Manual Exploring the Second Language Mental Lexicon

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For example, the mental lexicon is not organized alphabetically like a dictionary; rather, it seems to be organized in a more complex manner, with links between phonologically and semantically related lexical items. Also, while dictionaries contain a fixed number of words to be counted, and remain outdated as language is continually changing, the mental lexicon consistently updates itself with new words and word meanings, while getting rid of old, unused words.


The active nature of the mental lexicon makes any dictionary comparison unhelpful. A common method to analyze these connections is through a lexical decision task. Lexical decision tasks have been used for many years to access how the mental lexicon is structured. Participants in this task are required to respond as quickly and accurately as possible to a string of letters presented on a screen to say if the string is a non-word or a real word.

Mental lexicon - Wikipedia

An example of this would be to present the word "bread" to the participant and then see an decreased reaction time later to the word "butter". Since the word "bread" had activated all related words, including "butter", this decreased reaction time demonstrates that related words are stored closely in the mental lexicon.

Not all linguists and psychologists believe in the mental lexicon's existence and there is much controversy over the concept. One theory about the mental lexicon states that it organizes our knowledge about words "in some sort of dictionary. In the spectrum theory , at one end "each phonological form is connected to one complex semantic representation", at the opposite end, homonyms and polysemes have their "own semantic representation[s]". DCT is "an internalized nonverbal system that directly represents the perceptual properties and affordances of nonverbal objects and events, and an internalized verbal system that deals directly with linguistic stimuli and responses".

One aspect of research on the development of the mental lexicon has focused on vocabulary growth. Converging research suggests that at least English children learn several words a day throughout development. The figure at left illustrates the growth curve of a typical English-speaking child's vocabulary size. The words acquired in the early stages of language development tend to be nouns or nounlike, and there are some similarities in first words across children e.

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This allows the child to quickly hypothesize about the meaning of a word. As a child acquires their vocabulary, two separate aspects of the mental lexicon develop named the lexeme and the lemma. Research has shown that the lemma develops first when a word is acquired into a child's vocabulary, and then with repeated exposure the lexeme develops. The development of the mental lexicon in bilingual children has increased in research over recent years, and has shown many complexities including the notion that bilingual speakers contain additional and separate mental lexicons for their other languages.

Selecting between two or more different lexicons has shown to have benefits extending past language processes. Bilinguals significantly outperform their monolingual counterparts on executive control tasks. Researchers suggest that this enhanced cognitive ability comes from continually choosing between L1 and L2 mental lexicons.