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Words And Sensitivity


Do second language speakers process large language patterns, such as multi-word phrases (for example: ‘no need to worry’) as a whole, or do they process each word separately? Are they sensitive to their frequency, meaning being able to process high-frequency combinations faster – as native speakers are?

The answers to these questions can potentially give linguists a ‘unified theory’, a single-system view of language according to which words and larger patterns are processed by the same cognitive mechanism.

The opposite theory, the words-and-rules approach, prefers a dual system where words are stored in the lexicon and multi-word phrases are processed by combining single words and grammar rules. Also, proving that second language speakers are sensitive to multi-word phrase frequency in the same way that native speakers are could suggest that similar processes underpin both L1 and L2 learning. These are the issues investigated in the ‘More than words: multiword frequency effects in non-native speakers’ study by M. Hernández, A. Costa and I. Arnon (2016).

Twenty-seven native speakers and fifty-nine non-native speakers (between B2 and C1 level) participated in the study. To control for education influence, non-native speakers were split into those who were learning English in the classroom and those in an immersion setting. Both groups performed two tasks: word recognition and compositional (non-idiomatic) four-word-phrase recognition. In both tasks they had to discern between real and invented words or phrases, both at high and low frequency.

In the word recognition task, frequency effect was significant, especially for L2 speakers: participants reacted much more swiftly to high-frequency words. In the phrase recognition task, frequency sensitivity was still high and did not differ between the three groups.

The study suggests that non-native speakers can acquire the same frequency sensitivity as native speakers, even at intermediate level. Also, it would seem that immersion may not necessarily be better than a classroom setting for allowing learners to progress to native speaker proficiency.