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The Developmental Route of Chinese English Learners’ Mental Lexicon Cross-sectional and Longitudinal Perspectives

2010 年 12 月
Dec. 2010
第 33 卷 第 6 期
Chinese Journal of Applied Linguistics (Bimonthly)
Vol. 33 No. 6
The Developmental Route of Chinese
English Learners’ Mental Lexicon: Crosssectional and Longitudinal Perspectives
FU Yuping
Qiongzhou University
This paper reports a study on the developmental route of Chinese English learners’ mental
lexicon by analyzing the responses to high-frequency stimulus words obtained from a crosssectional word association experiment and the responses to low-frequency stimulus words
obtained from a longitudinal experiment. The result indicated the following: (1) Semantic
associations accounted for most responses to the high-frequency words by four groups of
participants and the semantic associations increased in the participants’ mental lexicon as they
made progress in language proficiency. (2) A large proportion of non-semantic associations
accounted for responses to the low-frequency words, but with the increase of language
proficiency, the participants’ mental lexicon changed steadily from non-semantic to semantic.
(3) Certain responses moved backward from semantic to non-semantic, an indication that
second language vocabulary acquisition does not develop by a linear route but in a zigzag
fashion. (4) In adult Chinese English learners’ mental lexicon, paradigmatic knowledge
develops faster than syntagmatic knowledge. The incremental nature of vocabulary acquisition
suggests that both teachers and learners be patient enough to make an acquisition plan on a
long-term basis.
Key words: mental lexicon; developmental route; word association; semantic response
1. Introduction
The long-neglected Cinderella—vocabulary—has received more and more attention in
second language (L2) teaching and research since the 1980s. There have been more and
more empirical studies on mental lexicon, vocabulary acquisition, word storage and
The Developmental Route of Chinese English Learners’ Mental Lexicon
access/retrieval (e.g., Aitchison, 1987; Carter, 1998; Cui, 2008; Meara, 1983; Namei, 2004;
Nation, 2001; O’Gorman, 1996; Schmitt, 1998a, 1998b; Söderman, 1993; Wolter, 2001).
However, these researches are mostly static and cross-sectional (e.g., Meara, 1983; Namei,
2004; O’Gorman, 1996; Söderman, 1993; Wolter, 2001); little attempt has been made at
longitudinal examination of the developmental route of L2 mental lexicon on the part
of Chinese English learners. In order to gain understanding of this developmental route,
the present researcher conducted two word association (WA) experiments from crosssectional and longitudinal perspectives.
2. Literature Review
A better understanding of the internal structure of the mental lexicon can give much
help to the understanding of the nature of the L2 learners’ lexical development, which in
turn may provide possible implications for the ways in which words might be studied in
formal instructional context. Having an efficient and effective mental lexicon can improve
vocabulary acquisition. An effective means to exploring the L2 learners’ mental lexicon
is the WA experiment, a reliable and widely used instrument that holds great promise in
L2 research and assessment since rich information can often be gained from association
responses when compared with other methods (Schmitt, 1998a: 390). A basic word
association test (WAT) is to ask a subject to give the first word coming to mind when being
presented a stimulus word. Researchers suggest that a word produced spontaneously in
response to a stimulus word may have strong link to it in the mental lexicon. As stated by
Aitchison, “an analysis of these responses to a prompt word may give useful information
about how words might be linked together in a person’s mind” (1987: 23).
British psychologist Francis Galton pioneered the WAT and recorded the mental
lexicon structure in 1883. The idea was later seized in both psychological and linguistic
studies, which flowered in the early20th century with the appearance of a lot of WA norm
lists (Kent & Rosanoff, 1910, cited in Schmitt, 1998a: 290; Woodrow & Lowell, 1916, cited
in Schmitt, 1998a: 290; O’Conner 1928, cited in Schmitt, 1998a: 290; Schellenberg, 1930,
cited in Schmitt, 1998a: 290). Kent and Rosanoff (1910, cited in Singleton, 1999) used a list
of 100 English words in their experiment to establish a norm for treating their psychiatric
patients. Ever since then researchers have employed the list in further WA studies for both
normal children and adults. In the 1960s and 1970s, WAT underwent a second prosperity
mostly in the field of psychology, where they were commonly used to evaluate the
cognitive development, social attitudes and assimilation of L1 children (Schmitt, 1998a:
389). The following are commonly found in these studies: (a) Native speakers’ responses
mainly fall into paradigmatic and syntagmatic categories with rare clang associations.
(b) Children tend to give more “clang” associations than adults. As clang associations
decrease, syntagmatic responses increase. This can be compared to adults’ associations,
which are more paradigmatic. (c) The syntagmatic-paradigmatic shift occurs between ages
of five and ten as learners’ language experience increases (Entwisle, 1966; Entwisle et al.,
1964; Entwisle & Muuss, 1968; Ervin-Tripp, 1961; Ruke-Dravina, 1971). This shift implies
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that young children often respond with a word normally following the stimulus word in a
sentence, namely, with syntagmatic word associations, whereas older children and adults
frequently respond with a replacement word, i.e., paradigmatic associations (Entwisle
etal., 1964: 19; Ruke-Dravina, 1971: 77). (d) Low-frequency words mainly induce clangother associations (Beck, 1981; Postman, 1970; Stolz & Tiffany, 1972). Entwisle (1966:
74) holds that increased exposure to language determines the developmental stages of
association for each word, as shown in Figure 1. The late syntactic responses are different
from the early ones in that they are expansions in meaning and indicate a more flexible
and complete comprehension of a concept. Entwisle also contends that the most frequent
words are the only ones that go through all these stages, while low-frequency words
develop only partially (see also Postman, 1970).
Increasing exposure
early syntactic
late syntactic
Figure 1. Developmental stages in WAs by Entwisle (1966)
Paul Meara took the lead in applying WATs to SLA research. After a series of free WATs,
he came to the conclusion that, compared with native speakers, (a) connections between
words in L2 learners’ mental lexicon are less stable; (b) phonology appears to play a
prominent organizing role in L2 mental lexicon; and (c) semantic links between words
in L2 tend to differ in a systematic way (1983: 30). These findings were confirmed and
quoted by many scholars and researchers (e.g., Carter, 1998; Channell, 1988; Harley, 1995;
Zhang, 2004). However, they were also criticized and challenged by quite a few other
empirical studies (e.g., Cunningham, 1990; Namai, 2004; O’Gorman, 1996; Singleton,
1999; Söderman, 1993; Wolter, 2001).
Cunningham (1990) conducted a WA research on two groups of pupils whose native
language was Irish and found that the group with more English input provided more
paradigmatic responses (ParaRs) and less phonological responses. A study by O’Gorman
(1996) shed further light on this issue. Her data were collected from L2 WAT responses of
22 Cantonese speakers whose English was in the intermediate level. In this investigation,
O’Gorman expected to find evidence in support of Meara’s view, but her data turned out
the opposite way—most responses had clear semantic links with relevant stimuli.
Söderman (1993) carried out a WA experiment on English learners whose native
languages were Finnish and Swedish respectively and found that each lexical item
had its own processing history. What’s more, she also indicated that the syntagmaticparadigmatic shift might not be caused by learners’ language proficiency because her
experiment showed that high-proficiency learners’ responses, especially the responses to
low-frequency stimuli, also included a large number of clang-other responses while there
were also quite a number of ParaRs among low-proficiency learners’ responses.
Wolter (2001) took into consideration the degree of vocabulary familiarity. He
confirmed Söderman’s finding that the so-called syntagmatic-paradigmatic shift was
indeed a response change from phonological to semantic and that “the progression for
The Developmental Route of Chinese English Learners’ Mental Lexicon
individual words could be viewed as moving from a state in which phonological and other
non-semantic connections are dominant to a state where syntagmatic or paradigmatic
connections take precedence” (2001: 65-66).
Namei compared the responses of 100 Persian-Swedish bilingual participants with
100 native speakers of Persian and Swedish. Her results proved that phonologically-based
organization is a primary acquisition feature of every individual word (2004: 263) and that
“the syntagmatic-paradigmatic shift was not an organizational characteristic of the whole
mental lexicon, but rather a developmental feature of every individual word, indicating
increased word knowledge” (2004: 382).
Compared with mental lexicon research in the West, related studies in China are
just in bud; they started in the early 1990s with the work by Gui and other researchers
(1992). In Li’s study (2004), the results of WAT showed that L2 vocabulary knowledge
had obvious influence on the learners’ use of semantic information. Using Wolter’s word
lists as stimulus words, Zhang (2004) explored 40 advanced Chinese English learners WAs
and found that most of the learners’ responses were phonological, which offered support
to Meara’s view that the structure of L2 mental lexicon was predominantly phonological.
Bai (2005) carried out an empirical study among his non-English-major postgraduates.
He discovered that L2 mental lexicon is more unstable than that of L1 and that unfamiliar
words induced clangs or no association in students’ mind (2005: 30).
All in all, studies of L1 and L2 WAs show that a) both native and non-native speakers
experience a syntagmatic-paradigmatic shift, which is an indication of increased lexical
knowledge in words being tested; b) to low-frequency words, both adult native speakers
and advanced learners produce responses comparable to those of child native speakers; (c)
each individual word has its own processing history and will experience a developmental
course from non-semantic to semantic; and (d) the mental lexicon of native and nonnative speakers is in a constant flux, because new words are being learned while acquired
words are being relearned or consolidated.
However, traditional WATs mostly chose familiar high-frequency words as stimuli
(e.g., Kent-Rosanoff list) and as a result, failed to draw conclusions about the whole
lexicon. Only a few studies to date have attempted to study native speakers’ responses
to low-frequency words (Beck, 1981; Stolz & Tiffany, 1972), not to speak of studies
concerning non-native speakers (Meara, 1983). To bridge the gap and gain understanding
of the developmental route of the whole mental lexicon, the present researcher conducted
two WA experiments using high and low-frequency words as stimuli from both crosssectional and longitudinal perspectives.
3. Research Design
3.1 Research Questions
This study was guided by the following research questions:
A. What are the general trends of the participants’ three kinds of responses (ParaRs,
SynRs and clangs) in the cross-sectional experiment (Experiment 1) and longitudinal
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experiment (Experiment 2)?1
B. What are the general trends of the participants’ semantic responses (SRs) and nonsemantic ones (NSRs) in these two experiments?
C. Is it true that high-frequency words elicit more SRs and low-frequency words
induce more NSRs?
3.2 Participants
Experiment 1 included four groups of participants from different proficiency levels. They
came from three intact classes of senior school students in Grade 2 (Group 1 = 52), firstyear and third-year English majors (Group 2 = 57 and Group 3 = 60) and 30 university
English teachers (Group 4) from Hainan Province. A cohort of 50 Chinese English majors
participated in Experiment 2. They were chosen from two intact sophomore classes (26
participants in Class 3 and 24 in Class 4) in a vocational college from Shandong Province.
All the participants’ native language was Chinese, and none of them had ever lived in
an English-speaking environment except for the teachers’ group in Experiment 1. The
information of the participants in the final statistics is listed in Table 1.
Table 1. The participants’ detailed information in the final statistics
Experiment 1
Experiment 2
Group 1
Group 2
Group 3
Group 4
2nd-year English majors
Average age
NOS = number of participants; Group 1 = 2nd-year senior students; Group 2 = 1st-year English majors; Group 3 = 3rd-year
English majors; Group 4 = English teachers
3.3 Instruments
According to different research purposes, WATs fall into four types: continued WATs,
continuous WATs, free WATs, and controlled WATs. Researchers usually use free WATs
because responses in free association are thought to be the most direct and immediate
reflection of human understanding behind the linguistic forms or semantic meanings.
Therefore, this study adopted the single, free WAT, in which the participant is required to
produce one response to each stimulus with no restriction in the choice of response (Kruse
et al., 1987: 143).
3.3.1 Stimulus Words in Experiment 1
The stimulus words in Experiment 1 were based on the Kent-Rosanoff WA list (1910, cited
in Postman & Keppel, 1970: 3) with 100 frequently occurring and emotionally neutral
English words. One of the advantages of using Kent-Rosanoff WA list is that it has been
used in many studies, both with natives and nonnative language learners at different
proficiency levels, age levels, and socio-economic levels. Furthermore, there are established
The Developmental Route of Chinese English Learners’ Mental Lexicon
WA norms based on the list (Kiss et al., 1973; Postman & Keppel, 1970), which provide
an opportunity to compare the responses from L2 learners and those from the native
speakers of English. The second advantage is that most of the words on the list are highly
frequent and can thus serve as the stimulus words with learners across a wide range of
proficiency levels. The weakness of the list, however, is that some of the stimulus words are
so common that both native speakers and L2 learners produce predictable/stereotypical
To overcome the limitation, a word screening procedure was adopted to sift out words
eliciting stereotypical responses as shown in the Edinburgh Associative Thesaurus (EAT)1
(Kiss et al., 1973). That is, the stimulus words typically eliciting a single, dominantly
primary response were not included in the present study. The yardstick was that the most
frequent responses to the stimulus words, as reported in the EAT, should not exceed 20%
of all the reported responses. In this way, the experiment avoided stimulus words like
BLACK or DOG, which typically elicit a very narrow range of responses, and selected
stimulus words typically generating a wide variety of different responses. Following this
criterion, the experiment selected 45 high-frequency words which were required to be
mastered by both middle school students and non-English majors (Ministry of Education
of the PRC, 2001; Higher Education Institutions, Ministry of Education of the PRC, 2007).
3.3.2 Stimulus Words in Experiment 2
To ensure the novelty of the stimulus words in Experiment 2, a pilot study was conducted
before the experiment to test whether the participants, who were chosen from another
parallel intact class in the same college, knew the chosen 78 words from Units 4 and 5
in their textbook (Li, 1999). These participants were required to write down Chinese
meaning of each word. As a result, they did not know 45 words, among which 40 were
selected as stimuli. According to the teaching syllabus, these words are in the 12,000-word
list required to be mastered by English majors (Wu & Li, 2002).
3.4 Data Collection Procedures
3.4.1 Data Collection
To collect data in WATs, Wolter (2001) distinguished four different methods, namely, the
aural-oral method, the aural-written method, the written-oral method, and the writtenwritten method. Due to the lack of a natural language learning environment, Chinese
English learners do better in reading and writing than in listening and speaking. Therefore,
the present study adopted the written-written method, which had yielded fruitful results
in many studies (e.g., Schmitt, 1998a; Schmitt & Meara, 1997; Singleton, 1999) and had
been proved to be timesaving and easy to administrate.
Before either experiment, the participants were seated in a multi-media classroom
in a regular class setting. Each of them was assigned one sheet of paper with written
instructions at the top, followed by 45 slots in Experiment 1 and 40 slots in Experiment
2. They were first required to carefully read the instructions, which were in both English
and Chinese. Then, they practiced 4 extra stimulus words with the help of the researcher.
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The stimuli were presented to them one at a time on the screen, which remained there
for 5 seconds and then a blank screen for 10 seconds in Experiment 1 and 20 seconds in
Experiment 2. When a stimulus word was displayed on the screen, the participants were
asked to record spontaneously the first word coming to mind without hesitation. They
were not permitted to consult any dictionaries and reference books, neither were they
allowed to discuss with each other or go back to their work on the previous stimuli. The
time period it took to finish the test papers was about 10 minutes for Experiment 1 and 20
minutes for Experiment 2.
The difference between the two experiments was that the participants in Experiment
2 had three tests with an interval of one and a half months between Test 1 and Test 2 and
between Test 2 and Test 3 (see Figure 2) and they followed the same procedure with the
same stimuli in different orders respectively.
Test 1
One and a half month later
Test 2
One and a half month later
Test 3
Figure 2. Specific procedures of the word association Experiment 2
3.4.2 Data Encoding
Data encoding was composed of two stages, lemmatization and classification of the
responses. Lemmatization of the Responses
After all the data were collected, two groups of teachers (two for each group) worked
together and input all the raw data into Excel files with the following minor modifications
of the response words:
A. The inflected forms of the responses were treated as one occurrence of its base
word. For instance, babies was regarded as the repetition of the stimulus word BABY and
counted as one occurrence of BABY. (In this study, stimulus words are given in capital and
italics, and responses or associations in italics.)
B. A misspelled response was treated as one occurrence of the word in its correct
form if it can be pronounced roughly the same as the word. For instance, scenry for scenery
and afrad for afraid. Classification of the Responses
Classification of the responses is time-consuming and far more complicated than the
easy conduction of WAT since the participants often think of ambiguous responses that
are hard to be classified into the pre-designed types. Meara made a similar comment:
“Personally, I have always found that this paradigmatic/syntagmatic distinction is very
difficult to work in practice, especially when you cannot refer back to the testee for
elucidation…” (1983: 30). Based on traditional WAT models, responses in this study were
classified into three types: paradigmatic response (ParaR), syntagmatic response (SynR)
and clang-other response (Clang). To keep consistency in classification, the definitions
The Developmental Route of Chinese English Learners’ Mental Lexicon
of these types of responses were distinguished clearly beforehand with examples taken
from the present study. Two teachers with applied linguistic background worked together
and classified the responses independently with reference to Longman Dictionary of
Contemporary English, Oxford Dictionary of English and Oxford Collocations Dictionary for
Students of English. In case they did not agree with each other, the native English speaking
teachers were asked for advice.
ParaRs are words from the same word class as the stimulus word and can be
substituted for it in a given sentence. Figure 3 gives an illustration of syntagmatic and
paradigmatic relations (Richards et al., 2000: 463). In certain cases, words from different
word classes were also classified as ParaRs because they had a clear semantic relation to the
stimulus word. For instance, in some participants’ mind, the responses to stimuli CHIC,
GRACE and CONFIRM were fashion, beautiful and sure respectively. These responses
had clear semantic connections to the stimuli but and did not form clear sequential or
collocational relations with them; therefore, these responses were classified as ParaRs.
ParaRs in the present study consist of hyponyms, synonymy, antonyms and meronyms.
= syntagmatic relations
= paradigmatic relations
Figure 3. Syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations (Richards et al., 2000: 463)
As shown in Figure 3, SynRs describe a left-to-right or sequential relationship between
stimuli and responses; they are commonly known as collocations. The response word is
usually a word from a different word class (Aitchison, 1987: 78). For instance, all the words
in the sentence He handed money to me (see Figure 3) can be said to have syntagmatic
relations with each other. A SynR response is an association, which, together with the
stimulus word, forms a syntagm (Richards et al., 2000: 463). In this study a syntagm could
be a noun phrase (SCRAMBLE-egg), verbal phrase (PREDICT-earthquake), or a short
sentence (SHREW-rude). Words from the same word class as the stimulus word but form
a clear sequential relation with the stimulus were also classified as SynR (Zhang, 2004: 75),
such as STRIPE-cloth, SHREW-bad mood and VERSE-rhyme.
Five kinds of responses were classified into clangs:
(a) Responses that were clearly related to certain phonological or orthographical
features of the stimulus word, but bore no obvious semantic relationship to them
(e.g., BEET-beat; BLARE-glare)
(b) Unclassifiable responses like PARISH-color, VERSE-turnover, BLARE-head, etc.
(c) Responses such as PREDICT- prediction, THRIVING-thrive, SUPPOSITIONsuppose, GRACE-graceful and so on were also classified as clangs. This was so
because this kind of responses and their corresponding stimuli belong to the same
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word families (Laufer, 1997; Nation, 1990, 2001).
(d) Responses to wrongly perceived words that bore a vague phonological or
orthographic resemblance to the stimuli. For instance, BREACH was perceived as
high frequency words BEACH or BENCH and thus led to the occurrences of sea,
sand, coast, ocean, bank, water, river and sit, seat respectively.
(e) No response.
3.4.3 Data Analysis
The statistic tools used in this study were SPSS 11.5 and Excel 2007. All the responses
were keyed into the computer in word forms and in their respective response types. The
statistic analysis included calculating the number and percentage of each response type
and computing frequencies and chi-squares with response types as the dependent variable
in order to make comparisons of results between and within the four groups or three tests.
The first two research questions were answered by comparing overall responses (i.e.,
ParaRs, SynRs and clangs), SR and NSR and describing cross-sectional and longitudinal
changes of the three response types in both experiments. Chi-square tests were employed
to make comparisons. In order to answer the third research question, word frequency
effect on response types was analyzed and visualized with a bar graph.
4. Results
4.1 General Trends of the Participants’ Three Kinds of Responses in Both
Table 2 gives a detailed profile of the three types of WA responses produced in Experiment
1. The general trend of response types in Experiment 1 was roughly consistent: ParaRs
were the largest category, SynRs came second and clangs were the smallest. The result of
a chi-square analysis showed a significant difference among the response frequencies in
the four groups (see Table 2). The general trend of response types in Experiment 2 was a
little different: in all the three tests, clangs were the largest category, ParaRs came second
and SynRs were the smallest. That is to say, the same pattern could be detected as to the
ranking of the three response types: clangs > ParaRs > SyRs. The result of a chi-square
analysis showed a significant difference among the response frequencies in the three tests
(see Table 3).
All the groups in the experiments produced fewer SynRs than ParaRs, and this
revealed that learners were relatively strong in associating words in their hierarchical
relationship but weak in producing horizontal relations.
Table 2. Frequencies of the three response types in Experiment 1
Group 1 (n = 50)
Group 2 (n = 50)
Group 3 (n = 50)
Group 4 (n = 30)
count expected residual count expected residual count expected residual count expected residual
The Developmental Route of Chinese English Learners’ Mental Lexicon
Group 1 (n = 50)
Group 2 (n = 50)
Group 3 (n = 50)
Group 4 (n = 30)
count expected residual count expected residual count expected residual count expected residual
Pearson Chi-square ⅹ = 328.351 df = 6 Asymp. Sig.(2-sided)
p = .000
ParaR = paradigmatic response; SynR = syntagmatic response; clang = clang-other responses
Table 3. Frequencies of the three response types in Experiment 2
Test 1 (n = 41)
Test 2 (n = 41)
Test 3 (n = 41)
Pearson Chi-square ⅹ = 68.960 df = 4 Asymp. Sig.(2-sided)
p = .000
4.2 General Trends of the Participants’ SRs and NSRs in Both Experiments
Since all the ParaRs and SynRs had some semantic relations with the stimuli in some
way, they were combined together into the “semantic” associations. On the contrary, the
clangs at most bore some phonological or orthographic resemblance to the stimuli and
thus were regarded as “non-semantic” associations. A complete developmental trend of
the participants’ SRs and NSRs in the two experiments was obtained (see Tables 4 and 5).
In Experiment 1, the teachers’ group gave the largest number of SRs while the Grade 2
senior school students’ group produced the least. SRs made up an overwhelming majority
of the responses given by the four groups of participants. The result of a chi-square
analysis indicated a significant difference among the SRs and NSRs in the four groups. In
Experiment 2, the participants gave the largest number of SRs (932) in Test 3 and the least
in Test 1 (700). However, NSRs made up a majority of the responses in Tests 1 and 2. It
was only in Test 3 that the number of SRs slightly surpassed that of NSRs. The result of a
chi-square analysis showed a significant difference among the response frequencies in the
three tests.
Table 4. Frequencies of the SRs and NSRs in Experiment 1
Group 1 (n = 50)
Group 2 (n = 50)
Group 3 (n = 50)
Group 4 (n = 30)
count expected residual count expected residual count expected residual count expected residual
Pearson Chi-square ⅹ = 327.611 df = 3 Asymp. Sig.(2-sided)
SR = semantic response; NSR = non-semantic response
p = .000
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Table 5. Frequencies of the SRs and NSRs in Experiment 2
Test 1 (n = 41)
Test 2 (n = 41)
Test 3 (n = 41)
Pearson Chi-square ⅹ = 65.996 df = 2 Asymp. Sig.(2-sided)
p = .000
Table 6. longitudinal changes of response types in Experiment 2
Types of
Up = change from clang to semantic response; Down = change from semantic to clang response; Static semantic = semantic
response in all three tests; Static clang = clang responses in all three tests; Up-down = change from clang to semantic to
clang again; Down-up = change from semantic to clang to semantic again; Total number = 1640 (40 stimulus words × 41
Although the general trend of change in response types is from non-semantic to semantic,
it does not exclude the possibility that responses to individual words may remain the same
or even change in the opposite direction. Table 4 summarizes the longitudinal changes of
responses. As shown in the table, the vast majority of response types remained static: in
326 out of 1640cases, the participants produced paradigmatic or syntagmatic responses
in all three tests, and in 369 cases, the participants produced clang-other responses in the
three tests. These cases accounted for 42.37% of the total number of responses. That is to
say, about 42% of the responses remained the same throughout the three tests.
In the 945 (449+221+124+151) cases where changes did occur, the major direction
of the changes is from non-semantic to semantic responses (221+124 vs. 449+151), which
accounted for the steady increase in the number of semantically related responses and the
steady decrease in the number of non-semantic responses. As shown in Table 4, 124 cases
changed from clang to semantic and then to clang again, 151 cased changed from semantic
to clang and then to semantic again. It indicated that with the increase of language
exposure, some words may be consolidated and further integrated, while other words may
be forgotten for the lack of consolidation. The existence of these up-down and down-up
responses showed that some words may develop in a zigzag fashion but not by a linear
route, which is in line with Zhang’s findings (2004).
The above data suggested that with the increase of vocabulary knowledge, most of
the newly learned words in the L2 mental lexicon may change from unknown to partial
known, then familiar and consolidated and finally further integrated; however, there
were also cases of backsliding, i.e., moving backward from semantic to non-semantic,
because some words may be forever or temporarily forgotten due to the lack of exposure
or practice. Therefore, the integration of these words were much more complicated, which
proved Meara’s view that L2 mental lexicon is in a state of flux (1983).
The Developmental Route of Chinese English Learners’ Mental Lexicon
4.3 Commonality Analysis of SRs and NSRs in Both Experiments
The degree of commonality (Schmitt, 1998a) in stimulus-response WA was analyzed
by counting the Top Three most frequently given responses to each stimulus in both
experiments (Appendices 3 and 4). As far as SRs were concerned, the participants
produced many more ParaRs than SynRs (54.07% vs. 32.59% in Experiment 1 and 47.5%
vs. 8.31% in Experiment 2).
As shown in Appendices 3 and 4, 16 of the 45 stimuli in Experiment 1 induced at least
one NSR among the most frequent responses, while 42 of the 45 stimuli in Experiment
2 induced 53 NSRs, accounting for 44.19% of all the top three responses, a much higher
percentage than that in Experiment 1 (13.34%). This indicated that low-frequency words
produced many more NSRs than high-frequency ones.
Test 3
Group 1
Group 2
Group 3
Test 2
Group 4
Test 1
Figure 4. Mean proportions of SRs and NSRs to high-low frequency stimuli
Table 7. Mean proportions of SRs and NSRs to high-low frequency stimuli
Group 1
Group 2
Group 3
Group 4
Test 1
Test 2
Test 3
4.4 Word Frequency Effect on Response Types
To examine word frequency effect on the response types, a comparison was made between
the results of the two experiments. That is, the proportions of SRs and NSRs induced by
high-frequency words in Experiment 1 and low-frequency words in Experiment 2 were
compared. As indicated in Figure 4 and Table 6, more SRs were induced by high-frequency
stimuli than by low-frequency ones. Even the Grade 2 senior school students gave more
SRs to high-frequency words than 2nd-year English majors did to low-frequency words
(67.38% vs. 56.83%). With the increase in the proficiency of the participants, NSRs were
on the decline while SRs were on the rise. Another noticeable trend was that NSRs induced
by low-frequency stimuli experienced little change across the three tests, suggesting limited
progress on the part of the participants and nearly no exposure to them during the three
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5. Discussion
The analysis in Experiment 1 revealed that SRs dominated the four groups’ responses to
high-frequency words. There was a positive correlation between language proficiency and
semantic associations; that is, the higher the participants’ language proficiency become,
the more semantic associations there were in their mental lexicon. That is to say, with the
development of language proficiency, there is a general trend with obvious increase in SRs
and gradual decrease in NSRs. Therefore, despite Meara’s prediction that phonology plays
a leading role in L2 mental lexicon organization (1983: 30), a tentative conclusion can be
drawn from this study about the developmental route of Chinese English learners’ mental
lexicon: with the development of language proficiency and the increasing exposure of
language materials, Learners’ mental lexicon will develop steadily from non-semantic to
The results of Experiment 2 revealed that although clangs were the largest type
of responses in the three tests, there did exist a shift from a more phonologically-based
pattern to a more semantically-related pattern across these tests. Thus, an exploratory
conclusion is that as more new words are learned and become familiar and further
integrated, learners’ mental lexicon develops steadily from a more form-based pattern to
a more semantic-dominated one; the participants made steady progress. However, there
were also cases of backsliding, i.e., moving backward from semantic to non-semantic,
because some words may be forgotten due to the lack of exposure or practice. Therefore,
we can draw a tentative conclusion that L2 vocabulary acquisition does not develop by a
linear route but in a zigzag fashion. This dynamic nature of L2 mental lexicon suggests
that “words are learned incrementally” (Schmitt, 1998b: 283) and that “lexical acquisition
requires repeated exposure” (Zhang, 2004: 197).
The commonality analysis indicates that the participants produced more ParaRs
than SynRs in both experiments and thus reveals an L2-specific route of word associative
knowledge. As discussed by Wolter (2006), due to the pre-existing L1 knowledge and welldeveloped cognitive system, it is insensible for L2 adult learners to follow the acquisition
route of L1 learners, that is, the development of syntagmatic knowledge has priority over
that of paradigmatic connections. Furthermore, unlike L1 children, adult L2 learners
do not have the same social and linguistic exposure. Thus they can only build up their
semantic connections in the classroom setting with the help of teachers’ instruction,
extensive reading and also their existing L1 knowledge. Finally, the strategies of traditional
vocabulary teaching and learning in Chinese context, such as the introduction of new
words based on similar sounds or the same roots, synonyms, antonyms and hyponyms
have all contributed to the strong paradigmatic and the weak syntagmatic connection
in learners’ mental lexicon. All these factors explain why their paradigmatic knowledge
develops faster than their syntagmatic knowledge. From this understanding, the
indicator of L2 lexical development needs to be re-oriented by saying that the increase of
syntagmatic responses is much more important than the increase of paradigmatic ones
(Wolter, 2006).
The result that clang-other associations dominated the responses throughout the
The Developmental Route of Chinese English Learners’ Mental Lexicon
three tests in Experiment 2 is in line with previous research (Beck, 1981; Meara, 1983;
Wolter, 2001; Zhang, 2004). It does not necessarily mean that the participants possess
poor vocabulary knowledge but indicates that the organization of the L2 mental lexicon is
initially phonological. That is to say, categorizing unfamiliar words phonologically may be
characteristic of early stages of vocabulary acquisition. The form-based feature of lexical
organization is not a characteristic of language proficiency but rather an elementary
acquisition feature of every individual word (Namei, 2004: 363). The main reason for a
small quantity of semantic responses across the three tests in Experiment 2 was obviously
that the stimuli used in this study were newly learned low-frequency words and that the
participants had not gained full mastery of these words; that is, the semantic links of these
words in their mind were not stable and thus were easily forgotten.
6. Conclusion
This study employed free WATs to investigate Chinese English learners’ responses to some
high-and low-frequency words, and it revealed the developmental route of L2 mental
lexicon: with the development of language proficiency and the increasing exposure of
language materials, the learners’ mental lexicon will develop steadily from non-semantic
to semantic. However, there are also cases of backsliding, that is, moving backward from
semantic to non-semantic, because some words could have been forgotten due to the
lack of exposure or practice. Therefore, L2 vocabulary acquisition does not develop by a
linear route but in a zigzag fashion. Due to the pre-existing L1 knowledge, well-developed
cognitive system, different social-linguistic exposure from L1 children and strategies of
traditional vocabulary teaching and learning in Chinese context, adult Chinese English
learners’ paradigmatic knowledge develops faster than syntagmatic knowledge with the
latter weaker than the former in their mental lexicon.
The findings of the present study further imply that vocabulary acquisition is not an
“all-or-nothing affair” but a life-long process and that both teachers and learners should
be patient enough to make an acquisition plan on a long-term basis. First, L2 teachers
should deal with vocabulary in a well-planned and principled rather than a haphazard
way. They need to adopt different methods to different words. Second, in order to acquire
different types of word knowledge, learners ought to form a habit of daily extensive
reading—an indispensable part of their language learning. Third, due to the Forgetting
Curve, words need recycling in order to be consolidated in short-term memory and
cemented in long-term memory. Lastly, both teachers and learners should give special
attention to co-text and context vocabulary learning (i.e., chunk memorization) in order
to reinforce the strength of syntagmatic relations. Only in this way could English learners
probably integrate words into L2 mental lexicon to ensure their quick access and correct
The findings of the present study also indicate some directions for future research.
First, longitudinal studies with longer intervals are recommended to ensure a more reliable
picture of the process of vocabulary acquisition and also that of the developmental routes
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of Chinese English learners’ mental lexicon. Second, the intricacy of correspondence
between different types of words in the L2 mental lexicon need to be teased out by
exploring the relationship between the stimulus word types (e.g., word class and
concreteness) and the response word types. Third, a comparison of associative responses
produced by participants of different L1 backgrounds can be conducted to investigate the
cross-cultural differences and the L1 transferences. Fourth, the consistency between the
written-written method and other approaches like aural-oral, aural-written or oral-written
may be checked to explore the method-effect on the outcome of the word association.
With all these aspects adequately addressed, a better understanding will be gained about
the mental lexicon in general and the L2 mental lexicon in particular.
1.This experiment was based on the author’s MA thesis (Fu, 2008), and some of the findings have
been published in her article (Fu et al., 2009).
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collected from 100 native speakers of English. An interactive version and a downloadable version
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Appendix 1 Stimulus word list used in Experiment 1
music, deep, mountain, comfort, hand, fruit, butterfly, wish, river, beautiful, window, citizen, foot,
red, sleep, anger, carpet, working, earth, bread, city, bed, trouble, soldier, cabbage, yellow, justice,
health, memory, sheep, dream, head, ocean, child, doctor, thief, lion, joy, baby, moon, quiet, cheese,
afraid, thirsty, sweet.
Appendix 2 Stimulus word list used in Experiment 2
swan, screech, blare, ruby, legacy, lobby, breach, tunnel, verse, stripe, complexion, awe, ferry,
shudder, grace, predict, shrew, conviction, hitch, grunge, inaugurate, supposition, jumpsuit, estate,
moat, thriving, parallel, chic, bundle, inspire, psyche, beet, reverie, literary, baptize, scramble,
scheme, parish, confirm, baggy.
The Developmental Route of Chinese English Learners’ Mental Lexicon
Appendix 3 Top Three responses to the high-frequency
stimulus words in Experiment 1
Stimulus word
Semantic response
Paradigmatic response
Syntagmatic response
brave 7, worried 6
dark 9
happy 34, smile 6
mother 11
lovely 33, beautiful 10
ugly 19
girl 45, flower 15
angry 23
sleep 82, comfortable 15
milk 39, breakfast 8
Non-semantic response
bad 8
eat 17
beautiful 50
fly 34, butter 9
vegetable 19
eat 11
bag 11
floor 7
red 7
car 31
bread 9, milk 7
adult 8
city 36, people 28, country 9
country 52, town 16
big 8
happy 8
home 7
high 9
Water 18, sea 13
patient 38, nurse 23
ill 8
sleep 24
true 13, good 7
moon 35, mother 5
round 10
hand 68
walk 22
apple 75
eat 21, delicious 7
foot 63, leg 10, finger 8
hair 40, hand 9
clever 7
sport 8
good 14
happy 37, fun 6
enjoy 23
fair 17
just 43, drink 5
tiger 49, king 9
afraid 10
forget 18, remember 16
good 18
sun 55, earth 10
moon-cake 9
hill 31, tree 15
High 50
song 11
Dance 15, popular 6
sea 39, water 13
blue 27
noise 14, noisy 13
choose 21
lovely 32
children 31
comfortable 43
feet 17
healthy 25
quite 15
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Stimulus word
Semantic response
Paradigmatic response
Syntagmatic response
Non-semantic response
green 29, blue 25, yellow 13
water 40, fish 18, sea 16
cow 13
white 15
sleep 15
wake 11
bed 43
sheep 14
army 17, war 12
brave 13
salt 5
candy 25, sugar 25
police 27, policeman 11
bad 12
hungry 25
water 81, drink 11
difficult 14
solve 10, bad 5
door 63
open 14
hope 87, dream 10
good 6
job 17
hard 50, tired 16
blue 17, red 17, color 9
wind 7
Appendix 4 Top three responses to the low-frequency stimulus words in Experiment 2
Stimulus word
Semantic response
Paradigmatic response
respect 56
loose 12
religion 6
vegetable 20
light 10, noise 9
Syntagmatic response
Non-semantic response
awful 12, owe 8
clothes 16
bag 43
born 11, size 9
field 17
beet 19
glare 52
break 17, reach 17, beach 11
bunch 17
fashion 12
chicken 15, chip 10
face 23, skin 23
complex 18
sure 32, prove 11
firm 7
sure 17
convict 18, convince 16
legacy 12, land 9
east 8
boat 15
worry 9, afraid 7
beautiful 10
flower 12
bound 5
lady 7
graceful 16
foot 23
ground 8, orange 5
The Developmental Route of Chinese English Learners’ Mental Lexicon
Stimulus word
Semantic response
Syntagmatic response
connect 13
hike 28
ceremony 17, begin 8
graduate 9
encourage 36
courage 10, inspiration 9
clothes 40
jump 20, suit 8
estate 22
leg 19, legal 16
book 18, works 12
literature 7
hall 25, hotel 8
hobby 20
river 28
meat 13, coat 10
equal 7, unparallel 4
catch 9
line 61
punish 25, paris 7, rich 5
foresee 9
mind 27, physical 24
heart 22
dream 15, daydream 14
review 13
red 29, diamond 9
rude 6
plan 38, schedule 19
time 15
climb 23, crawl 11
scram 9
sound 16, scream 13
reach 10
woman 10
shower 29, throw 24
tremble 16, shake 10
line 17, star 11
strike 7
guess 30, imagination 5
suppose 40
animal 16, bird 12
prosperous 40
thrive 13, exciting 7
channel 66, chunnel 26
road 20
poem 26, poet 8
very 6
(Copy editing: DING Yanren)
Non-semantic response
Paradigmatic response
future 16
prediction 6
body 17
swim 33