One of the biggest questions in psycholinguistics is how the ‘mental lexicon’ is organised. Cognitive linguists have been trying to understand how language is conceptualised in the mind, how words relate to each other, how we store them in memory and how we access them so efficiently when we talk, write or read.
Recent studies were able to discern the overall structure of how we conceptualise language: we form nets with the words we learn. Words are like nodes from which strings stem and link them to other words.
The closeness of a link between two words depends on the frequency of the words, on the type of relationship they have and on the context in which they occur. This is why words that are close to each other get activated when their neighbour does. For example, when we hear “bride”, the closely linked word “groom” will get activated.
Amongst these nets, there are words that are significantly more prominent, which have many more links than others. These words tend to be classified as ‘category-labels’, which are our go-to words to describe a state of affairs. These ‘category-labels’ are common in everyday conversations and they depict things, feelings or settings in simple terms. They are the most accessible definitions of a concept.
So, for example, the concept of splitting something with others would yield the category-label of ‘share’, with subsequent related words such as ‘collaborate’ and ‘together’. These other words overlap to an extent with the label, but have some features that make them unique. For example, ‘collaborate’ is also about sharing, but it’s more about splitting work than a portion of something. ‘Together’, although more distantly related, is a prerequisite for the other two words, since you cannot share or collaborate if there are no other people involved. In short, the category-label always has a salient, dominant feature, which its associated words also share, but they differ in some other features.
Words can vary in the number of overlapping features, or in the extent of the overlap, however, no two words mean exactly the same. Research in linguistics has actually shown that the world’s languages don’t tend to show “absolute synonymy”, that is, if two words are different in form, they must have slight differences in their meaning or in the way they are used (Levinson, 2000, pp.136-145).
Children are wise in this sense, because they also assume that if two words are different, they can’t have the same meaning, and this assumption plays an important role in the way they try to figure out what words mean.
Indeed, research has found that children have difficulties with grasping the idea of synonymy, whereas antonyms seem to make more sense to them (Heidenheimer, 1978; Clark 1993). Interestingly, although absolute synonymy doesn’t really exist, near-synonyms are rather common: these are words that have many overlapping features, but differ in other aspects such as frequency of use and degree of formality (Pustet 2003).
In other words, the features that differ in near-synonyms are secondary, like the language register in which they are used, or the positive and negative connotations they might have.
Exactly because children struggle to grasp synonymy, together with the fact that near-synonyms are everywhere, it is crucial to hand them the ‘category-labels’ with which they can build their word nets. It is important for them to compare related words in order to understand in which features they overlap and in which they differ.
This way, they will be better equipped to make appropriate word choices for a given purpose . This methodology of teaching vocabulary has gained ample recognition by researchers such as Gairns and Redman (1986), Nattinger (1988), Stahl and Nagy (2006), and Graves (2006), who claim that presenting two words that are semantically related not only helps a learner to become aware of the similarities in meaning but also to determine and remember the differences between them (Bolger and Zapata, 2011, p. 615).
For this purpose, no word is too easy to include in vocabulary teaching — if a word is already known, it will help children build useful connections between that and unfamiliar words. In general, for new information to be learned effectively, it has to be linked in meaningful ways with existing and accessible information. And words are no exception to this.
Bolger, P. and Zapata, G. (2011), Semantic Categories and Context in L2 Vocabulary Learning. Language Learning, 61, 614-646. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9922.2010.00624.x
Clark, E. V. (1993). The Lexicon in Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gairns, R., & Redman, S. (1986). Working with words: A guide to teaching and
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Graves, M. (2006). The vocabulary book: Learning and instruction. New York:
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Heidenheimer, P. (1978). Logical Relations in the Semantic Processing of Children between Six and Ten: Emergence of Antonym and Synonym Categorization. Child Development 49 (4): 1243-6.
Levinson, S. (2000). Presumptive Meanings. The Theory of Generalized Conversational Implicature. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Nattinger, J. (1988). Some current trends in vocabulary teaching. In R. Carter &
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Pustet, R. (2003). Prototype effects in discourse and the synonymy issue: Two Lakota postpositions’. Cognitive Linguistics 14 (4): 349-378.
Stahl, S. A., & Nagy, W. E. (2006). Teaching word meanings. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.