Dissertation > Language, writing > FOREIGN > English > Language teaching

A Study on the Acquisition of English Polysemy by Chinese Students: in Semantic Representation and Retrieval Perspective

Author WuGuangShan
Tutor YangLianRui
School Ocean University of China
Course Foreign Linguistics and Applied Linguistics
Keywords polysemy representation and retrieval foreign language proficiency context
CLC H319
Type Master's thesis
Year 2012
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Polysemy is one of the most common and important phenomena of language andhas been drawing researchers’attention. Most of previous studies on polysemy followthe structural linguistic paradigm, while few studies have been done in the fields ofcognitive psychology and second language acquisition (SLA). Recently, studies onrepresentation and retrieval of polysemous words have got quick development. Theresearch scope has expanded from L1polysemous words to L2polysemous words. Inthe field of second language acquisition, it will be a new academic growth point tostudy the cross language influences on semantic representation and retrieval in L2polysemous words acquisition following the cognitive psychological paradigm.Based on the prototype theory and the model of lexical representation anddevelopment in a second language, this study takes the Chinese EFL learners assubjects to study the effect of language proficiency of Chinese EFL learners torepresent and retrieve senses of English polysemous words, the appearance of theprototype effect in representing and retrieving senses of English polysemous words,and the effect of context to retrieve senses of English polysemous words. Combinedwith previous studies, the present study makes three hypotheses:(1) Languageproficiency of Chinese EFL learners would affect the retrieval of senses of Englishpolysemous words. With the improvement of English proficiency, the matchingweight between senses of English polysemous words and their Chinese equivalencesbecomes higher and more stable. The gap of the matching weight betweennon-prototypical senses of English polysemous words and their Chinese equivalences and the matching weight between the prototypical senses of English polysemouswords and their Chinese equivalences narrows up.(2) Prototypicality of the sensesplays an important role in the retrieval of English polysemous words. In the process ofretrieving senses, the sense with high prototypicality will be prior to being retrieved.(3) The context may affect Chinese EFL learners’ retrieval of English polysemouswords. The greater amount of information the context supplies, the easier the ChineseEFL Learners retrieve senses of the English polysemous words. With the help ofcertain amount of context information, the sense with high prototypicality loses itspriority in retrieving.Three groups of subjects with different levels of language proficiency werechosen based on the results of an English proficiency test. They are30senior highschool freshmen (the group of low level of English proficiency),30sophomores ofnon-English major (the group of middle level of English proficiency) and30postgraduate students of English major (the group of high level of Englishproficiency). Twenty English polysemous words which consist of10high frequencyEnglish polysemous words and10low frequency English polysemous words wereselected according to BNC (British National Corpus). The participants were asked todo the online meaning matching experiment and the online meaning free associatingexperiment. The data got from the experiments were analyzed by SPSS17.0.Through analysis, hypothesis (1) and (2), to a certain degree, are confirmed,while hypothesis (3) is partly confirmed. As to hypothesis (1), there are significantdifferences between the representation of prototypical senses and non-prototypicalsenses of English polysemous words as to Chinese EFL learners with low Englishproficiency and the middle English proficiency. The representation weights ofprototypical senses are higher than the representation weights of the non-prototypicalsenses. However, as to the Chinese EFL learners with high English proficiency, thereis no significant difference between the representation of prototypical senses and thenon-prototypical senses. These results show that the semantic representation of L2polysemous words is not a stable but a dynamic developing process. These resultsalso show that the first hypothesis is right. As to hypothesis (2), the function of prototypicality of the sense has obvious effects on retrieving senses of the Englishpolysemous words under null context. The sense with high prototypicality is mucheasier to be retrieved than the sense with low prototypicality. This result also verifiesthat the second hypothesis is right. Moreover, this study also finds anotherperformance of the prototype effects that is the order in retrieving the senses. Ingeneral, the prototypical senses are prior to be retrieved than the peripheral senses.This result also shows that the second hypothesis is right. As to hypothesis (3), thisstudy finds that the context, to a certain degree, can help the participants to retrievethe senses. However, sometimes, no matter how much information the contextsupplied, the participants cannot retrieve the senses.Subsequently, we do some discussions to the results of the experiments. Thepresent study holds the point that the categorization, the lexical representation anddevelopment in a second language, and the semantic representation weights of thesenses in the mental lexicon of the learners are the important reasons that cause theoutcomes. Firstly, different categorizations of the senses of Chinese and Englishpolysemous words, to some extent, are the reasons resulting in the difficulties for theEFL Chinese learners to retrieve senses of English polysemous words. Secondly, thedifferent semantic representation stages of the senses also result in the differences inrepresentation and retrieval of the senses of the English polysemous words. Thirdly,the representation weight of senses of polysemous words in learners’mental lexicon isalso the reason causing the differences in retrieving the core senses and the peripheralsenses of English polysemous words and the change of the representation weights ofdifferent senses of English polysemous words in learners’ mental lexicon is the reasoncausing the differences for Chinese EFL learners with different language proficienciesto make retrieval of senses of English polysemous words. Last but not the least, theimplications, the limitations and the suggestions for future studies are listed based onthe findings of the present study.

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