Finkbeiner and Nicol on Interference

Yesterday I posted a bibliography on the problem of interference when learning semantically related words, which I have updated this morning.  However, I know that not everyone will have access to all of those works and that not everyone will have the time to read them all.  But, I have found one of the articles online for free at the website of one of the authors:

Finkbeiner, M. & Nicol, J. (2003). Semantic category effects in second language word learning. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24, 369-383.

The article can accessed by clicking HERE and scrolling down to the second to last entry.

Here are some notable quotes with emphasis added:

The present study addresses a long-standing assumption in the field of applied linguistics: that presenting new second language (L2) vocabulary in semantically grouped sets is an effective method of teaching (369).

Although many SLA theorists and practitioners endorse (implicitly or explic-
itly) the seemingly sensible position that teaching new L2 vocabulary in seman-
tically grouped sets is an effective method of teaching, there is actually very
little empirical evidence to support this position
. The body of literature often
cited in support of presenting learners with semantically grouped words includes
(monolingual) memory studies (370).

In studies that record the number of learning trials needed to reach a predetermined learning criterion, it has been shown that participants take longer to learn new labels for sets of semantically related items than for sets of semantically dissimilar items (Higa, 1963; Kintsch & Kintsch, 1969; Nation, 2000; Tinkham, 1993, 1997; Underwood, Ekstrand, & Keppel, 1965; Waring, 1997) (371).

Overall, then, presenting semantically grouped L2 words to learners has a
deleterious effect on learning (376, from the discussion section after their experiment dealing with interference).

The implications that this study has for vocabulary instruction and curriculum
development are not trivial. As pointed out in the introductory section, several
authors in the teaching methodology literature have argued that vocabulary
should be taught in semantic groups. The results of the present study converge
with those of Tinkham (1993, 1997) and Waring (1997) to suggest that teaching
words in semantic sets creates competition between items, which in turn in-
creases difficulty during learning and during memory retrieval in language pro-
duction
.

I will still have another of my own posts on this topic, so I hope that this article and the others in the previous post will be helpful in the meantime.

2 Comments

  • Jeremy,

    Thanks for the information. Like you, I’m swamped getting ready for some other things, but I do have one question.

    You quoted (and highlighted) the following: “In studies that record the number of learning trials needed to reach a predetermined learning criterion, it has been shown that participants take longer to learn new labels for sets of semantically related items than for sets of semantically dissimilar items (Higa, 1963; Kintsch & Kintsch, 1969; Nation, 2000; Tinkham, 1993, 1997; Underwood, Ekstrand, & Keppel, 1965; Waring, 1997) (371).”

    I do no not think it necessarily follows that just because it takes longer to learn the semantically related items means that they will not be retained better. Does this researcher say anything about retention? Sometimes (in various fields of learning) understanding and grasping a concept takes more time than learning a specific fact. However, in the long-run the effort at having a conceptual understanding (say, of a physics concept) is more useful and therefore more likely to be durable. Quick acquisition of vocabulary is not the goal. The ability to correctly map meaning to the L2 vocabulary item, retain it, and recognize it in context, is the better goal.

    • I agree that difficulty in learning is not necessarily bad. I am dealing with that a bit in my results of chapter 5 of my thesis. But, in this article at least the authors do suggest that these difficulties persist when items are learned in semantic sets. You might see specifically the paragraph beginning on 371 and continuing on 372. The last sentence of that section reads as follows: “Furthermore, it appears that presenting new labels by semantic category makes the labels harder to learn and, once learned, harder to retrieve.

      They explain this in terms of spreading activation. Spreading activation in this case basically means that when a person sees a lexical item all of those lexical items associated with it are activated as well. In this case, because the initial learning was not distinct enough, all of the items are activated too strongly for the person to make a decision about the correct meaning of the word.

      Also, I would not discount quick acquisition of vocabulary too strongly. Early studies on pairing form and meaning suggest that vocabulary learning can be both fast and retained. It may be possible to have the best of both worlds, or at least aim in that direction.

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