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Ambiguity in Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning

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Confusion about vocabulary

An EU team studied the potential for ambiguity concerning the learning of foreign language vocabulary. Languages can clash in the case of homophonic words, and vagueness also results from translations having many correct meanings.


In many languages, words often have multiple, or vague, meanings that do not translate easily. Such ambiguity creates extra difficulty for language learners, and the learning of vocabulary in particular. The EU-funded AMBIGUITY IN FLVL (Ambiguity in foreign language vocabulary learning) project studied this problem. The team detailed the patterns of language interaction among multilingual people, and the mechanisms involved in learning languages efficiently. They examined how the language being learned interacts with the students’ linguistic background to affect the learning of foreign language vocabulary. Researchers first considered the alignment of lexical form and word meanings across the languages of multilingual individuals. Such a focus resulted in three studies detailing how one’s first language affects processing of a second among Arabic-Hebrew bilinguals. When proficient bilinguals processed Hebrew letter strings denoting a homophonic Arabic word having different meaning, the non-target word was activated and affected recognition. Thus, languages inevitably influence recognition of other languages. Language mapping issues can also take the form of translation ambiguity, where a word can have multiple correct translations. The team published a paper about the determinants of translation ambiguity, and how the topic compares to within-language ambiguity. A further paper details how the number of meanings in bilinguals’ other language affects various senses of an ambiguous word. The group also published on how translation ambiguity can help with examination of intra-word senses, and how such factors affect learning of translation-ambiguous words. A test of bilinguals learning Arabic showed that translation ambiguity hinders learning and that the effect is not modulated by multilingualism. Instead, proficiency in the language in which learning takes place affects learning. An article has been published on a literature review on the general effects of multilingualism on learning a new language in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Lastly, the team examined changes in first-language representations resulting from vocabulary learning of foreign languages. The project uncovered features of language interaction that affect language learning. Such research may foster the efficient learning of other languages.


Vocabulary, learning, foreign language, homophonic, AMBIGUITY IN FLVL, linguistic

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