The Limited Usefulness of Semantic Domains for Learning Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary (Part 1)

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:


  • Are you saving the “three absolutely indispensable books” for the second part of this post?

    I don’t have the time right now to respond to your concerns, but I will soon!

    • One of them (Nation) will be a primary source for the second post. The others were meant to be as a part of a general statement. The other two texts are compilations of a considerable number of the top researchers in the field.

      As per your time, you may want to wait until the next post. It will be more substantial I think. This post questions more of the logistics of such an approach. Nation, however, cites four empirical studies that suggest that using semantic domains can cause interference.

  • Most 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.

    I’d be curious about who most of these researchers are. The two of the most commonly used methods for SLA (TPR & TPRS) are highly dependent semantic domains and definitely not frequency. Any statement by SLA researches that I could think of would only be limited to power tools for learning that are highly useful simply for eliciting new vocabulary.

    I’ll be looking for your next post, but right now, I’m only incredulous.

    • I’ll give a quote by Nation (an author of one of the texts above in the Cambridge Applied Linguistics series) that will perhaps whet your appetite a bit for the next post:

      It is worth noting that there are principles that some teachers and course designers follow that go against research findings. These include ‘All vocabulary learning should occur in context,’ ‘The first language should not be used as a means of presenting the meaning of a word,’ ‘Vocabulary should be presented in lexical sets,’ … Course designers who follow these principles should read the relevant research and reconsider their position.

      Most of Nation’s discussion of which words should be learned revolves around the concept of frequency. I am out of my office currently and not near my library, but I could furnish others for whom the concept of frequency is considerably important. This oftentimes falls under discussions of text coverage. I will say that this is one aspect of current BH vocabulary materials that did not come out of nowhere.

      It should also be noted that TPR and TPRS represent only a very small subset of the approaches employed in second language learning and second language vocabulary acquisition. There are the audio-lingual approach (materials like Pimsleur), the natural approach (Krashen), the Lexical approach (Lewish), etc.

      I should reiterate that I am not completely opposed to the use of semantic domains. I just don’t think that they can be a governing strategy.

  • It should also be noted that TPR and TPRS represent only a very small subset of the approaches employed in second language learning and second language vocabulary acquisition.

    Maybe they’re a small subset of approaches in existence, but they are most definitely not small in terms of numbers of practitioners. Wycliffe USA & Wycliffe Canada us TPR virtually exclusively for teaching SLA methodology.

    More significantly, Nation’s emphasis in frequency is completely different than what we see in traditional Hebrew textbooks since what are termed “high frequency” words are a limited set of words that need to be learned. In contrast frequency approaches used by textbooks such as Zondervan’s rank all of vocabulary by frequency — something that has not theoretical basis whatsoever — violating a variety of principles that Nation gives on the very next page.

    Aside from that, I think Nation is wrong. For one, relevant research actually goes in both directions on a couple of those principles — in two entirely different disciplines: SLA, but also Lexicography. The fact that he’s published by Cambridge means nothing to me. So was The Syntax of Noun Phrases: Configuration, Parameters and Empty Categories (Cambridge Studies in Linguistics), but it’s generally pretty useless.

    Again, I’m incredulous, but I look forward to your next post.

    • If you are “incredulous” (as you have mentioned twice) in the full sense of the term as in “full of disbelief,” I am not sure if there is anything that I could say in this comment section or in any subsequent post that would make a great deal of difference. But, at any rate …

      As per the previous part of this discussion, I have changed “most researchers” to “many researchers.” You were right to point out that “most” was the wrong word.

      I do not think it is fair to say that Nation’s emphasis on frequency is completely different than that found in Biblical Hebrew texts. Certainly there are differences, but neither is Nation working with a limited corpus, as in the case of dead language. The option of ranking all vocabulary by frequency is not even available to him. I would agree that Zondervan sequences the items in an unhelpful manner. I don’t think that just finding the most frequent words and making a list is the best approach either. Some thought does have to go into ordering the presentation. In my dissertation research, I have developed a vocabulary learning program and I do not follow frequency in an overly rigid manner. And, I’m pretty sure I haven’t got the sequencing completely the way I want it yet. But at the same time, frequency is a guiding principle.

      I am well aware that a great deal of SLA research does go both ways on a number of issues. And, the approach that I take to semantic domains and similar relationships reflects in my mind an understanding of both ways in which the research goes rather than focusing on one over the other. I think that teaching by semantic domains can be helpful; however, just as with frequency, there are also matters of sequencing involved in using semantic domains. I do not think they should be used initially because of the problem of interference and because this can, as I state in this post, lead to the learning of some fairly infrequent items. I do, however, believe that semantic relationships can be helpful later in the learning process for solidifying knowledge of vocabulary that has already been learned to some extent. In fact, toward the end of the approach I developed for vocabulary learning students do focus on semantic relationships, but this is after they have already encountered the vocabulary items a number of times. And hopefully, some of this will become clearer in the subsequent post.

      This is what I mean by saying that I believe semantic domains have limited usefulness. In my research, I have tried to come to a synthesis that both recognizes the potential strengths and weaknesses of this strategy.

      Anyway, it will likely be Thursday before another post. But, I’ll continue to dialogue here.