Semantic richness, semantic context, and language learning

Frances, C. (2021). Semantic richness, semantic context, and language learning. PhD Thesis, Universidad del País Vasco-Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, Donostia.
As knowing a foreign language becomes a necessity in the modern world, a large portion of the population is faced with the challenge of learning a language in a classroom. This, in turn, presents a unique set of difficulties. Acquiring a language with limited and artificial exposure makes learning new information and vocabulary particularly difficult. The purpose of this thesis is to help us understand how we can compensate—at least partially—for these difficulties by presenting information in a way that aids learning. In particular, I focused on variables that affect semantic richness—meaning the amount and variability of information associated with a word. Some factors that affect semantic richness are intrinsic to the word and others pertain to that word’s relationship with other items and information. This latter group depends on the context around the to-be- learned items rather than the words themselves. These variables are easier to manipulate than intrinsic qualities, making them more accessible tools for teaching and understanding learning. I focused on two factors: emotionality of the surrounding semantic context and contextual diversity. Publication 1 (Frances, de Bruin, et al., 2020b) focused on content learning in a foreign language and whether the emotionality—positive or neutral—of the semantic context surrounding key information aided its learning. This built on prior research that showed a reduction in emotionality in a foreign language. Participants were taught information embedded in either positive or neutral semantic contexts in either their native or foreign language. When they were then tested on these embedded facts, participants’ performance decreased in the foreign language. But, more importantly, they remembered better the information from the positive than the neutral semantic contexts. In Publication 2 (Frances, de Bruin, et al., 2020a), I focused on how emotionality affected vocabulary learning. I taught participants the names of novel items described either in positive or neutral terms in either their native or foreign language. Participants were then asked to recall and recognize the object's name—when cued with its image. The effects of language varied with the difficulty of the task—appearing in recall but not recognition tasks. Most importantly, learning the words in a positive context improved learning, particularly of the association between the image of the object and its name. In Publication 3 (Frances, Martin, et al., 2020), I explored the effects of contextual diversity—namely, the number of texts a word appears in—on native and foreign language word learning. Participants read several texts that had novel pseudowords. The total number of encounters with the novel words was held constant, but they appeared in 1, 2, 4, or 8 texts in either their native or foreign language. Increasing contextual diversity—i.e., the number of texts a word appeared in—improved recall and recognition, as well as the ability to match the word with its meaning. Using a foreign language only affected performance when participants had to quickly identify the meaning of the word. Overall, I found that the tested contextual factors related to semantic richness—i.e., emotionality of the semantic context and contextual diversity—can be manipulated to improve learning in a foreign language. Using positive emotionality not only improved learning in the foreign language, but it did so to the same extent as in the native language. On a theoretical level, this suggests that the reduction in emotionality in a foreign language is not ubiquitous and might relate to the way in which that language as learned. The third article shows an experimental manipulation of contextual diversity and how this can affect learning of a lexical item, even if the amount of information known about the item is kept constant. As in the case of emotionality, the effects of contextual diversity were also the same between languages. Although deducing words from context is dependent on vocabulary size, this does not seem to hinder the benefits of contextual diversity in the foreign language. Finally, as a whole, the articles contained in this compendium provide evidence that some aspects of semantic richness can be manipulated contextually to improve learning and memory. In addition, the effects of these factors seem to be independent of language status—meaning, native or foreign—when learning new content. This suggests that learning in a foreign and a native language is not as different as I initially hypothesized, allowing us to take advantage of native language learning tools in the foreign language, as well.
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