Words in the Mind: the Mental Lexicon

General information about the Mental Lexicon and how it can assist in teaching vocabulary

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 13 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. General information on the Mental Lexicon
2.1. A definition of the term Mental Lexicon
2.2. Dictionaries vs. the Mental Lexicon

3. Models of the Mental Lexicon
3.1. Where vocabulary items are stored
3.2. How is information organized?
3.3. How are vocabulary items retrieved?
3.4. How do we forget?

4. Results for vocabulary teaching
4.1. Presentation
4.2. Processing
4.3. Integration

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Words are considered the basis – possibly the most important factor – when learning a new language. In order to make yourself understood, it is essential to know a wide range of words. Every learner of a foreign language knows the challenge of learning vocabulary items by heart. At times, coping with a certain amount of words can be a rather difficult or even frustrating task for the individual learner.

This is where the foreign language teacher is supposed to step in and assist the students in their learning process by providing relevant learning material. First of all, however, the language teacher needs to be aware of the different physical and psychological prerequisites of the students. One very important question to ask is: where in the brain are vocabulary items stored? A good knowledge about the procession of new incoming data can help the language teacher to draw helpful conclusions to facilitate language learning. In fact, students will find it easier to learn new items if the teacher takes into consideration how the mind functions. Although, of course, not all students have the same approach to learning and might have different learning styles. Still, if there is a universal principle for processing concepts, this should not be neglected.

Linguists have started to use a variety of other terms such as “concept” or “vocabulary item” to avoid the use of “word”. It is necessary to know that “words” in the mind always include a certain view of the world, which is better rendered by the term “concept” or “(vocabulary) item”.

In the this paper, I will discuss the processing of words in the Mental Lexicon and show how it can help to teach vocabulary items to students. First of all, I will give a definition of the term Mental Lexicon and compare it to a dictionary. Furthermore, I will explain where vocabulary items are stored in the brain, in what ways these items are linked and how they can be retrieved most efficiently. Finally, some strategies that help to improve vocabulary teaching will be discussed. A small overview will be given and not all theories and ideas concerning the Mental Lexicon and vocabulary teaching will be included in this paper.

2. General information on the Mental Lexicon

2.1. A definition of the term Mental Lexicon

The term Mental Lexicon derived from the Greek word lexicon meaning book and the Latin word lexis meaning word. The Mental Lexicon essentially contains all the items a person knows and needs in order to communicate. John Stonham describes it as “a repository or storehouse of unpredictable information.”[1] In connection with language teaching, it can also be termed vocabulary.

Moreover, the Mental Lexicon is a store of information about vocabulary items which means that it does not only include a wide range of items themselves but also the information attached to an item.[2] Semantic information can also be found in the Mental Lexicon. Looking at short sentences such as “Yeah, it was pretty ok.” and “Well, it was not too bad.” we can easily notice the slightly negative connotation that is contained with these two present sentences.

Furthermore, the Mental Lexicon tells us how words can be combined to form sentences. That means it also stores syntactic information of items. “Pretty” as an adjective, for instance, only collocates with female human beings, whereas “handsome” is restricted to men. In addition, details of word forms are saved in the Mental Lexicon. “Took”, “taken” as well as “takes” serve as a good example of these kind of detailed information concerning an item’s form. It shows in how many different correct grammatical forms the vocabulary item “take” can occur.

There are a variety of models of the Mental Lexicon. Scientists still argue about the existence of more than one Mental Lexicon; some, in fact, claim that there are two, an input and an output lexicon.[3] That would mean that the lexicon is split up into two areas containing the same items, only in different order. The input lexicon is assigned to the recognition of words as they are received. The mental store saves all the words by their sounds. According to this model, “so”, “son”, “song” and “solo” are therefore stored closely to each other which allows for the words to be recognized far quicker. The output lexicon, in contrast, structures items by semantic and syntactic features since the production of words involves this kind of information. That way, collocating items, e.g. to take a picture, are supposedly stored closely to one another.

Over the years, many other theories have tried to describe the mental store, but whatever view one takes, the study of the Mental Lexicon cannot be simplified to either explanation. This paper will therefore focus on the results that the different theories offer concerning the way vocabulary items are learnt rather than on the different theories about the organization of the Lexicon. The Mental Lexicon, in fact, is something very complex and cannot be described by only one theory.

2.2. Dictionaries vs. the Mental Lexicon

Since the Mental Lexicon contains similar information to those found in a dictionary, it could even be argued whether or not they are almost the same[4]. In order to prove or disprove this suggestion, it is necessary to briefly look at their similarities and differences.

As a matter of fact, the meanings of words are stored in both, as socio-cultural information about usage, taboos, dialect etc. Both the dictionary and the Mental Lexicon enable the speaker to retrieve information about the usage of a vocabulary item. Lexicons usually can include the grammatical forms an item can take. That kind of information is additionally stored in the mind, although it might not be found as clearly structured as in a physical lexicon. The item “scarf” is tagged in the Oxford Advanced Dictionary as noun and verb whereas an average learner of the English language is probably not able to use this item in both forms when it is initially learnt. The fact that it can be used more widely will only be discovered later when the item is “re-learnt” in another context. Information, therefore, can also be provided on the different forms of items but they are more accessible in a dictionary than they are in the Mental Lexicon.

Another feature which the Mental Lexicon and dictionaries have in common is the register of a vocabulary item. A dictionary is very likely to list the word “stuff” as informal or colloquial. A user of the English language, on the other hand, would know when to use that item correctly because items in the Mental Lexicon always come with their connoted meaning. Connotations are, of course, listed in both the Mental Lexicon and a physical dictionary. In that case, the Mental Lexicon can even be more precise than a dictionary because dictionaries usually do not list as many connotations as the Mental Lexicon can store. Besides the similarities stated above, there are also differences between the Mental Lexicon and dictionaries.


[1] http://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/hermann.moisl/ell130/lecture5outline.htm - last visit 20.03.2005.

[2] cf. Aitchison, J. Words in the Mind - An introduction to the mental lexicon (Oxford, Cambridge: Blackwell,

1994), p. 10.

[3] http://www.uni-koblenz.de/~kgt/Learn/Textbook/node112.html - last visit 20.03.2005.

[4] cf. Gairns, R; Redman, S. Working with Word s- A guide to teaching and learning vocabulary (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), p. 87-88f.


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University of Paderborn
Words Mind Mental Lexicon Vocabulary Teaching



Title: Words in the Mind: the Mental Lexicon