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Difficulties of vocabulary acquisition

Creating rational methods of teaching vocabulary is impossible without methodological typology of lexical items. The latter is understood as determining types of lexical items from the point of view of the difficulties that may arise in the process of vocabulary acquisition.

Learning words of a foreign language has never been an easy thing, for every word has its form, meaning and usage and each of these aspects may have their own difficulties. Such words as daughter, woman, women, busy and the like are difficult in form and easy in usage. Other words (get, happy, enter, go) are easy in form but difficult in usage. In 1970 I.M. Bermansuggested three major criteria of the typology of lexical difficulties:

1) correlation of meaning and form of lexical items in L1 and L2 and discrepancy in their meaning causing interference;

2) character of lexical material in L1;

3) difficulties in reception and reproduction of the target language words.

1. According to the first criteria, lexical difficulties can be subdivided into:

a) difficulties connected with the phonetic form of words (e.g. while assimilating homophones, including the grammatical ones);

b) those connected with the graphic form of words (e.g. grapheme-phoneme discrepancy: thought [θכ:t]; homographs: to lead [li:d] - lead [led]; paronyms: some - same);

c) orthographical difficulties (e.g. multisyllable words: intermediate; and derivatives: unhappiness);

d) structural difficulties caused by the absence of word forming elements in analytical languages (e.g. when the function of a lexical item in the sentence can be defined only by the word order: Mothersfather children. Labour we delight in physics pain = Enjoyable word cures pain);

e) complete or partial incoincidence of the volume of lexical meaning in L1 and L2. In case of complete incoincidence the so-called international words denote two different notions in two languages (e.g. интеллигетный and intelligent) In case of partial incoincidence of the volumes of meaning, one mother tongue lexical item corresponds to two or more items in L2, and vice versa (e.g. рука – arm and hand; нога – foot and leg);

f) absence of a word and its denotatum in one of the languages when no equivalent of the mother tongue lexical item can be found in L2 and vice versa. In this case, the lexical item is either borrowed from the other language or translated descriptively (e.g. Ground Zero; lunch; discount);

g) intralingual interference(e.g. He is ill. He is an ill man) and interlingual interference(e.g. Этот фильм понравился мне is often translated as This film liked me).

2. The character of the lexical item in L2 may cause the learners the following types of difficulties:

a) the degree of the word informative value, which is determined not only by the denotative meaning of the word, but also by its connotative (evaluative, expressive and emotional components) meaning and implications supplied by the general cultural-historical context (e.g. Scrooge – Плюшкин, Коробочка; a panda car ­– a police patrol car painted white and black like a panda bear);

b) polysemy of words and the necessity to differentiate various meanings while listening or reading: (e.g. I got out of the library. – I got the book out of the library; We booked him for speeding. – We booked the tickets);

c) inclusion of the word into a synonymic row and the necessity to differentiate the shades of meaning of synonyms (e.g. an advertisement – an announcement – a notice; vacant – empty - unoccupied – free – spare – leisure);

d) usage of one and the same word in the direct and indirect meanings (e.g. to fall to the ground – to fall in love);

e) degree of the word combinability (e.g. a bar of chocolate, a bar of soap, a slice of lemon, a lump of sugar; a bunch of poppies, a bunch of keys, a bundle of sticks);

f) compound words and word-combinations the meaning of which cannot be derived from the meaning of their components (set expressions and phraseologisms) (e.g. a hijack; to beat about the bush; to put up with something);

g) free word combinations, which do not coincide in different languages (e.g. убирать комнату – to do the room; обратить внимание – to pay attention; в два часа ночи – at two o’clock in the morning).

3. Difficulties in reception and reproduction of L2 words.

‘Knowing’ a vocabulary item is not a simple process – it means much more than simply memorising the word. From a receptive (passive) point of view, it means recognising its meaning when it occurs in context – a relatively simple process. For students to add the word to their active vocabularies they need to know the contexts in which it can occur, the possible and impossible collocations of the word (words it can, or cannot, co-occur with) as well as more details of the connotational meaning of the word.

To define the degree of difficulty in lexical item acquisition, it is necessary to take into account the sphere of their functioning. Thus, the difficulties of active vocabulary, serving the productive skills functioning, do not often coincide with the difficulties of passive vocabulary, needed for listening and reading. For example, in a very simple sense little and small mean the same thing – most students have no difficulty understanding the sentence Which would you like – the big one or the small/little one? Even such ‘simple’ words, however, present difficulties for active use – it is possible to say What a pretty little dress, but not What a pretty small dress.

Summingup the most important types of difficulties for words of active and passive vocabularies, V.A. Bukhbindermentions the following.

For active vocabulary:

· word usage both in isolation and in a phrase;

· controlled and free of control word usage;

· similarity in sounding form (homophones);

· similarity in meaning (synonyms);

· incoincidence in the way of forming grammatical form in L1 and L2;

· similarity in meaning, but difference in form of the words in two languages;

· incoincidence in the volume of meanings of words and their combinability.

For passive vocabulary:

· monosyllabic words;

· multisyllabic words;

· usage of one and the same word in the direct and indirect, main and additional meanings;

· words, similar in sounding form in L2;

· words, similar in form in L2 and L1, but different in meaning at the same time.

Thus, the teacher’s job is to neutralise and overcome various types of difficulties in vocabulary acquisition both at the stage of introduction and meaning conveyance and at the stage of automation lexical habits.

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