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There are more important factors than word lists to learning a language
Recent developments regarding vocabulary learning increasingly focus on lists such as the AWL, thereby diverting their course from a contextual learning to a more non-contextual one. On the one hand, these developments are understandable, as the attention curve can be regarded as a dynamic process: an oscillation that is constantly shifting throughout the years in search of the perfect way to acquire a language. On the other hand, several questions arise whether these lists should be the main focus in learning and teaching, as research shows quite a contrary point of view, regarding word lists as inefficient tools from a didactic perspective. As the focus shifts more and more towards this approach, it is necessary to point to out the intrinsic drawbacks of word lists as the major tool in language learning. Therefore, notwithstanding current developments, frequency-based word lists are an arbitrary tool to facilitate vocabulary expansion, as they are too small and one-sided to increase literary comprehension, whereas grammar and the amount of exposure to lexical units are far more vital to gain a deeper understanding of texts.
First of all, developers of frequency-based word lists claim that their lists help to develop vocabulary, as they point out uncommon words that are nevertheless important (Cobb). This approach contains an inherent fallacy, as it has been proved that non-contextual learning such as this is quite inefficient. (Schmitt 329) The learner has to sit down and stare at a list of words that do not make any sense, as no context is provided. Subsequently, the focus will shift to quite a passive engagement with these lexical items, making it inefficient. An alternative that has proved much faster and inefficient is glossing (Schmitt 351), which contains the following important prerequisites for vocabulary acquisition. Firstly, a text is present to private meaning and context for the words that are unknown. Secondly, an active reader points out the words that require more attention, but continues reading, creating a stream of conscious involvement with minimal interruption. Last of all, the learner will be capable of looking up the meaning in the context in which they were found (Schmitt 351). By applying this relatively easy principle, vocabulary will expand rapidly and academic word knowledge will increase without the need for a rather arbitrary word list.
A second important point in defense of the importance of word lists is spun around the notion that the words occur only a few times per million words. Rare as they are, it would take considerable exposure to many texts to infer a word from its context, which has moreover been proved to be a rather ineffective way of learning a word. (Cobb) However, if a word only occurs a few times every million words, it implies that nearly 100% of the text contains words that are not on the list. Research shows that a knowledge of 98% of the text is adequate to grasp its meaning. Therefore it is unnecessary to go through a list of words like the AWL, as those words will not contribute to a greater understanding of academic texts.
A third point that is brought forward to bring sense to word lists is the idea that 570 words will significantly increase ones general understanding of the text (Cobb). This statement however is easily countered by the evidence that 2000 word families account for 80% of the vocabulary in a text, but this number dramatically increases as the curve flattens out, with 5000 word families accounting for 90% of the text, (Cobb) and 9000 for about 98% (Schmitt 329). Therefore, those 570 words will only add a small percentage to the vocabulary that is required to grasp the meaning of an entire text. Moreover, another important fact is that a graduated native student already has a word knowledge of about 15000 to 20000, making it even less convincing that a list like AWL will significantly contribute to the learner’s vocabulary.
Another important item to discuss is whether word knowledge is the main determinant of ones proficiency at a language. It seems that lists like AWL present themselves as some kind of ultimate guide to a better understanding of academic texts, but find it difficult to admit that there are drawbacks to them. It has been shown that a profound knowledge of vocabulary is only one component of language skills (Nation et al.). Moreover, it is not justified to simply assume that vocabulary knowledge brings forward an intrinsic increase to language skills performance. There are many components that determine linguistic fluency development, like idioms, set expressions, representativeness, frequency, and range of information (Nation et al.). Other factors that have been pointed out to enhance vocabulary acquisition include active involvement, exemplified by activities such as discussing meaning, applying words in relevant contexts, and exercising output. Long term memorization requires a learning object to be reprocessed five to twenty times in short seminars (Schmitt 350).
In conclusion, it can be recognized from several scientific sources that there are many methods for a learner of a second language to be engaged in acquiring it. With the influence of word lists such as the AWL on the rise, it is time to rethink the concepts that really shape the vocabulary of students. Although it has proved to be a convenient tool, it is important to remember that it is very limited in its additional value to the language. Contextual learning and active involvement are indisputably more significant factors in language acquisition than the passive and arbitrary lists that are offered and presented by some as the ultimate guide.
(Source: EMBED project, © University of Groningen)