Aspects of the psychology of second language vocabulary list learning
The learning of second language vocabulary in lists of word-pairs is a widespread practice despite the disapproval of many in the second language learning domain. There is an acknowledged mismatch between psychological theories on the one hand and techniques of vocabulary learning on the other. Psychology does not address the relevant issues directly and second language learning practice is often atheoretical and unprincipled. This thesis reviews aspects of psychology which appear to be relevant to second language vocabulary learning and their applicability. A series of experiments is conducted with comprehensive school students learning French, aged 11-13. The first part of the study deals with the presentation of vocabulary items to be learned. Presenting items in the order First Language - Second Language is the more versatile form of presentation if both generation and comprehension are required on the part of the learner. The transferability of list learning to testing in a sentential context depends on the ability of the learner and the task involved. Higher-ability list learners are inhibited in a generation task but not in a comprehension task; the opposite is true for lower-ability learners. Learning in a context improves the performance of higher-ability learners in generation but makes little difference to lower-ability learners. An explanation is suggested in terms of transfer-appropriate processing. The position of items in the list is not a reliable indicator of learnability. Primacy, recency, and serial effects may be obtained but none of them is consistent. The same conclusion applies to different ways of presenting wordpairs. The second part of the study examines aspects of word learnability. Objective word frequency is not a reliable indicator of learnability in this context. Word category and the presence of an English word embedded in a French word are promising indicators of leamability.