Resolving word sense ambiguity of polysemous words in a second language



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Polysemy has received increasing attention in cognitive linguistics, yet little research has explored the role of polysemy in second language learning. As polysemy is frequently encountered in L2 learning, L2 learners’ ability to resolve word sense ambiguity becomes critical to their semantic development in the target language. This project, accordingly, investigated how Chinese EFL learners achieved comprehension of English polysemous verbs by using different types of cues. In two pilot studies, three different types of cues were tested: (1) elaborated context with richer contextual information, (2) semantic frames calling for the concept of the target word, and (3) meaning chains composed of related English senses. Participants were 49 university students in Taiwan who were randomly assigned to four conditions, the three cue conditions and a control no-cue condition. After reading the cues, participants completed a translation and a multiple-choice task and rated their confidence in their answers. Eight students participated in an interview immediately following the test and were asked to recall their comprehension processes. Results were used to select and refine items and to design tasks that were used in a main study. The main study used three levels of cue type (elaborated context, semantic frames, and control) and two levels of task order (translation followed by multiple-choice or vice versa), with level of English proficiency as a covariate. Participants were 98 Taiwanese students, with 15 to17 in each of the six conditions. Two-way ANCOVAs showed a significant main effect for cue type but not for task order. The elaborated context cues proved to be most powerful, indicating contextual information as most useful in resolving word sense ambiguity. The semantic frame cues were moderately helpful, revealing learners’ tendency to use L1 word associations in accessing L2 concepts. Cue effects varied across items as other factors also came into play: learners’ over-reliance on the core sense, some senses as inherently difficult, and different degrees of overlap in concepts activated by L1 and L2 words. The overall findings imply that for successful acquisition of L2 polysemy, learners need to emphasize equally guessing word meaning from context and knowing the underlying conceptual network among related senses.