Vocabulary Acquisition

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The process of learning the words of a language is referred to as vocabulary acquisition. As discussed below, the ways in which young children acquire the vocabulary of a native language differ from the ways in which older children and adults acquire the vocabulary of a second language.

 Means of Language Acquisition

The Rate of New-Word Learning in Children

  • ​"[T]he rate of new-word learning is not constant but ever increasing. Thus between the ages of 1 and 2 years, most children will learn less than one word a day (Fenson et al., 1994), whilst a 17-year-old will learn about 10,000 new words per year, mostly from reading (Nagy and Herman, 1987). The theoretical implication is that there is no need to posit a qualitative change in learning or a specialized word-learning system to account for the 'remarkable' rate at which young children learn words; one could even argue that, given the number of new words to which they are exposed daily, infants' word learning is remarkably slow." (Ben Ambridge and Elena V. M. Lieven, Child Language Acquisition: Contrasting Theoretical Approaches. Cambridge University Press, 2011)

The Vocabulary Spurt

  • ​"At some point, most children manifest a vocabulary spurt, where the rate of acquisition of new words increases suddenly and markedly. From then until about six years old, the average rate of acquisition is estimated to be five or more words a day. Many of the new words are verbs and adjectives, which gradually come to assume a larger proportion of the child's vocabulary. The vocabulary acquired during this period partly reflects frequency and relevance to the child's environment. Basic level terms are acquired first (DOG before ANIMAL or SPANIEL), possibly reflecting a bias towards such terms in child-directed speech. . .
  • "Children appear to need minimal exposure to a new word form (sometimes just a single occurrence) before they assign some kind of meaning to it; this process of rapid mapping appears to help them to consolidate the form in their memory. In the early states, mapping is exclusively from form to meaning; but it later also takes place from meaning to form, as children coin words to fill gaps in their vocabulary ('spooning my coffee'; 'cookerman' for a chef)." (John Field, Psycholinguistics: The Key Concepts. Routledge, 2004)

Teaching and Learning Vocabulary

  • ​"If vocabulary acquisition is largely sequential in nature, it would appear possible to identify that sequence and to ensure that children at a given vocabulary level have an opportunity to encounter words they are likely to be learning next, within a context that uses the majority of the words that they have already learned." (Andrew Biemiller, "Teaching Vocabulary: Early, Direct, and Sequential." Essential Readings on Vocabulary Instruction, ed. by Michael F. Graves. International Reading Association, 2009)
  • "Although additional research is sorely needed, research points us in the direction of natural interactions as the source of vocabulary learning. Whether through free play between peers . . . or an adult introducing literacy terms (e.g., sentence, word), as children engage in play with literacy tools, the likelihood that vocabulary will 'stick' is heightened when children's engagement and motivation for learning new words is high. Embedding new words in activities that children want to do recreates the conditions by which vocabulary learning takes place in the crib." (Justin Harris, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, "Lessons From the Crib to the Classroom: How Children Really Learn Vocabulary." Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Volume 3, ed. by Susan B. Neuman and David K. Dickinson. Guilford Press, 2011)

Second-Language Learners and Vocabulary Acquisition

  • "The mechanics of vocabulary learning are still something of a mystery, but one thing we can be sure of is that words are not instantaneously acquired, at least not for adult second language learners. Rather, they are gradually learned over a period of time from numerous exposures. This incremental nature of vocabulary acquisition manifests itself in a number of ways. . . . Being able to understand a word is known as receptive knowledge and is normally connected with listening and reading. If we are able to produce a word of our own accord when speaking or writing, then that is considered productive knowledge (passive/active are alternative terms). . . .
  • "[F]raming mastery of a word only in terms of receptive versus productive knowledge is far too crude. . . . Nation (1990, p.31) proposes the following list of the different kinds of knowledge that a person must master in order to know a word.
- the meaning(s) of the word
- the written form of the word
- the spoken form of the word
- the grammatical behavior of the word
- the collocations of the word
- the register of the word
- the associations of the word
- the frequency of the word
  • "These are known as types of word knowledge, and most or all of them are necessary to be able to use a word in the wide variety of language situations one comes across." (Norbert Schmitt, Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press, 2000)
  • "Several of our own studies . . . have explored the use of annotations in second-language multimedia environments for reading and listening comprehension. These studies investigated how the availability of visual and verbal annotations for vocabulary items in the text facilitates vocabulary acquisition as well as the comprehension of a foreign language literary text. We found that especially the availability of picture annotations facilitated vocabulary acquisition, and that vocabulary words learned with picture annotations were better retained than those learned with textual annotations (Chun & Plass, 1996a). Our research showed in addition that incidental vocabulary acquisition and text comprehension was best for words where learners looked up both picture and text annotations (Plass et al., 1998)." (Jan L. Plass and Linda C. Jones, "Multimedia Learning in Second Language Acquisition." The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, ed. by Richard E. Mayer. Cambridge University Press, 2005)
  • "There is a quantitative and qualitative dimension to vocabulary acquisition. On the one hand we can ask 'How many words do learners know?' while on the other we can enquire 'What do the learners know about the words they know?' Curtis (1987) refers to this important distinction as the 'breadth' and 'depth' of a person's lexicon. The focus of much vocabulary research has been on 'breadth,' possibly because this is easier to measure. Arguably, however, it is more important to investigate how learners' knowledge of words they already partly know gradually deepens." (Rod Ellis, "Factors in the Incidental Acquisition of Second Language Vocabulary From Oral Input." Learning a Second Language Through Interaction, ed. by Rod Ellis. John Benjamins, 1999)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Vocabulary Acquisition." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/vocabulary-acquisition-1692490. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 25). Vocabulary Acquisition. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/vocabulary-acquisition-1692490 Nordquist, Richard. "Vocabulary Acquisition." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/vocabulary-acquisition-1692490 (accessed March 31, 2023).