EBEFL asks 4: desperately seeking theory

I’m looking for your help with theory. Here are a few language learning incidences that have happened to me and I’m curious if anyone can associate any theory with what happened or can explain what was going on, or let me know if you had any similar experiences.

situation 1
I was in a shop in Taiwan and the woman serving me told me there was a ‘zhekou‘. I’d never heard this word before but I guessed (from context!!!) it meant discount. A few minutes later a friend confirmed that Zhekou was in fact a ‘discount’. I don’t think I ever encountered that word before and yet I learnt it instantly and never forgot it. 

Situation 2
I was one taking a Chinese class and said the word ‘duo’ meaning ‘a lot’. I got the tone wrong and the tutor correct it with a recast. I nodded a thanks. I never got the tone of that word wrong again and almost every time I say it I can picture the tutor saying it. Is there an explanation for this ‘insta-correction’ and how effective it was? 

Situation 3
I kept hearing the word ‘kichin to’ on Japanese TV. I could use it in a sentence and knew that it generally came before a verb, but had no idea what it meant. I asked someone and it means something like ‘properly’ (do something properly/completely).  I could use this word correctly but didn’t know what it meant. So what’s going on here? 

Situation 4
I learnt the phrase “n ja nakatta” (東京に行くんじゃなかった) after living in Japan for a while and being able to speak Japanese fairly well. I don’t remember hearing it before that but it seemed like absolutely everyone was using it after I learnt it. Is this just a case of recency illusion or is it a specific known thing in language learning? 

13 thoughts on “EBEFL asks 4: desperately seeking theory

  1. This an interesting topic and I can relate to all of them. Number 1 happened to me with the Spanish word minucioso (thorough). I was listening to an accountant describe how she prepared the corporate documentation for a government audit and the meaning of this word that I'd never heard before just seemed to make perfect sense in the context of what she was saying (I later confirmed my hunch). It terms of theory (I'm no expert here), it feels like noticing the gap for a gap that you didn't realise you had until that precise communicative moment. I got number 3 with the emaphatic use (in Mexican Spanish) of 'el mero' / 'la mera', usually before a noun. I could use it quite naturally for a while without completely understanding it. Its quite similar to your example of 'kichin to'. I feel like I had identified it in chunks of language that I understood because I comprehended the rest of the cotext. Isn't it essentially like a kind of slowed down process of working out meaning from context?Interesting stuff.


  2. Hi Russ,With number 2, I'd guess it is something to do with saliency and Pienemann's (1998? 2004?) Processability Theory. When you have developed enough language you can process it, and you can only develop more when you can process the language. I think Long's (1984; 1991) Interaction Hypothesis supports this with the recasts, because your attention is being focused upon something that you wanted to say, which also increases the salience.Cheers,Marc


  3. Hi Marc (the Marc?)Thanks for the links. I'll look into the Pienemann's stuff (I read the 98? paper but not 2004….I think). I feel like I've read long…I'll have to go back and have another look


  4. Thanks for replying! :)I'm glad to hear these are familiar experiences. Thanks for posting the actual details of the words in question too. I wonder if guessing from context only works when the word is perfect for the situation and couldn't literally be anything else? You then have your hypothesis confirmed which helps to cement your ideas?Russ


  5. Hi Russell,it's been a long time…All this is very interesting – I can't help but think this should have been your guest blog post on my blog! :)\”Zhekou\” was encountered in a very meaningful, contextually rich, 'pregnant' context. Laufer & Hulstijn (2001) would probably describe this as a very high involvement load (3 points on their scale). You can also see it as an example of comprehensible – and, not less importantly, compelling input, which resulted in instant intake (uptake?) So that's how I would explain No 1, granted there are lots of mixed metaphors (i.e. theories) in my explanation.This has definitely happened to me, though I can't recall the exact items I encountered this way and immediately learned. It also shows that we don't always need 15-20 encounters with new items before they are learned – the quality of input is sometimes more important that then number of encounters. I wrote about it long, long time ago for the TeachingEnglish website and dig up a link, if you're interested.Leo


  6. ah Leo, Thanks for stopping by! I missed you! 🙂 Guest post? Is that an invite? ;)Thanks a lot for taking the trouble of posting these links, that was just what I was looking for. I would be interested in seeing the article you mentioned


  7. Hi Russell,Number 1 is something that for sure happened to me, but I can't remember with which words.And number 4 is something that constantly happens to me, not just with phrases but with names of famous people or even historical events. Once I learn something new it suddenly seems to be everywhere. I guess we just notice something only after we learn what it is.


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