A Probe into Lexical Depth: What is the Direction of Transfer for L1 Literacy and L2 Development?
Parto Pajoohesh, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto
This paper examines the intersection between heritage language (HL) learning and the development of English and Farsi deep lexical knowledge. The study compares two groups of Farsi-English bilingual children with different HL educational backgrounds and a group of English-only children by testing their paradigmatic-syntagmatic knowledge of words. A statistical analysis of the children's deep lexical knowledge was conducted in light of their HL literacy experience, second language (English) schooling, and length of residence. The findings revealed that longer length of residence and L2 schooling correlates with better performance on the L2 measures of lexical depth, whereas longer residence in the home country and first language (L1) formal schooling do not correlate with better performance on the Farsi measures. The study concluded that, in the long term, the learning of a heritage language, in combination with L2 academic instruction is more effective to the cross-lingual transfer of academic skills.
Lexical knowledge is one of the determining factors of children's success in school literacy skills (Dickenson, 1984). However, word knowledge and its various aspects, specifically the depth dimension, has been an overlooked area of research. Although lexical depth is a neglected area of study it is nonetheless important, especially for bilingual and minority language learners dealing with two languages at the same time.
Lexical depth involves many aspects related to the development of literacy skills: morphological structure, phonological/ orthographic representation (Snow & Locke, 2001), syntactic properties, possible collocations (Schmitt, 2000), pragmatic rules, and semantic representation of the words or concepts. Depth of vocabulary knowledge can be defined as the richness of the representation of the known words or concepts (Wesche & Paribakht, 1996) or to put it more simply, how well one knows about words/concepts. Learning all six of the aspects of word meaning mentioned thus far requires many encounters with a word (Nagy, Herman & Anderson, 1985). Through subsequent encounters, one usually expands the semantic specification that leads to depth of knowledge (Carlo, August, McLaughlin, Snow, Dressler, Lippman, Lively & White, 2004). For language learners, this expansion or deepening of one's knowledge of lexicon would ultimately ease the process of reading comprehension. Previous research on Latino children in the U.S. (Garcia, 1991; Nagy, 1997; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000; Verhoeven, 1990) and Turkish/Dutch bilinguals (Verhallen & Schoonen, 1998a) suggests that inadequate breadth and depth of vocabulary knowledge has been a major source of poor reading comprehension among lagging readers.
In the school context, children need to learn technical and disciplinary vocabulary as well as concepts not found in their everyday spoken language. Comprehension of both concepts and lexical knowledge can range from recognition of the concept/word to an ability to define, use or apply it appropriately in a variety of contexts (Cummins, 2000). To a great extent, a lack of knowledge of the low and mid-frequency academic words that children usually encounter in school texts impedes the natural process of expanding word meanings during reading (Stanovich, 1986).
During upper primary (ages 11-13) and secondary school, students are expected to use appropriate vocabulary, explain or define, and support solutions to problems in a logical way through oral interaction and writing. In the social sciences, abstract concepts (e.g., democracy) are expressed orally and in writing. Toward middle school, the nature of classroom instruction, texts and literacy practices becomes increasingly specialized, and the literacy ability that was functional in the primary grades becomes inadequate to deal with genre-specific demands (Carrasquillo, Kucer, & Abrams, 2004). Research shows that L2 learners arriving in U.S. grade 2 and 3 classrooms with no English vocabulary knowledge quickly develop oral English vocabulary. However, they may lag behind those who have been exposed to oral and literate English since birth (Carlo et al., 2004).
The aim of the present study was to explore the concept of lexical depth and its development among a bilingual population arriving in Canada and their monolingual English-speaking peers in relation to their various L1/HL literacy background, L2 schooling and length of residence in the L2 community. The study traces the contributions of these factors to the transfer of lexical depth skills. To picture the theoretical framework used in the study, I will first describe the aspects of lexical depth and the related research.
Aspects of Lexical Depth
One aspect of lexical depth refers to the semantic hierarchies that children develop cognitively as they grow up. Semantics and theories of lexical development (Cruse, 1986) highlight the hierarchical relations between concepts (such as rose, tulip, flower, and plant). Young children familiar with these words are not always aware that rose and tulip, as coordinated concepts in a semantic network, are dominated and superordinated by the concept of flower, with the concept plant still higher in the hierarchy. Aitchison (1994) identified three stages in children’s acquisition of word forms and associated word concepts: (a) labeling, (b) packaging/categorization, and (c) network building. In the last two stages, where semantically related words become part of the network, a syntagmatic-paradigmatic shift appears (Miller & Johnson-Laird, 1976). Paradigmatic relations are nonlinear since they refer to hierarchical systems: part-whole and class-inclusion relations (e.g., rose is a flower that has a stem, petals, etc.) On the other hand, syntagmatic relations are linear ones (e.g., a rose grows on a bush). In a sense, paradigmatic relations signify decontextualized use of language as opposed to syntagmatic relations, which convey more contextualized or incidental information.
Two widely cited issues in children’s lexical depth are the extent to which children have developed such a semantic network, and whether they can express their deep word knowledge by formulating a well-structured standard definition for ordinary words and concepts. I have labeled the former aspect as the implicit and the latter as the expressible aspect of lexical depth (Pajoohesh, 2007). Research has shown that even if children possess a receptive knowledge of the meaning aspects of a word, they might not be able to define it in terms of hierarchical semantic relationships and proper structural format. An example can be a child’s answer to the question “what is a clock?” “That thing on the wall”, compared to “A clock is a timepiece/device that tells time” as a well-formed definition (Taken from Snow et al., 1991). The example shows that children, even aware of the paradigmatic associations (e.g., a device/timepiece – tell time), may neither express it in their definition nor use the proper structure to define it. They may instead include some syntagmatic contextualized information (e.g., its location, shape, size, etc.).
Studies on word definitions of English monolinguals (Anglin, 1985; Johnson & Anglin, 1995; Kurland and Snow, 1997; Litowitz, 1977; McGhee-Bidlack, 1991; Wehren, De Lisi & Arnold, 1981; Watson & Olson, 1987) and European monolinguals (Benelli, 1988) indicate that children as old as 10 have difficulty expressing semantic meaning relations in their L1. These researchers also reported that the conventions governing the linguistic form of definitions are opaque to children who had not yet developed the ability to analyze their word/concept knowledge. Another common finding of these studies has been that the acquisition and recognition of superordinate membership for use in defining common objects is a “late habit,” occurring long after children refer to some evident sensory-object properties (Benelli, 1988, p. 229). Even if definitions are salient in classrooms, they are nonetheless an infrequent form that requires the availability of rare vocabulary items to identify the superordinate class (Snow et al., 1991).
This problem can be more serious for second language learner children who, in addition to having the above difficulties, provide less extensive and varied meaning aspects to L2 words (Ordónez, Carlo, Snow & McLaughlin, 2002; Pajoohesh, 2007; Snow, 1990; Verhallen & Schoonen, 1993, 1998a).
Compared to the number of studies on the definitional skill of monolinguals, only a few have investigated the development of this skill among second language learners. In addition, little research has been done to assess the implicit aspect of lexical knowledge (e.g., Pajoohesh, 2007; Watson & Olson, 1987) due to a lack of assessment tools. In fact, very few tasks have been developed to measure children’s depth of lexical knowledge. It seems necessary here to describe these tools and the ways lexical depth aspects are assessed in this study.
Assessment of the Implicit Aspect of Lexical Depth
In the earlier studies of child definitions, Watson & Olson (1987) elicited the implicit knowledge of words through a series of yes/no questions (e.g., ‘Is a dog an animal?’). Later, variations of a Word Association Test (WAT) have been used to elicit the paradigmatic relations or associations that reflect the receptive knowledge. Based on Read’s (1993) word association test for adult English language learners, Verhallen & Schoonen (1998b) designed one for elementary school Turkish/Dutch bilinguals (in Dutch). The English piloted version of this latter test has been used in the present study. A sample item is presented here:
Figure 1. A sample item from Word Association Test
For every stimulus word in this paper-and-pencil test, three of the associated words represent paradigmatic or decontextualized relations (i.e. superordination (fruit), subordination (food), part-whole association (peel), whereas the other three refer to syntagmatic or contextualized relations (nice, monkey, slip). To take the test, children need to make a distinction between those words that they always associate with the stimulus word and those to which they only incidentally relate. The test covers semantic domains including food, transportation, animals, professions, etc.
The unique feature of WAT is that it assesses the degree of decontextualization of meaning assignments in the child’s lexical hierarchical network. Thus, the way children select associations implies that meaning assignments gradually become more decontextualized as lexical knowledge develops. In this study, children were asked to identify the paradigmatic information in the test items to show their ability and knowledge in recognizing this aspect of lexical depth.
Assessment of the Expressible Aspect of Lexical Depth
Giving definitions through an interview task has been the only method used so far to assess the expressible depth of word knowledge in a first or second language. As a genre-specific school task, it is a frequent technique for vocabulary training, which requires children to give definitions, look them up in the dictionary and copy them (Snow, Cancino, De Temple & Schley, 1991). A formal standard definition can be distinguished from an informal definition in that the former includes the paradigmatic information (i.e., superordinate term) and limited syntagmatic associations. An example can be “a knife is a tool [paradigamtic] used to cut meat or to stab people [syntagmatic]” (taken from Ordónez et al., 2002, p. 720). Children are usually required to define a word by answering a question such as ‘tell me what a knife is?’ or ‘what kind of a thing a knife is?’ In addition to the necessity for a superordinate term, a formal definition needs a formal register or proper syntactic structure to match an adult like Aristotelian definition:
"An X is a Y (a superordinate) that (followed by a restricted relative clause about attribute/property/somewhere/ somehow)…"
The task of providing verbal definitions not only requires a well-shaped hierarchical network of words/concepts in the mental lexicon, but also a familiarity with decontextualized language use, as well as an awareness of linguistic constraints required to form a definition (Snow, 1990). As such, completing the task calls on metalinguistic skill in analysis of knowledge and control of processing (Bialystok, 1991). Thus, the nature of the task shifts during the course of schooling from being linguistic to metalinguistic. The task's open-ended format allows children to formulate, restructure, and convey meaning aspects/relations in the form of a definition, in their own words and in any language. The unique feature of WDT is that it brings into relief both formal definitional quality and deep lexical knowledge through the explication of concepts.
The common finding of many studies on children’s definitions in L1 and L2 has been that the acquisition and recognition of superordinate membership used to define common objects is a “late habit,” occurring long after children refer to some evident sensory-object properties (Benelli, 1988, p. 229). Even if we consider the formal definitions as salient in the classroom, they are nonetheless a rather infrequent form that requires the availability of rare vocabulary items to identify the superordinate class (Snow et al., 1991).
It is possible that this ‘late habit’, when influenced by other factors, can develop into serious academic problems for second language learners. For example, Verhallen & Schoonen’s studies (1993, 1998a) reported large lexical differences between minority language children and monolinguals due to socioeconomic factors. However, one needs to interpret these observed differences, especially in large-scale assessments, in the light of other related variables such as L2 proficiency, prior formal schooling, and length of residence (Butler & Stevens, 1997). On the other hand, one cannot ignore the amount of input and exposure to the L1. Indeed, it seems essential to investigate the contribution of these factors to the development of depth in L2 and L1 among young L2 learners. We do not know whether using the knowledge and skills in one language contributes to cross-linguistic transfer.
Transfer of Academic Skills
Cummins’s (1991) linguistic interdependency hypothesis posits that L1 and L2 decontextualized (literacy-based) aspects of language proficiency are interrelated, in that academic skills developed/learned in one language, and with a solid base, transfer to the other language. It is important here to locate the concept of lexical depth in the linguistic interdependence framework. Earlier, I considered the paradigmatic aspect of lexical knowledge as a decontextualized language use and that providing definitions reflecting this knowledge is a literacy-based skill. Therefore, we may assume a transfer to occur if one has already developed such knowledge in one language. At the same time, we need to know how and in what direction the transfer might occur, considering other possible factors such as L1/HL literacy, language of instruction (L2), length of residence, and the exposure to the decontextualized language at school or home. In the following sections, some research evidence supporting the interdependence theory will be presented.
Transfer from L1 to L2: L1/HL Literacy and Schooling Experience
Longitudinal studies of Hispanic students in the U.S. have demonstrated an increasing correlation between English and Spanish academic skills among bilingual children over time (e.g., Ramirez, 1985; Hakuta & Diaz, 1985; Gonzalez, 1986). Cobo-Lewis, Eilers, Pearson & Umbel (2002) reported on the high correlation found between literacy skills (reading/writing) of English and Spanish, but not between L1 and L2 oral (vocabulary) skills. In a study specifically related to lexical depth, Ordónez et al. (2002) found out that paradigmatic word knowledge of Spanish strongly predicted the same knowledge in English. This transfer of knowledge occurred especially among Spanish-English bilingual children in grades 4 and 5 with a larger Spanish vocabulary. However, for syntagmatic word knowledge, researchers found no trace of cross-lingual transfer for communicative adequacy of definitions. Findings of several Scandinavian studies are consistent with the studies of Hispanic students. For example, Skutnabb-Kangas and Toukomaa (1976) found that Finnish immigrant children attending school in Finland for at least 3 years before entering Swedish schools did best on a variety of tests for cognitive and academic abilities.
All the above findings are in line with Cummins’s (1991) linguistic interdependency hypothesis that there is at least a moderate degree of interdependence between minority students’ L1 and L2 academic skills. Swain, Lapkin, Rowen, & Hart, (1990) found evidence of this interdependency between an L1 and a third language skills in a French immersion context in Canada (participants had French as L3, English as L2 and another language as a HL). The researchers reported a strong positive effect of HL literacy knowledge on learning the third language (French). In addition, the comparison of those with no HL and those illiterate in the HL on measures of French proficiency tests showed little difference. This latter finding suggests that mere oral proficiency in the HL might not affect either third or second language learning in a positive way.
On the other hand, relevant literature reveals inconsistent findings, especially those that report on studies involving dissimilar languages. In studies of Turkish/Dutch bilinguals in a submersion context, Verhallen and Schoonen (1993, 1998a) found evidence of a ‘serious academic break’ that resulted from a lack of lexical knowledge of both breadth and depth in L1 and L2 of low socio-economic status immigrant children. They concluded that inadequate support for the development of L1 among bilinguals may lead to lexical deficiencies that limit transfer possibilities. In other studies, while Genesee (1994) observed less evidence for transfer of skills from Chinese/Japanese to English (in orthography), Rehbein’s findings (as cited by Cummins, 1991) indicated a strong developmental interrelationship between Turkish and German in children’s conceptual information and discourse strategies. In Ordónez et al. (2002) study, however, the transfer of paradigmatic knowledge was attributed to the Spanish-English cognates serving as superordinate terms in children’s definitions. This raises the question of whether transfer is less successful with dissimilar languages.
Transfer from L2 to L1: L2 Schooling/Instruction and Length of Residence
In addition to the important role of L1 literacy and possibility of the transfer of skills from L1 to L2, we need to take caution in relying on L1 schooling/HL literacy as the only contributing variable. Cummins (2000) broadens our view by considering both L1 literacy and knowledge of L2 as important determinants of successful L2 literacy development. He further elaborates on the importance of explicit instruction with a focus on the genres, functions and conventions of the language through reading and writing tasks. Valdés (2004) refers to one of the features of academic language in an ESL (K-12) context as “the English used to obtain, process, construct and provide subject matter information in spoken and written form” (p. 111). In a bilingual education context, according to Valdés, practitioners are concerned with Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), initially defined by Cummins (1979). One feature of this concept is referred to as the ability in manipulating and interpreting language in cognitively-demanding, context-reduced texts. Regarding biliteracy, as Hornberger (1989) stated, “highly efficient reading/writing ability in L1 does not make up altogether for lack of knowledge of L2” (p. 286).
Research evidence that supports the importance of L2 instruction and the possibility of L2-L1 transfer include Roessingh, Kover & Watt’s research (2005) on high school ESL students of differing age on arrival (AOA), and ESL support in Alberta. The researchers found that long-term instructed support is crucial for the development of academic proficiency, especially for young arrivals (aged 6-11 upon arrival), compared to those older students at the time of arrival. These researchers refer to the benefits and the critical role of programmatic support and time in ESL instruction, especially for younger arrivals.
Carlo et al. (2004) provide evidence directly related to vocabulary instruction in an intervention program designed to enhance fifth graders' academic vocabulary of Spanish-English bilinguals and English-only monolinguals. The treatment included teaching 1) different aspects of word knowledge such as multiple meanings, cognates, morphology and depth of word knowledge (word associations) and 2) use of syntactic and contextual clues to infer word meaning in reading comprehension. The findings indicate that such a challenging curriculum did improve the performance of both English language learners and monolingual peers to equal degrees. In the long term, one can expect the transfer of English vocabulary knowledge to Spanish as L1, if children are provided with suitable L1 educational conditions to develop biliteracy.
In the general context of language development in bilinguals and multilinguals, Kecskes & Papp (2003) claimed that in the first phases, the dominant pattern of transfer is unidirectional (L1 to L2) and takes the form of grammatical and/or lexical errors. In fact, transfer in the opposite direction (L2 to L1) is not significant and does not take place at the conceptual level until the L2 proficiency increases along with the establishment of a Common Underlying Conceptual Base (CUCB). Accordingly, “This positive transfer is predominantly neither structural nor lexical but pragmatic, knowledge and skill transfer that is bidirectional… ” (p. 251). According to Kecskes & Papp’s (2000), the sophisticated use of L1, due to L2 influence, might occur in a positive change in literacy skills, text organization, sentence construction, and a more selective use of vocabulary.
The above findings lead us to consider the concept of L1/L2 interdependency in terms of bi-directional or two-way language transfer. Verhoeven’s finding (1991) about Turkish-Dutch bilinguals in the Netherlands is an example of this kind of transfer. He found that in one program, children who had initially started to read in Turkish could transfer the decoding and reading comprehension skills from their L1 to Dutch. In a reverse program where Dutch was introduced first, the transfer occurred from L2 to Turkish.
Finally, related to the L2 schooling factor is length of residence (LOR) variable. A review of literature in the field of bilingual and minority language children presents consistent views about LOR and academic capabilities of such children. The general consensus is that it would take approximately 5-7 years for English language learners, even with instructed support, to develop the level of language proficiency required to compete with their English monolingual counterparts academically (Cummins, 1981; Hakuta, Butler & Witt, 2000; Klesmer, 1994; Shohamy, 1999; Thomas & Collier, 1997). Cummins, for example, reported that after three years of residence, the English academic proficiency of ELL students was below grade norms. Although Cummins (2000) emphasizes the importance of the quantity of L2 input and LOR (as one of the learner attributes) in L2 acquisition, he posits that LOR per se might contribute more to some aspects of proficiency such as conversational syntax than L2 academic proficiency or interactional style.
This study was designed to explore the role of L1/L2 instruction and cross-lingual transfer of decontextualized language use on the measures of implicit and expressible deep word knowledge (WAT and WDT, respectively). I evaluated how two groups of Farsi-English bilingual children, one with a solid academic foundation in L1 (content-based schooling), and the other with basic HL literacy, more schooling experience in L2 and longer LOR displayed their decontextualized knowledge and skills in Farsi and English. Their performance on the English tasks was compared to the performance of a monolingual English-speaking group for the degree of development of lexical depth.
Based on theories of linguistic interdependency and transfer, as well as the notions of the role of L2 instruction, schooling experience and length of residence, it was predicted that bilinguals with content-based schooling in L1 would transfer the already acquired decontextualized knowledge from L1 to L2 at least for the recognition test (WAT), compared to the other bilinguals with more schooling in L2 and monolingual peers. At the same time, bilinguals with more schooling in L2 and a longer period of residence were expected to perform as well as monolingual peers on the English tasks. They are also expected to transfer the knowledge from L2 to L1 on the Farsi tasks.
Participants comprised three groups of sixth graders attending regular (public) school in Toronto, Canada. The first group, labeled the Bilingual Content-Based (BCB) group, were immigrant children who had either some years of formal schooling in Farsi in their home country of Iran prior to immigration or some years of content-based Farsi instruction at private Farsi schools in Toronto. The Toronto schools were supervised by the Ministry of Education in Iran and implement the same curriculum and textbooks as in the home country. They offer 6-8 hours of instruction on weekends, and all school subjects are taught in Farsi. BCB participants also spoke and were spoken to in Farsi in the home with parents and relatives, and had age appropriate native language skills.
The second group, labeled the Bilingual Heritage Language (BHL) group, were immigrant children who had basic Farsi literacy skills (reading/writing) as a result of attending heritage language programs in Toronto supervised by the local board of education and as part of a Canadian federal multicultural initiative. The programs offered one 3-hour class per week. Parents spoke in Farsi with their children, but the children sometimes used English with parents and siblings. They had some accent when speaking in their HL and lacked oral communication skills. Some BHLs were born in Canada. Length of residence of the bilingual children ranged from 3-11 years.
The third group, the Monolingual English-Speaking (MES) group, were all born in Canada. Their parents were native speakers of English and they spoke only in English with their children at home. Sixteen children were in each bilingual group and seventeen children were in the monolingual group (see Table 1).
The children’s English proficiency was assessed and controlled using the Vocabulary Levels Test (Schmitt, Schmitt, and Clapham, 2001) as a measure of English proficiency. The 2000 and 3000-word levels were used, and participants had to answer correctly at least two-thirds of the items to make sure that they had passed a threshold level of English proficiency. Farsi proficiency was measured with the Oral Vocabulary section of Bilingual Verbal Ability Tests (BVAT) (Munoz-Sandoval, Cummins, Alvarado & Ruef, 1998), translated into Farsi in the absence of a standard Farsi proficiency measure. According to the results of the Farsi BVAT, the BCB children had a significantly higher Farsi proficiency.
Table 1: Summary Table for Sample Population
Language Spoken at Home
|Farsi||Farsi||3.8 years||Grade 6||Content-based schooling in Iran and/or Canada at Farsi private schools|
|BHL (n=16)||English||Farsi/English||7.4 years||Grade 6||Basic literacy mostly through heritage language schools in Toronto|
|MES||English||English||n/a||Grade 6 and Grade 5/6 split||n/a|
Note. BCB = Bilingual Content-Based; BHL = Bilingual Heritage Language;
MES = Monolingual English-speaking
Background Questionnaire: A background questionnaire was created to collect information about the bilingual groups, BHL and BCB (See Appendix 1). Some of the information was used for the recruitment of the participants (e.g., schooling years in Iran/Canada or type of HL program in Canada). This paper reports the analysis of a few variables based on the questionnaire data. These include information about schooling completed in Iran and Canada, age on arrival (AOA) and length of residence (LOR) in Canada. The information collected through the questionnaire was used to correlate a child's test performance with their AOA, LOR, and L1/L2 instruction/schooling years. To analyze the data from the questionnaire, Pearson-product correlation coefficient was calculated.
Word Association Test (WAT): I collected data about the participants’ implicit deep word knowledge in English by means of a piloted version 1 of the Word Association Test designed by Verhallen & Schoonen (1998b) (See Appendix 2 for sample items and list of WAT items). Children were required to draw a line from the stimulus word to three of six meaning associations surrounding it to show the paradigmatic meaning relations.
The test consisted of 33 items and every item was worth one point if the test taker selected all three intended meaning relations. A score of zero was assigned otherwise (maximum possible score of 33). The performance of the three groups was then compared using ANOVA.
From the pool of 33 items, I selected half (16 items) to use as the Word Definition Task items (see below) to see if children could recognize the paradigmatic associations on the implicit knowledge measure and express them in the definition task. The scores of the groups on the 16 overlapping items were also compared through ANOVA.
Word Definition Task (WDT): I used the Word Definition Task similar to that of Snow et al. (1991) and Verhallen & Schoonen (1993) to measure the expressible aspect of deep word knowledge of the participants in terms of definitional quality in English (for BCB, BHL and MES groups) and in Farsi (for BCB and BHL groups). The children provided definitions for 16 words, taken from WAT in answer to the question "what is a ___?" This task preceded the WAT administration to override any practice effect from the paper-and-pencil test. In addition, the sessions for the English interviews preceded the Farsi interview sessions by at least two weeks. The children's answers were tape-recorded and transcribed.
The quality of definitions elicited in the interviews was analyzed for semantic and syntactic content based on a measure adapted from Formal Definitional Quality (FDQ) Scale (Snow, 1990; Snow et al., 1991; Ordónez et al., 2002). The scale, consisting of 3 categories of Syntax, Superordinate, and Definitional Feature, was used to distinguish between well formed and poorly formed definitions from different perspectives. Definitions were scored for each with a rating scale.
The first category, Syntax, was scored based on how closely it matched the ideal definitional form. A score of 4 was awarded for definitions matching the “X is a Y + (Complement)” format as in: “Nose is a part of body/something that helps you breathe and smell.” Definitions lacking is or that as in: “It’s something [ ] you smell with” or “[ ] a body part that can be used for smelling” were scored 3. A score of two was awarded for definitions with an incomplete, broken off or reduced relative clause after “X is a Y” as in “a nose is something for like on your face” or “It is a thing for smelling.” Finally, definitions with no relative clause were scored 1.
For the second category, Superordinate, definitions were ranked from zero to five depending on the type of superordinate used. “Real Superordinates,” such as “part of body/body part,” scored five, while “Qualified Empty Superordinates” (or “not best” Superordinates) scored four, e.g., “a facial thing”. “Empty Superordinates” such as “thing/something/someone” or “what we use for/where we breathe through” scored three. Synonyms and translations were scored 2 and 1, respectively.
The third category, Definitional Feature, was awarded one point for each correct meaning relation produced in the relative clause of each definition. This category measured participants’ knowledge of syntagmatic meaning aspects of words that included information about the use/function, composition, and attributions of the item (e.g., a bicycle has ‘two wheels’ or ‘is fun to ride’).
For the first two categories, an averaged sum of scores was calculated. For the Definitional Feature category, the number of correct meaning relations in each child’s definitions were summed up and averaged. Therefore, three variables were used in the analysis: “Syntax variable”, “Superordinate variable”, and “Definitional Feature variable”. Using a one-way ANOVA, the group means (BCB, BHL, and MES) were compared in each category separately. The same scales were used to score and analyze the Farsi WDT data. Since this analysis involved comparing only two group means, i.e., those of the BCB and BHL groups, an independent-samples t test was conducted.
To ensure the reliability of the FDQ scoring, inter-rater reliability was obtained with the assistance of a bilingual rater using 20% of the definitions in each language. Inter-rater reliability for the Syntax category was calculated at 90% for English and 87% for Farsi data. For the Superordinate category, the reliability was 96% for both English and Farsi data. The level of agreement for the Definitional Features was 89% for English and 90% for Farsi data.
The implicit deep word knowledge of lexical depth was measured by the Word Association Test to investigate the extent to which participating children could identify the paradigmatic/decontextualized associations of the test items. Table 2 shows the descriptive statistics for WAT33 (the complete WAT with 33 items) and WAT16 (the selected version of WAT with 16 items). The scores ranged from 18 to 32 for WAT33, and from 11 to 16 for WAT16. As shown in Table 3, the results of ANOVA showed significant differences for WAT16, F (2, 46) = 5.67, p = .01, η² = .20, while no significant differences were found for scores on WAT33. Post hoc analyses to the ANOVA for the WAT16 scores to evaluate pair-wise differences among the group means indicated that there was a significant difference only between bilinguals with content-based schooling (BCB) and the monolingual peers (MES), the latter outperforming the former. The results of the ANOVA analyses for WAT33 are in line with the expectation that the bilingual groups would perform as well as their monolingual peers, due to their longer LOR and L2 schooling (i.e., BHL) or a transfer of knowledge from L1 (for BCB). With the 16 items (the same items used in WDT) analyzed separately, it was found that the bilinguals with less LOR (BCB group) performed less well than their English-speaking peers, while they performed comparably to the BHL group. Moreover, as predicted, performance by the BHL and MES groups did not differ significantly.
Table 2: Mean and Standard Deviations of Groups on WAT33 and WAT16 in English
Note. Maximum possible scores: WAT33=33, WAT16=16.
Table 3: One-way Analysis of Variance for Mean Differences of Groups on WAT33 and WAT16
F (2, 46)
Note. *p <.05** p<.01
η2 = effect size
Expressible Aspect of Lexical Depth in English
I evaluated the children’s definitions for their definitional quality using the Formal Definitional Quality (FDQ) Scale. Table 4 shows the descriptive statistics for the three categories of the scale. Overall, monolingual children (MES) obtained higher means than the two Farsi-speaking groups on two of the three categories. In the Superordinate category, the BHL group performed better (80%) than the MES (76%) and the BCB group (65%). In general, the BCB group obtained the lowest mean scores on all three categories compared to the other two groups.
Table 4: Means, Standard Deviations, and Mean Proportions in Percentages
for Averaged Scores of FDQ Categories in English
Note. Maximum possible score: Syntax =4; Superordinate=5; Definitional Feature=the data showed a range of 0-6 correct features per word.
As Table 5 illustrates, the results of ANOVA showed significant mean differences for all categories. However, post hoc tests for multiple comparisons of pair-wise mean differences revealed statistical significance only for the Superordinate and Definitional Feature categories. For the Superordinate category, the BCB group did not perform as well as the other two groups, while no differences were found between the BHL and MES groups. The results for the Definitional Feature category indicate significant differences only between the BCB children and their monolingual English-speaking peers.
Table 5: One-way Analysis of Variance for Mean Differences of Groups on Averaged Scores of English FDQ Categories
F (2, 46)
p < .05.** p < .01.*** p <.001
The results confirm some but not all predictions made for group performances on the expressible aspect of lexical depth. For example, the BCB group was expected to perform either similarly (due to the transfer from L1 to L2) or less well (due to their shorter LOR) on the English tasks, compared to the other two groups. The first prediction is confirmed by the similar results of the BCB children on the Syntax category of FDQ scale. However, the BCB group showed poorer performance both on the measures of paradigmatic and syntagmatic knowledge when compared to peers.
The BHL children were expected to perform as well as monolingual peers due to the impact of L2 exposure/instruction (English as the dominant language). The expectation was fulfilled by their similar performances in all categories. Furthermore, BHL children could outperform the BCB group on the Superordinate category.
Expressible Aspect of Lexical Depth in Farsi
I evaluated the mean differences of averaged scores on Farsi definitions produced by the two Farsi-English bilingual groups. As shown in Table 6, in spite of the higher means gained by the BCB group (except for Syntax), no statistically significant differences were found between the two Farsi-speaking groups on any of the FDQ categories.
Table 6: Group Differences for FDQ Scale of Farsi Definitions (n=32)
Based on the BCB group’s higher Farsi proficiency level and content-based experience (based on the Farsi BVAT measure), one expects them to outperform the BHL group who had basic Farsi literacy skills (Farsi as the weaker language). Apparently, the results do not fulfill this expectation. The results support to a great extent the prediction that the BHL group would transfer their knowledge and skills from English (stronger language) to Farsi.
The data reveal an interesting fact about superordinate production in both languages. The BCB children never switched to their stronger language (Farsi) for an English superordinate term, whereas when providing Farsi definitions, they did switch to English, which resulted in lower scores on the scale.
LOR and L1/L2 Schooling Years
To account for the possible role of other variables, I examined the relationship between children’s performance on lexical depth measures and their LOR as well as years of L1/L2 schooling. This analysis was performed only on the bilingual group since there was no variance in the LOR and L2 schooling of the monolingual population 2 (Table 1).
As shown in Table 7, the results of Pearson Product-Moment Correlation Coefficient indicate that the correlations of LOR with all English measures except for the Definitional Feature were statistically significant and greater than .40. These results suggest that children’s scores on the L2 measures tend to increase with their length of residence. The explanation for the definitional feature might be that ability to provide contextualized syntagmatic meaning relations bears a greater relation to personal life experiences than to length of residence and exposure to L2. Regarding Farsi definitional measures, the table shows that all correlations of the LOR with Farsi measures, except for Farsi BVAT (measure of Farsi proficiency), tend not to be statistically significant. For BVAT, the negative correlation indicates that a shorter length of residence corresponds to a higher score on that test for Farsi-speaking children, suggesting that children were likely to lose Farsi proficiency as they acquired English.
The correlation of years of L2 schooling with all English measures were also statistically significant and greater than .40 which means that children’s scores on the L2 implicit and expressible deep word knowledge tend to increase as they complete more years of school in Canada. The results also indicate that years of L2 schooling has a significant negative correlation with Farsi BVAT, suggesting that the scores on the Farsi proficiency measure tend to decrease as they complete more grades in L2. This finding replicates the one of negative correlation between Farsi BVAT and LOR.
Surprisingly, Table 7 shows no significant correlation between years of L1 schooling and Farsi definitional quality measures. However, a significant correlation found between years of L1 schooling and Farsi BVAT suggests that more years of content-based L1 schooling contribute to L1 proficiency scores, as one might expect. Interestingly, children with more L1 formal schooling earned lower English superordinate scores, which corresponds to previous findings about the poor performance of the BCB group in the Superordinate category (see also Table 5).
Table 7: Means, Standard Deviations and Correlations of Dependent Variables with Children's Length of Residence and L1/L2 Schooling (n=32)
*p< .05. ** **p< .01
Note. L1-Lit.=Total number of formal L1 schooling (In Iran and/or Canada);
L2-Lit.= Total number of L2 schooling
In general, the negligible correlation suggests that Farsi-speaking children’s performance on the definitional skill in L1 bears no relation to either the length of their residence in Canada or their L1 schooling experience. It should be mentioned that some further analysis conducted to investigate the above results in relation to type of L1 schooling, confirmed the results presented here.
The results of the present study provide support for the transfer of deep word knowledge/skills, both the recognition and the expression of paradigmatic and linguistic knowledge from English/L2 to a heritage language (Farsi). This type of transfer was reflected in the performance of the bilingual sample (BHL) who had basic HL literacy combined with longer period of residence and years of L2 schooling in Canada. Compared to their bilingual peers (BCB) who had content-based instruction in the HL but a shorter period of residency, the BHL group showed similar performance on the Farsi measures of expressible lexical depth (i.e., the syntactic form of definitions and the knowledge of paradigmatic and syntagmatic knowledge). The BHL group even performed similarly to the monolingual English-speaking peers, probably due to their metalinguistic abilities (control and analysis processes) in a context-reduced task (Bialystok, 1991). These findings reflect their native-like level of skills as measured by the measures of implicit and expressible deep word knowledge in this study.
The findings provide only partial support for L1-L2 transfer. For example, the BCB children showed similar performance to their bilingual and monolingual peers, BHL and MES, only on the long version of WAT. The BCB children may have transferred their already developed implicit deep knowledge from L1 due to their content-based HL instruction (Farsi), and also used their metalinguistic abilities (Bialystok, 1991). However, their poorer performance on WAT16, compared to their monolingual English-speaking peers, suggests that they need more LOR and exposure to English as the language of instruction (Cummins, 2000; Hakuta et al., 2000). The results of the BCB group’s performance on the overlapping items in WAT16 and WDT seem to replicate each other in that they showed poorer performance in both recognition and expression of the paradigmatic knowledge on both measures.
Regarding the expressible aspect of lexical depth, we can conclude that BCB children have undergone a transfer of linguistic knowledge for the format of standard definitions from HL to English, enabling them to show similar level of knowledge of syntax. Similar to Ordónez et al.’s Spanish/English bilingual sample (2002), the BCB children followed the same metalinguistic route to form a definition around an ‘X is a Y’ structure in English as well. The qualitative analysis of the data (not presented here) confirms the above finding in that the BCB group also performed fewer spontaneous revisions of their definitions for syntax during the interviews. In general, the findings for both bilingual groups indicate a good level of awareness of the formality conventions of the definition genre.
On the paradigmatic knowledge scale (Superordinate category), the significant differences between the BCB children and the other two groups suggest that the BCB group might not have access to these infrequent terms in L2 due to their shorter LOR and L2 instruction (Cummins, 2000; Snow 1990). The transfer of this knowledge from L1 is not evident, since these children need to re-learn the superordinate terms in English. Another explanation can be that, unlike the bilinguals in Ordónez et al.’s study (2002), the BCB children did not evidently have the cognate transfer advantage. The findings of this study replicate those of Verhallen and Schoonen (1993, 1998a) about superordinate production of Turkish-Dutch children.
From the findings of Farsi definitions, it appears that for the linguistic form of definitions, children used the same metalinguistic route due to the similarity of form in both languages (except that verbs occur at the end of a sentence in Farsi). It may also be the case that some children might have benefited from a practice effect since the Farsi task followed the English task.
Regarding the Superordinate category, as mentioned earlier, some BCB children switched to English in trying to retrieve superordinate terms, resulting in lower scores (translation score was 1). On the other hand, BHL children, even without direct lexical access to these terms in Farsi (their weaker language), could fit vague superordinates (score of 4 or 3) into the structure and consequently scored higher. We can thus conclude that there is stronger evidence for transfer from L2 (as the stronger/ instruction language) to L1 (Kecskes & Papp, 2000; Verhoeven, 1991) for the BHL group than from L1 to L2 for the BCB group. For the Definitional Feature category, we can conclude that the groups used the same knowledge sources and that there was a practice effect from the English task and exposure to the L1 at home or an L1-dominated social life.
Finally, the findings support previous studies (e.g., Kurland & Snow; Snow et al. 1991; Tapia-Uribe, 1988) that definitional skill is significantly related to children’s exposure to decontextualized language use at school, years of schooling and practice. Furthermore, the results reflect the views of researchers (Cummins, 2000; Hakuta et al., 2000; Roessingh et al., 2005) about the need of young second language learners for more LOR to attain a native-like academic level.
The low or negative correlations found for Farsi measures of word knowledge suggest that, for the sample under study, more L1 schooling has not been sufficient to promote definitional skills in L1. Therefore, in the context of the present study, L1 literacy, either as content-based or heritage-language instruction, has not contributed as much to task performance as have length of residence and L2 schooling experience. The language of instruction seems to have a stronger impact through L2 than through L1.
Finally, the present findings do not support the myth about the negative role of L1 that a home language different from the language of instruction will pose difficulty for children at school. All Farsi-speaking children have mentioned in the questionnaires that they spoke and were spoken to in Farsi in the home at all times. The BHL children’s performance, which matched the monolinguals’ performance, contradicts the view of the negative effect of L1 as home language on school-task performance. For BCB children, performance correlates more to length of L2 exposure than to L1 as home language.
Conclusions and Implications
The findings of the present study shed light on two educational areas, pedagogy and measurement, that are important for second language learners. While children may know a word, they may not be able to use or produce it in all its conceptual aspects. As the results of this investigation show, even by controlling for English proficiency, some differences were found in each group’s deep lexical knowledge. This clearly demonstrates that deep lexical knowledge, as an underlying aspect, is not always immediately perceptible. Therefore, in terms of pedagogy, there is a need to incorporate various features of the deep lexical knowledge (e.g., semantic hierarchies, paradigmatic relations, and collocations) into vocabulary instruction. For instance, the curriculum can carefully build on language knowledge acquired at home to enable the continuous development of decontextualized or academic lexical knowledge in a second curricular language. In addition, children need to be sensitized to category membership as well as the conventional form of definitions, since awareness of hierarchical relationships and definitional structure are shown to correlate with achievement in school-based literacy tasks (Snow, Cancino, Gonzalez & Shriberg, 1989). For assessment, as mentioned in this paper, few tests/tasks have been developed for measuring deep lexical knowledge. One way of diagnosing a problem is through the development and implementation of sensitive and accurate measurement tools.
A significant aspect of this research is that it not only offers a new way of assessing deep lexical knowledge, but also contributes to our understanding of the cognitive processes in children’s mental lexicon. It highlights that in long term, the learning of a heritage language and a second language contribute to bilingual children’s lexical depth issues.
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1. Any inquiries regarding the Word Association Test can be forwarded to the author of this article. (back)
2. Bilingual children's length of residence in Canada ranged from three to 11 years. Years of L1 schooling were calculated by adding the number of years of content-based schooling in Iran and/or at private Farsi schools in Canada. This ranged from 0 to 5.5 years. A rank of 0 was given to children who attended a heritage language school with no content-based L1 schooling. For years of L2 schooling, kindergarten years (JK, first year of kindergarten, and/or SK, second year) were added to the number of grades completed at the time of data collection. Years of L2 schooling ranged from two to seven years.(back)
Student Background Questionnaire (back)
Name_____________ Boy_______ Girl_______
This survey is part of a research project on aspects of vocabulary knowledge. The questions ask about the language(s) you know and understand. Your answers will be very confidential and no one, except the researcher, will see them.
Please read the questions carefully and answer them as well as you can. Remember that it is not a test and there are no right or wrong answers in some questions. Please ask your teacher about any question you are having trouble understanding.
Thanks for your cooperation.
1)Were you born in Canada? Yes______ No_______(if yes, go to question 3)
a) What country were you born in?________________
b)How old were you when you came to Canada?__________________
2)You started school in Canada from grade_________.
Which grades did you finish in your home country?
Grade 1 _____ Grade 4 _____
Grade 2 _____ Grade 5 _____
Grade 3 _____ Grade 6 _____
3)This question is about the languages you can understand when they are written and/or spoken (add other languages if any and circle a number for each:
|You can speak English||5||4||3||2||1|
|You can write in English||5||4||3||2||1|
|You can speak________||5||4||3||2||1|
|You can write in_______||5||4||3||2||1|
|You can speak________||5||4||3||2||1|
|You can write in_______||5||4||3||2||1|
4) How often is English and/or any other language spoken in your home (add other languages if any and circle a number for each):
About half of the time
Most of the all the time
Please answer this part if your first language is Farsi
5) Do you attend a Farsi school in Toronto? Yes____ No____
If yes, do you attend
Once a week for 2 hours______ OR a few days a week______
How many years have you been in the Farsi school?__________ Grade_______
Word Association Test (WAT) and Word Definition Task (WDT): List of Test Items and Sample Items (back)
Instruction: Draw lines to connect the stimulus word in the middle to three other words that always relate to that word.
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Published: Thursday, January 11, 2007