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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