This investigation addresses two areas of interest in foreign language (FL) acquisition: vocabulary learning and Adult Education. Studies focusing on the relationship between the acquisition of vocabulary and other variables, such as, for instance, previous FL contact, are lacking. Additionally, most research on the acquisition of the lexical component has been carried out with primary/secondary school and university students and, to our knowledge, no studies with older adult learners have been conducted so far. Adult Education typically refers to highly motivated learners over 55 years old who get involved in non-official learning courses (Blacklock, 1985). In general, research on Adult Education is quite limited and a call for more research in the area has been addressed very recently (Losada Friend, Garrido Anes and Bando Domínguez, 2007).
This paper comes to fill the existing gaps by providing preliminary data on the acquisition of productive vocabulary by adult university learners of English at the University of the Basque Country. Its main aim is to analyse the effect of previous contact with the FL on the production of English vocabulary by senior learners in the early stages of acquisition.
To accomplish this aim, we have gathered data from 13 senior learners (aged 56-69) of L2 English at the begnone level. These learners were divided into two groups depending on whether they had had previous experience with English (‘false begnones’ –FBs) or not (‘true begnones’ –TBs). Participants performed a lexical availability task (adapted from Carcedo González, 1998) in which they were required to write down as many related words to a given cue prompt in a 2-minute timespan. The task lasted for 30 minutes bearing in mind that it was made up of 15 different cue prompts – (1) ‘parts of the body’, (2) ‘clothes’, (3) ‘house’, (4) ‘furniture’, (5) ‘food and drink’, (6) ‘table’, (7) ‘kitchen’, (8) ‘school’, (9) ‘town’, (10) ‘countryside’, (11) ‘means of transport’, (12) ‘animals’, (13) ‘hobbies’, (14) ‘professions’, and (15) ‘colours’. More specifically, we wanted to discover whether there were differences between TBs and FBs with regard to (i) the total number of words produced (ii) the semantic fields which were most productive, and (iii) the words which were most available to students in each semantic field.
Preliminary analyses revealed that, in agreement with previous research outcomes favouring FBs (Fukai, 2000; Lange et al., 1992; Watt, 1997), FBs produced a significantly higher number of words than TBs (mean number of words: 52.4 vs. 103), which indicates that former experience with the FL results in heightened lexical availability. Howewer, both types of learners showed striking similarities as regards the prompts which triggered the largest lexical productions –namely ‘colours’, ‘professions’, ‘town’, ‘food and drink’, ‘animals’, and ‘school’. These semantic fields widely coincide with those of higher lexical availability in previous research on vocabulary acquisition by primary schoolchildren (Jiménez Catalán & Ojeda Alba, 2008), which seems to suggest that irrespective of age, begnones trespass similar developmental stages in the acquisition of the lexicon. Regarding the English words which were most available in each semantic field, TBs and FBs also displayed remarkable similarities. This finding might be accounted for the fact that the same type of words is included in books designed for adults and children. All in all, previous contact with the FL seems to affect the quantitative dimension of adult university learners’ FL vocabulary more substantially than its qualitative dimension.
Productive vocabulary, senior learners, false begnone, true begnone, lexical availability task
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