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Review of  Lexical Availability in English and Spanish as a Second Language

Reviewer: Jon Clenton
Book Title: Lexical Availability in English and Spanish as a Second Language
Book Author: Rosa María Jiménez Catalán
Publisher: Springer
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 25.1006

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This book compiles two different research areas: lexical availability studies, and vocabulary research in second or foreign languages. It presents eleven studies that document developments in lexical availability, an area often neglected by English speaking researchers, and offers a resource for a learner-centred approach to L2 vocabulary skills (as opposed to the English-language tradition of focusing on frequency and large corpora).

The first chapter (‘Lexical Availability Studies’, by Humberto López Morales), which is the first chapter in this first section examining lexical availability in English as an L1 and L2, presents a narrative of the ‘not very extensive’ history of lexical availability studies. It provides a structure of the sections of the book, which first addresses lexical availability studies in English as an L1 and L2, and then moves on to address lexical availability studies in Spanish as an L1 and L2.

The second chapter (‘Lexical Availability of Basic and Advanced Semantic Categories in English L1 and English L2’, by Roberto A. Ferreira Campos and Max S. Echeverria Weasson) introduces the first of two empirical studies within this first section. It presents a study that compares the lexicon of native English speakers and advanced L2 students of English in terms of different levels of semantic category (i.e. basic or advanced). The basic semantic categories relate to ‘body parts’ and ‘food and drink’ and the advanced semantic categories relate to ‘terrorism and crime’ and ‘health and medicine’. The study found that the L1 speakers outperformed the L2 learners, and that both groups significantly tended to provide a greater proportion of basic categories than advanced categories. This second finding appears to have implications for the available lexicons of L1 and L2 speakers.

The third chapter (‘The Effect of Age on EFL Learners’ Lexical Availability: Word Responses to the Cue Words ‘Town’ and ‘Countryside’, by Rosa María Jiménez Catalán, María del Pilar Agustín Llach, Almundena Fernández Fontecha, an Andrés Canga Alonso) introduces the second of the two empirical studies within this first section. It presents a corpus study to determine the influence of age in which the lexical availability outputs of primary school children ages 11-12 were compared to those of first year university English language learners ages 18-19. The study found that there were non-significant differences in the number and characteristics of the words that the two age groups retrieved in relation to two specific semantic domains: ‘Town’ and ‘Countryside’. Interestingly, the results suggest different conceptualisations of the two domains, with those of young learners relating to school issues and those of adult learners relating to hobbies and sports.

The fourth chapter (‘The Incidence of Previous Foreign Language Contact in a Lexical Availability Task: A Study of Senior Learners’, by Francisco Gallardo del Puerto, and María Martínez Adrián) considers the effect of previous English (L2) exposure and age (55 years or older) on a lexical availability performance task of productive vocabulary. The authors show that their false beginner students outperformed true beginners in terms of both the total number of words produced in their lexical availability task and most of the semantic categories included in the task. They also suggest that, due to similarities with young-learner studies, age does not have an impact on the senior learners’ abilities to acquire a language.

The fifth chapter (‘Lexical Variation in Learners’ Responses to Cue Words: The Effect of Gender’, by María del Pilar Agustín Llach, and Almundena Fernández Fontecha) explores the effect of gender on the lexical availability of learners’ word retrieval at two points in time: sixth and ninth grade. The results indicate that females provided more responses than males at both points, both male and female responses were consistent in terms of the proportion of responses they provided at each time, and all learners produced significantly more responses at the second time point. These results suggest that learners continue to learn words within each of the semantic categories represented by the study.

The sixth chapter (‘Frequency Profiles of EFL learners’ Lexical Availability’, by Rosa María Jiménez Catalán, and Tess Fitzpatrick), the final chapter in this first section, presents a study which applies a word frequency framework to sixth grade and eighth grade L2 English learner response data to nine cues traditionally used in lexical availability studies. The study examined learner profiles in terms of the number and relative infrequency of words produced within nine semantic domains. The study showed that the eighth grade students’ lexical availability increased in comparison to the sixth grade students, both overall and in specific relation to each of the nine cues. Interestingly, the study showed that there are aspects other than frequency that are worthy of further exploration, both for lexical availability studies as well as vocabulary researchers.

The seventh chapter (‘The Relationship of Language Proficiency to the Lexical Availability of Learners of Spanish’, by Marta Samper Hernández), the first chapter in this second section examining Lexical Availability in Spanish as an L1 and L2 in different contexts, addresses lexical availability of L2 Spanish learners in an immersion context. The chapter focuses on the lexical availability in two levels of Spanish (i.e. basic and advanced). The study found that a higher L2 proficiency might not have always resulted in a higher number of words. The advanced learners produced a larger number of words than the basic learners for almost all of the cues except for ‘The City’ and ‘Games and Entertainment’. Overall, the study suggests that aspects aside from proficiency, such as input and learner experience, need to be considered in lexical availability studies.

The eighth chapter (‘Slovene Students’ Lexical Availability in English and Spanish’, by Marjana Sifrar Kalan) examines the differences and similarities in lexical availability in two L2s: Spanish and English. The study compared lexical availability amongst Slovene students of L2 Spanish and L2 English in eight semantic categories, presenting the most available words and semantic prototypes to these two student groups. Intriguingly, the author found many similarities between the two groups under examination, suggesting that the Slovene students’ mental lexicons are alike regardless of the foreign language in question.

The ninth chapter (‘The Effect of Instruction on Polish Spanish Learners’ Lexical Availability’, by Antonio María López González) presents a study which compares two bilingual programmes (i.e. intensive and extensive) in Polish secondary education. The study examined lexical availability in Polish L2 learners of Spanish in the two study programmes, each with a similar number of hours of instruction. The study has implications for Polish bilingual programmes, that is, there is an implied benefit of the intensive programme’s success in offering repeated vocabulary exposure.

The tenth chapter (‘Cognitive Factors of Lexical Availability in a Second Language’, by Natividad Hernández Muñoz, Christina Izura, and Carmela Tome) presents the first comparative study of the potential cognitive factors influencing lexical availability in L1 and L2 Spanish. The study showed that words learned first, in either the L1 or the L2, are likely to be the most available and also correspond to the most typical examples of the category, and that typicality suggests that concepts are involved to a certain degree. In short, they appear to find that knowing two languages influences lexical availability.

The eleventh chapter (‘Researching Lexical Availability in L2: Some Methodological Issues’, by Marta Samper Hernández, and Rosa María Jiménez Catalán) presents the concluding chapter for the volume, clarifying the basic terms and concepts from the first ten chapters on lexical availability research.


This book is intended for teachers and researchers of Spanish and English as foreign languages. The volume includes analyses of the words that learners of the two languages are likely to retrieve in particular situations. Listing the most productive prompts is revealing in terms of highlighting what learners of the two languages are likely to respond with and also, alternatively, what learners do not know or are unlikely to respond with when presented with particular cues. In this latter respect, the volume excels in including lists of the most productive cues for particular vocabulary domains (least productive cues are also included). In essence, the book appears to elucidate what L2 learners of either Spanish or English are likely to know and not know, which is especially useful for language teachers, planners, and designers of vocabulary activities for L2 learners. The inclusion of studies on additional influences on lexical availability (including age, gender, L2 proficiency) provides invaluable data regarding the organisation of L2 language learners’ lexicons. This includes papers examining issues such as the influence of age on EFL learners’ lexical availability, the influence of gender on learners’ responses to cue words, and the effect of different intensities of instruction on lexical availability. The volume achieves its aims in the sense that both teachers and researchers of Spanish and English as foreign languages will find something of interest here.

The book is revealing in the sense that it presents an approach hitherto unknown in English-speaking vocabulary research, but one which has a long tradition in European research. Hence, it offers an excellent (English-language) resource for any researcher/ teacher wanting to know more about the lexical availability of his/her learners’ receptive and productive lexical competence.

The volume closes with an extremely useful overview of the commonalities across all studies, an impressive feat considering that each are from different research projects in notably different contexts. Despite such differences, there are several common traits worthy of note, including how particular cues are more productive than others, or how particular learning contexts might encourage vocabulary growth. The editor is quite explicit in stating that lexical availability studies do not inform “how many words learners know” (p. 202), but this does not mean that the volume should not be of interest to vocabulary researchers. As a vocabulary researcher myself, I consider the volume a fascinating resource and one that offers immense potential in exploring lexical availability either in isolation or in combination with vocabulary tests.
Jon Clenton teaches Vocabulary acquisition at the University of Reading, in the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistic. His current research focuses on developmental work on vocabulary testing and the extent to which bilingual models can tell us about the network metaphor and L2 proficiency.

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