Authored by: Batia Laufer , I. S. P. Nation

The Routledge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition

Print publication date:  November  2011
Online publication date:  June  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415479936
eBook ISBN: 9780203808184
Adobe ISBN: 9781136666896


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“The real intrinsic difficulty of learning a foreign language lies in that of having to master its vocabulary” (Sweet, 1899). More and more, language researchers and practitioners have come to realize the truth of Sweet’s statement. Unlike grammar, which is a system of a limited number of rules, vocabulary is an open set of many thousands of items. Hence, one reason for the enormity of the vocabulary learning task lies in its quantity. Furthermore, word knowledge entails the mastery of numerous features of the word in question and of the patterns it can form with other words. Hence, the second intrinsic difficulty of vocabulary learning is qualitative. Finally, since vocabulary consists of a huge number of words of various degrees of usefulness, many of them will not appear frequently in the second language input, particularly in the context of instructed learning (i.e., in a regular classroom). Learners receive grammatical reinforcement by encountering grammatical structures in every phrase or sentence they are exposed to. They do not receive the same kind of reinforcement of a lot of the low frequency vocabulary, for which large quantities of input would be required. Hence, the third difficulty of learning foreign language vocabulary is environmental or situational. This paper provides an overview of vocabulary learning addressing the three dimensions stated above.

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