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Fubbing foppotees and blandishing mattoids: Harnessing form-meaning motivation for the recall and retention of L2 lexis

Friday, 3 February, 2012 - 15:00
Campus: Brussels Humanities, Sciences & Engineering campus
Faculty: Arts and Philosophy
Julie Deconinck
phd defence

The notion of linguistic motivation in cognitive linguistics refers to the idea
that a retrospective explanation can be sought for why a linguistic unit in
a specific language comes in a particular form or with a particular
meaning (Radden & Panther 2004). If we can basically define known words
in psycholinguistic terms as form-meaning-mappings, the present PhD
investigates whether the notion of form-meaning motivation can be applied
for pedagogical purposes. This type of motivation proposes that a reason
can be sought for why any form-meaning-mapping (i.e. a word) was coined
in the first place, as in the case of cognates and phonaesthemes, (Firth
1930) for instance, where form contributes to meaning or meaning to
form. More specifically, we explore whether form-meaning motivation can
be harnessed to speed up discrete L2 vocabulary learning, deemed
particularly necessary in the case of input-poor environments, where
lexical development cannot solely rely on incidental learning.

To operationalize this, we asked upper intermediate Dutchspeaking
learners of English to rate a series of obscure English words as
to the motivatability of their form-meaning-mapping (i.e. to evaluate their
form-meaning-fit). The words were presented alongside their meaning (in
Dutch) in a paired-associate paradigm. We speculated that the rating task
would encourage participants to come up with so-called mapping
elaborations, i.e. mental deliberations which attend to — and cognitively
engage with — the form and meaning of new words. Ideally, this should
draw the two fundamental aspects of wordhood closer together, as well as
integrate these words faster and more durably in long-term memory by
exposing cross- and intralexical connections. Afterwards, we tested
learners on their form and meaning recollection of the new words.

More specifically, in a first experiment (N=81), the immediate and
delayed post-test results of learners in the form-meaning-fit treatment
were compared to those in comparison treatments. The form-meaning-fit
learners significantly outperformed their counterparts in terms of
immediate form recall. In a second study, other upper-intermediate L2
learners (N=30) were invited not only to rate the form-meaning fit of new
words, but also to explain their motivatability ratings. The resulting
interviews were then transcribed, with student task responses categorized
as they emerged from the data. In order to justify their motivation ratings,
learners drew on cross-lexical associations most frequently, closely
followed by sound-symbolic associations, where symbolic values were
assigned to the intrinsic sound or spelling of a word. The transcripts
convincingly showed that learners were hard-wired to give meaning to
lexical forms they (think they) recognized. Furthermore, many learners
were keen on making meaning out of forms they did not recognize at first
sight or sound.

Our post-test results reveal that quantity of mapping elaborations
is positively associated with scores on post-tests. We conclude that even
though our motivatability-treatment may be constrained in terms of
learner types and individual words, it frequently triggers explicit mapping
elaborations that are likely to help multilingual students take the first step
– or leap - in the word learning process. We therefore suggest that the
notion of form-meaning motivation has considerable pedagogical mileage
in explicit, discrete word learning.