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[RELC 35.

2 (2004) 149-160] ISSN 0033-6882


University of Ottawa, Canada paribakh@uottawa.ca

The role of grammatical knowledge in second language (L2) lexical processing is far from clear. Providing evidence from a recent introspective study, this paper seeks to demonstrate the signicant contribution that such knowledge can make to inferring the meanings of unfamiliar words while reading, and to possible consequent acquisition of L2 vocabulary. The ndings of the study point to the importance of learners knowledge of grammar in L2 lexical processing and L2 vocabulary acquisition process, and lends support to the intrinsic value of grammar instruction.

Introduction The signicant role of grammar in L2 learning and use has been well established. There is general agreement in the eld that grammar learning is system learning, and that such knowledge provides learners with a basis for generative and creative use of language and enables them to manipulate the language data in both comprehension and production of novel linguistic input and output respectively. Research has provided evidence that such knowledge also promotes accuracy in both receptive and productive use of the target language, leading to more effective communication and consequently accelerating and enhancing the L2 acquisition process. However, it is far from clear how grammatical knowledge can assist learners in their L2 lexical processing and subsequent vocabulary acquisition. Research on this issue is sparse, but what there is indicates that grammatical knowledge is implicated in the process. For instance, research on the acquisition of formulaic expressions or lexical phrases is a case in
2004 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks CA and New Delhi)


Regional Language Centre Journal 35.2 (2004)

point. Lexical phrases or formulaic expressions, which are largely responsible for production of uent language, are rst acquired as chunks, and are then gradually segmented into smaller lexical units. This segmentation process normally continues by use of syntactic analysis until all of the component words are recognized as separate units (Schmitt 2000: 129). Research on L2 lexical inferencing also indicates that knowledge of grammar is involved in the process (e.g. De Bot, Paribakht and Wesche 1997; Paribakht and Wesche 1999; Bengeleil 2001). Lexical inferencing involves making informed guesses as to the meaning of a word in light of all available linguistic cues in combinations with the learners general knowledge of the world, her awareness of context and her relevant linguistic knowledge (Haastrup 1991: 40). Since lexical inferencing is a major strategy that learners use when they encounter unfamiliar words when reading or listening, a clearer understanding of the process may not only provide insight into the learners language comprehension processes and problems and their subsequent incidental vocabulary acquisition, it may also shed some light on the role that knowledge of grammar may play in lexical processing. The objective of this paper (notes 1 and 2) is to further illustrate the role of grammar in L2 lexical inferencing while reading. It cites evidence from a recent introspective research (Paribakht and Wesche 1999) that examined lexical processing strategies of a group of ESL learners at a Canadian university. The study was, in fact, a follow up to an earlier experimental study (Paribakht and Wesche 1997), which showed that extensive reading leads to signicant gains in vocabulary knowledge. The goal of the subsequent introspective study, using the same materials as the previous study, was to investigate how such learning occurs. More specically, the study sought to identify the kinds of strategies learners use and the types of knowledge sources they draw upon in their attempt to construct the meanings of unfamiliar words while reading English texts. Method Participants The participants were 10 intermediate level ESL students from various L1 backgrounds (Chinese, Farsi, Vietnamese, Spanish, Arabic and French) at the University of Ottawa.

PARIBAKHT The Role of Grammar


Procedures Concurrent think-aloud and immediate retrospective data collection procedures were used in individual research sessions, which lasted up to two hours each and were all conducted by the same researcher. At the beginning of each session, the participant was trained in think-aloud procedures. This was then followed by collecting think-aloud protocols as the participants carried out two reading comprehension tasks (Question Task and Summary Task) based on the target text on the topic of Acid Rain (see Appendix A for the text). They were also instructed to verbalize what they were thinking and doing while performing the tasks. The participants had access to a dictionary, but the researcher did not answer any questions. However, she prompted the participants, as needed. The Question Task required the participants to read the text and answer a series of comprehension questions. Immediately after answering each question, they were asked if they had come across any unfamiliar words, and if so, how they had dealt with each of them. The Summary Task involved reading the text in segments and summarizing each paragraph, immediately after which the learners were asked how they had dealt with each unknown word they had encountered while performing the task. All research sessions were tape recorded and were subsequently transcribed. Results The results indicated that when encountering unfamiliar words while reading, the learners used a number of strategies. They ignored approximately half of the unfamiliar words, used appeal for assistance (mainly the dictionary), tried to retrieve the item by repeating the word to themselves, or attempted to infer the meanings of the words. Inferencing was by far the most frequent strategy they used in the process (80% of all strategies used). A closer examination of inferencing revealed that the participants drew upon a variety of knowledge sources in the process. A taxonomy of these knowledge sources was developed and is presented in Figure 1. As the taxonomy indicates, the participants in this study used both their L2- and L1-based linguistic knowledge in inferring the meanings of the unfamiliar words. They also relied on their extralinguistic knowledge (i.e. world knowledge) in the process.


Regional Language Centre Journal 35.2 (2004)

It is also noteworthy that learners often used multiple sources of information when inferring the meanings of unfamiliar words. Furthermore, some of these knowledge sources were used frequently by all of the participants, while some were used only occasionally and by only a few learners. _________________________________________
I. Linguistic knowledge A. L2-based linguistic knowledge (intralingual sources) 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. Sentence-level grammatical knowledge Word morphology Punctuation Discourse/text Homonymy Word association

B. L1-based linguistic knowledge (interlingual sources) Cognates II. Extralinguistic/world knowledge

Figure 1. Taxonomy of Knowledge Sources Used in Inferencing The denitions of these knowledge sources and illustrative examples are provided below. (I = interviewer, P = participant, = pause)

Sentence-level grammatical knowledge. This refers to the knowledge of speech parts and syntactic relationships among words within a sentence (e.g. word order and word class). This was the major knowledge type used by the learners as a group and by most individuals. Example 1: I: P: O.K., and what about infancy? Infancy iswe are in the infancy of understanding. Is mean understanding infancy, I think. So, it describes understanding. Is maybe some meaning to describe how to understand or what is understand. But I think it is mostimportant just talk about understanding.

Word morphology. Learners often used their knowledge of grammatical inections (e.g. -s, -ed, -ing) and word derivations (i.e. stems and afxes) in inferencing.

PARIBAKHT The Role of Grammar Example 2: P: I: P:


I cannotanswer to the question because I dont understand forgiving planet. Are you going to do anything with those words to try to understand them? I know what is planet, but I dont understand forgiving. For and giving, giving, forgiving. What is forgiving?

Punctuation. Knowledge of punctuation and capitalization rules were sometimes used to guess the meanings of the unknown words. Example 3: P: Well, for decay and sea spray, its not really important because they separate with a comma, soit was just elements, so I could skip it, the decay word.

Discourse/text. Cues from beyond sentence boundaries were occasionally used by the participants in inferring the meanings of unfamiliar words. Example 4: P: I guess the drawback is meanimprove. So, I from the context, I answer this question such as, because the answer was in is start 1981. So, if the government want to build somehe must be consulted or referred to the knowledge exchange or the issue of programs. In Paragraph 4 the author say this writing is a continues and on extensions, outdistanced by growing knowledge of pollution.

Homonymy. The participants occasionally drew upon their knowledge of phonetic similarity between the target word and another familiar L2 word in inferencing. Such association may also occur with an L1 word and is often misleading and a cause of wrong guessing. (See also Haynes 1993; Huckin and Bloch 1993). In the following example, the learner takes the target word bleak for weak (faible in French). Example 5: I: Were there any words in the paragraph that you didnt know well enough, that interfered with your understanding of the paragraph?

154 P: I: P:

Regional Language Centre Journal 35.2 (2004) Uumno, bleak. Bleak? O.K., and what did you do with this word in order to understand the paragraph, the meaning of the whole paragraph? I dont understand itno, no, I dont know. I think I understand bleak means faible, no?

Word association. Knowledge of word association, which refers to the association of the target word with other words in the mental lexicon, was at times used for guessing the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Example 6: I: P: I: What did you do with accommodated? Accommodated, I guess from accommodation. We havehotel reservation, maybe is called, that phrase is accommodation. O.K., from a hotel reservation.

Cognates. Knowledge of French and English cognates was occasionally used by a few participants of the study. Example 7: P: I dont understand very well controversial. I think it, it dont have the means of controverse in French. Because the controverse in the French isdont understand controversial. I can guess, but

Extralinguistic/world knowledge. The participants frequently used their background knowledge, mainly their knowledge of the theme and topic of the text in inferencing. Example 8: I: P: Well, you said, youre telling me you dont know the meaning of the word lethal. But, you explained the paragraph to me. Becausethe theme of paragraph is clear. When the water of snow enter to water of, to river or lakebecause the, of the sulphur acid that is in the snow, the water of lake and river becomemore acidit. Sothats clear. And, I think because it isscientic, process chimique. Thats clear.

The proportions of use of the above knowledge sources were also calculated for both tasks and the combined data. Four of the above eight

PARIBAKHT The Role of Grammar


knowledge sources, that is, sentence-level grammar, word morphology, punctuation and world knowledge constituted the major sources used and accounted for 70% of cases for both tasks. The minor sources, which included knowledge of discourse, homonymy, word associations and cognates, were grouped together as other sources and accounted for 30% of the total. Table 1 presents the percentages of use of different knowledge sources. It shows that of all the sources used in inferencing, knowledge of sentencelevel grammar was the source most frequently used by these participants (i.e. 35%). This nding was consistent in both task conditions and all word categories (see Appendices B and C for a breakdown of the results for each task condition and each word category).
Table 1. Percentages of Knowledge Sources Used in Inferencing. ____________________________________________________ Major linguistic sources Sentence-level grammatical knowledge Word morphology Punctuation Minor linguistic sources Discourse/text Homonymy Word association Cognates Extralinguistic sources 009% 035% 015% 011% 030%

Total 100% ___________________________________________________

Discussion The results of this study offer some new insights into the signicant mediating inuence that learners knowledge of grammar may have in the process of L2 lexical processing, subsequent L2 text comprehension and vocabulary development. They provide some evidence that such knowledge not only provides a foundation for generative and creative language use, but can also help L2 learners to overcome difculties they encounter in learning other aspects of language knowledge such as lexicon. Learners grammatical knowledge appears to facilitate the implementation of their strategic competence, when they seek to draw on their available L2, L1


Regional Language Centre Journal 35.2 (2004)

and other knowledge sources in order to compensate for gaps in their target language knowledge. As Wray (1992: 10, cited in Wray and Perkins 2000: 13) rightly points out, our grammatical capabilities are on hand for emergencies, rather in the way that an engineer is on stand by at a factory. These ndings are hardly surprising when one considers the fact that words occur in a grammatical context and an important aspect of word knowledge is an expectation of the grammatical pattern the word occurs in (i.e. its grammatical property). Most researchers agree that lexical and syntactic knowledge bases are fundamentally interrelated in a kind of lexicogrammar. This view is further strengthened by evidence from large language databases which demonstrate the extent of lexical patterning in discourse (Schmitt 2000). As Schmitt (2000: 14) notes, much of what was previously considered grammar is actually constrained by lexical choices. He further argues that vocabulary and grammar can be conceptualized as partners in synergy, with no discrete boundary (p. 14). It follows then that any research on the nature of grammar and vocabulary acquisition would need to address this link. Such perspective also has clear implications for vocabulary and grammar instruction. The strong focus on communication and uency in the 1970s and 1980s sidelined the once prominent place of grammar in L2 pedagogy. However, there was a revived interest in grammar and formfocused pedagogy in the 1990s (e.g. Nassaji 1999; Mitchell 2000) largely due to the disappointing outcomes of such practice. Dobson (1998: 8; cited in Mitchell 2000: 288) argued that few pupils show condence in the use of language outside controlled situations or the ability to apply language previously learned to new situations. Research such as the one presented in this paper provides further empirical support for the intrinsic value of learners knowledge of grammar in the processes of both L2 use and acquisition. It may also stimulate further reection on the contribution to be expected from grammar pedagogy, particularly in the current climate of enthusiasm for evidencebased practice (Mitchell 2000: 290) and accountability for pedagogical practices. REFERENCES
Bengeleil, N. 2001 Lexical Inferencing Processes of Libyan EFL Medical Students While Reading: The Role of Reading Prociency and the Arabic Language (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Ottawa).

PARIBAKHT The Role of Grammar


De Bot, K., T.S. Paribakht and M. Wesche 1997 Towards a Lexical Processing Model for the Study of Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition, Studies in Second Language Acquisition 19: 309329. Dobson, A. 1998 MFL Inspected: Reections on Inspection Findings 1996/97 (London: Centre for Information on Language Teaching). Haastrup, K. 1991 Lexical Inferencing Procedures or Talking about Words (Tbingen: Gunter Narr). Haynes, M. 1993 Patterns and Perils of Guessing in Second Language Reading, in T. Huckin, M. Haynes and J. Coady (eds.), Second Language Reading and Vocabulary Learning (Norwood, NJ: Ablex): 46-64. Huckin, T., and J. Bloch 1993 Strategies for Inferring Word Meaning in Context: A Cognitive Model, in T. Huckin, M. Haynes and J. Coady (eds.), Second Language Reading and Vocabulary Learning (Norwood, NJ: Ablex): 153-78. Mitchell, R. 2000 Applied Linguistics and Evidence-Based Classroom Practice: The Case of Foreign Language Grammar Pedagogy, Applied Linguistics 21.3: 281303. Nassaji, H. 1999 Towards Integrating Form-Focused Instruction and Communicative Interaction in the Second Language Classroom: Some Pedagogical Possibilities, The Canadian Modern Language Review 55.3: 385-402. Paribakht, T.S., and M. Wesche 1997 Vocabulary Enhancement Activities and Reading for Meaning in Second Language Vocabulary Development, in J. Coady and T. Huckin (eds.), Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition: A Rationale for Pedagogy (New York: Cambridge University Press): 174-200. 1999 Reading and Incidental L2 Vocabulary Acquisition: An Introspective Study of Lexical Inferencing, in M. Wesche and T.S. Paribakht (eds.), Incidental Vocabulary Acquisition: Theory, Current Research and Instructional Implications, Thematic Issue: Studies in Second Language Acquisition 21: 195-224. Schmitt, N. 2000 Vocabulary in Language Teaching (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Wray, A. 1992 The Focusing Hypothesis: The Theory of Left Hemisphere Lateralized Language Examined (Amsterdam: John Benjamins). Wray, A., and M. Perkins 2000 The Functions of Formulaic Language: An Integrated Model, Language and Communication 20: 1-28.


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1. This project was supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research of Canada, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade of Canada and the University of Ottawa. 2. An earlier version of this paper was presented at RELC Conference, Singapore, 23-25 April, 2001.

APPENDIX A Reading Text Acid Rain For almost half the year, most of northeastern North America is covered in a thick layer of snow. Hibernating among the snowakes, awaiting the bears of springtime, is a potent dose of sulfuric acid that, when released in the spring runoff, packs the knockout wallop of a heavyweight prizeghter. As the snow melts and enters lakes and rivers, parts of these bodies of water can become as much as 100 times more acidic in a very short time. While this acid bath usually only lasts for a few days to a few weeks, the pH values are often acutely lethal even in lakes that otherwise do not appear to be in danger, Dr David Schindler of the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, a pioneer researcher into effects of acid rain on sh, told an Ontario government committee investigating acid rain. As an example, Dr Schindler pointed out that Panther Lake in the Adirondacks normally has a pH of 7. But in the spring runoff it drops to a pH of 5. Yet the air pollution picture is not totally bleak. Continuing research offers some hope of improvement. In late 1986 two scientists reported a chemical process capable of eliminating nitrogen oxides from diesel exhaust gases and coal-red boilers. The hot gases, passed over a nontoxic chemical called cyanuric acid, break down into harmless nitrogen and water. If later research supports the ndings, a giant step could be taken toward eliminating a major contributor to acid rain and man-made ozone. Perhaps the most controversial environmental issue of the decade is acid rain, but that too is clouded in mystery. We are in the infancy of understanding the full effects of an atmosphere acidied by burning fossil fuels, Dr Chris Bernabo, an air-quality expert, told me. In order to really understand it, we must conduct years of research.

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The federal Clean Air Act of 1970, amended in 1977, expired in 1981. As of this writing it continues on extensions, outdistanced by the growing knowledge about air pollution. We live on a forgiving planet, with mechanisms to deal with natural pollutants. Decay, sea spray, and volcanic eruptions annually release more sulfur than all the power plants, smelters, and other industries in the world. Lightning bolts create nitrogen oxides just as automobiles and industrial furnaces do, and trees emit hydrocarbons called terpenes. Their release triggers a bluish haze that gave the Blue Ridge its name. For millions of years the ingredients of such substances have been cycling through the ecosystem, constantly changing form. They pass through plant and animal tissues, to sink into the sea, return to the earth, and are vaulted aloft in some geologic event to begin the cycle again. An atom of oxygen completes the cycle approximately once every 2,000 years. A portion of the next breath you take could have last been breathed by Jesus. Can the earth assimilate the additional 70 millions tons of sulfur that we release each year? What happens to plants that absorb the additional nitrogen oxides (NOx) we create with our miniature lightning bolts inside car cylinders? Can the atmosphere take on the extra load of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, man-made ozone, and chlorouorocarbon refrigerants that scientists say could raise global temperatures by the greenhouse effect? APPENDIX B
Percentages of Knowledge Sources Used in Inferencing in Each Task Condition _________________________________________________________________ Major linguistic sources Sentence-level grammatical knowledge Word morphology Punctuation Extralinguistic sources Minor sources Summary T. 038% 018% 008% 008% 028% Question T. 030% 015% 011% 011% 033%

Total 100% 100% _______________________________________________________________


Regional Language Centre Journal 35.2 (2004) APPENDIX C

Percentages of Knowledge Sources Used in Inferencing for Each Word Category _________________________________________________________________ Major linguistic sources Sentence-level grammatical knowledge Word morphology Punctuation Extralinguistic sources Minor sources Nouns 034% 010% 018% 013% 025% Adjectives 044% 017% 000% 000% 039% Verbs 030% 030% 000% 005% 035%

Total 100% 100% 100% _________________________________________________________________