New related post: Interference When Learning Semantically Related Words (A Bibliography)
I hope that no one takes this post as too harsh of a critique as I applaud anyone’s effort to make Biblical Hebrew instruction better. I have noticed in two recent posts materials for learning Biblical Hebrew vocabulary that make use of semantic domains. The use of semantic domains has been cited by Schmitt in
Vocabulary : Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy [Cambridge Language Teaching Library] as a helpful strategy for learning vocabulary in a second or foreign language. However, further research into the strategy reveals that its use should likely be limited to some degree. There are two reasons for this limited usefulness, one of which I will mention in this post and another of which I will mention in a future post.
First, the use of semantic domains in vocabulary learning can lead to a violation of the principle of frequency (this forms the basis for most current Biblical Hebrew vocabulary materials, i.e.
Zondervan [see 2, 3, and 5],
Mitchel, etc.). Most Many researchers in second language vocabulary acquisition would agree that the most frequent words in a language should be learned first as these words are the most useful. This seems only logical, though I don’t think the principle has to be applied in an overly rigid manner. Yet in many resources and materials where semantic domains are used the principle of frequency is violated.
This fact becomes abundantly clear by even a cursory glance at a Biblical Hebrew vocabulary text like
Landes. In the resources mentioned in the two blogs above, one might take the diagram of the body as an example (diagram by Adam Couturier). This diagram appears as though it would be useful until one realizes that many of the words on it are not among the most frequent in the Hebrew Bible. The word geviyah (“body”) occurs only 13 times, ‘etsba’ (“finger, toe”) only 31 times, yarech (“thigh”) only 34 times, and tsava’r (“neck”) only 41 times. There are other less frequent words on the diagram as well; however, the basic problem is that in order to fill out the diagram students must be presented with items that they will not see very often. Time spent learning the diagram might be better spent studying the more frequent words in the Hebrew Bible, or, using a staggered approach, the more frequent words in a particular book of the Hebrew Bible that are also frequent throughout the rest of the corpus.
In my opinion, I think that diagrams like the one cited in this post are helpful primarily for advanced students who have already mastered many of the most frequent vocabulary items in the language. This to me indicates that the strategy of using semantic domains is of limited usefulness. However, this is not the only indication that the strategy should be applied carefully. In a subsequent post, I will discuss the problem of interference, which is cited by
Nation as a reason why use of semantic domains in vocabulary learning should be limited, especially early on.
If you’re interested, here are three absolutely indispensable books on second language vocabulary acquisition: