Drawing L2 Learners’ Attention To Semantically Coherent Verb Classes

Rena Helms-Park

This  paper puts forward the view that L2 learners could benefit from being made aware of those semantic components which unify verbs displaying a certain syntactic behaviour, as well as those components which disqualify other verbs from group membership. In other words, an awareness of the boundaries of verb classes could help learners to avoid formulating overgeneralized lexical rules, thus minimizing overgeneralizations in syntax. In addition, cognizance of the parameters of verb class membership could equip L2 learners to generalize beyond the input since learners would have the criteria to hypothesize the syntactic behaviour of newly encountered verbs whose meanings are made available to them.  This paper presents the findings of a study in which the performance of learners at a high level of lexical proficiency was compared with that of low-level counterparts.  An analysis of production and grammaticality-preference data  pertaining to the syntactic behaviour of high-frequency (common) verbs revealed that learners with high lexical proficiency had fewer overgeneralizations than their low-level counterparts. However, in most contexts overgeneralization was substantial at all levels of proficiency. This phenomenon was even more pronounced in the learners’ performance on a grammaticality judgement test involving low-frequency newly encountered verbs. While learners with high lexical proficiency had a better ability to make inferences about the grammatical behaviour of new verbs than their low-level counterparts, overgeneralizations were rife, even at an advanced level of lexical proficiency.

The results point to the need to combine grammar and vocabulary instruction in L2 programmes, with a special focus on semantically coherent verb classes. Current ESL grammar textbooks do not provide much “input enhancement” related to verb behaviour. Where there are some pointers about verb types, such information is generally insufficient and inaccurate (as is the case, for example, when learners are informed that only transitive verbs can passivize).