Fuzzy-trace theory and vocabulary acquisition

Semantic Range, Lexicography, and other approaches to word meaning - in general, or for particular words.
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Stephen Hughes
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Joined: February 26th, 2013, 7:12 am

Fuzzy-trace theory and vocabulary acquisition

Post by Stephen Hughes » July 11th, 2014, 5:42 am

One thing that I'm beginning to warm to in vocabulary acquisition, is the application of Fuzzy-trace theory (FTT) (a dual-trace cognition model) to one's vocabulary teaching / acquisition strategies. Here are a few points about the theory and a couple of my ideas about how it could be used for better learning/introducing vocabulary.

Fuzzy-trace theory (a theory developed in the 1990's) suggests that memory consists of 2 parts, the verbatim-trace memory of something and the gist-trace memory. The gist-trace is a fuzzy representation of things, whereas verbatim-traces are detailed representations in memory.

Many of the concepts of vocabulary learning that are often discussed here on the board are implied in the theory. Learning a meaning of a word out of context (eg. from a vocabulary-list) would be an example of a gist-trace, while learning a word in context would be a verbatim-trace.

Looking at it from another point of view, learning a word by learning an exact "meaning" in the form of an exact (English) gloss (eg. σῦκον, "fig") while not parallel learning an gist-trace for the meaning of the word ("a type of fruit"), may not be the most effective strategy for vocabulary acquisition.

In the situation where a learner remembers the "meaning" (gloss) in their first language the result is that, in many cases, a word is associated with a fuzzy meaning. That acquisition of a fuzzy-trace is as accurate as there is a one-to-one correspondence between the gist-traces for the word in the target language and in the learner's native language. In some cases, a phrase such as "usually in a good sense in our literature", "only used of persons", or "a derogatory word", will go some way towards correcting any mis-perceptions that this form of cross-linguistic interference may produce.

In the case, however, where students are encouraged to learn words in their target language, it is often only the verbatim-trace that they are encouraged to learn. The first and fastest recall process for a word when reading or preparing to say something is the gist-trace. Without it, there will be a degree of confusion - unstructuredness to the language - that is often off-putting for learners. Including a gist meaning, parenthesised or a different colour may be of some value. Here is an example where I have added a gist-trace to an Greek to Greek lexicon entry:
κεραμεύς, ὁ (ἐργάτης) ὁ ἐργαζόμενος (ἢ κατεργαζόμενος) τὀν πηλὸν πρὸς κατασκευὴν πραγμάτων χρησίων τῷ βίῳ.
[Taken from, Dimitrakos, D, Mega lexikon ellinikis glossis (Vol 08), page 3857, column 2, κεραμεύς (format slightly modified and gist-trace added to the meaning)]

Other things that could be useful for developing a sense of the general meaning of a word are synonyms and antonyms, together with the type of structuring into semantic domains that Louw and Nida have done.
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Γελᾷ δ' ὁ μωρός, κἄν τι μὴ γέλοιον ᾖ
(Menander, Γνῶμαι μονόστιχοι 108)

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