably through implicit strategies of contextual inference and cumulative hypothesis testing, the case for further inference training is not obvious. Especially since there are studies showing that strategy variance "explained only about 20% of the variance" in L2 vocabulary size (p. 225). I was hoping to find an exploration of this issue in the section on strategy training.
But these are minor criticisms. Reading this book has been tremendously satisfying for me, and indeed has set my own research agenda for the next several months. It has shed light on every research project I am currently working on, and has given me a list of must-copy articles, much as Nation (1990) did a few years ago. The new book will soon be as dog-eared and scribbled over as the first one! We can only wonder what the next decade will bring in vocabulary research, but it seems certain that Nation and his colleagues will be at the centre of it. I recommend this book to anyone even remotely interested in vocabulary acquisition, graduate or undergraduate. Either will profit from a pre-reading of the earlier book, which the author recommends as an introduction to the new book.
Language researchers and practitioners of all types should read this book. After all, despite recent successes in redressing the balance between syntax and vocabulary, these successes are not widely known in the broader language teaching industry. Many TESL teacher training programs still do not have a course in "pedagogical lexis" while the standard course in pedagogical grammar is offered year after year without a second thought. This is truly odd, given that the jury is still out on whether grammar is even teachable. As this book makes clear, vocabulary instruction is fascinating, it can be done systematically, and its results are predictable. And language learners walk around with dictionaries in their pockets not grammar books.
Nation, P. (1990). Teaching and learning vocabulary. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Lightbown, P., & Halter, R. (1997). Classrooms as lexical environments. Language
Teaching Research 1, 28-47.