Vol. 5. No. 1 R-1 April 2001
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The Vocabulary Control Movement: Its History and Legacy

Vocabulary in Language Teaching
Norbert Schmitt (2000)
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Pp. xv + 224
ISBN: 0-521-66938-3 (paper)
US $20.95

English Dictionaries for Foreign Learners: A History
Antony P. Cowie (1999)
Oxford: The Clarendon Press
Pp. xiii + 232
ISBN: 0-19-823506-2 (cloth)
US $72.00

Phraseology: Theory, Analysis, Applications
Antony P. Cowie (1998)
Oxford: The Clarendon Press
Pp. xiii + 258
ISBN: 0-19-829425-5 (cloth)
US $84.95
ISBN: 0 19 829964 8 (paper)
US $24.95

A new millennium is a good time for review. From widely different perspectives, two recent books detail both the history and the flourishing legacy of the Vocabulary Control Movement which preoccupied our best linguistic minds during the early decades of the last century.

For EFL professionals struggling to understand how the paradigm of language teaching has shifted from grammar to lexis, Norbert Schmitt's Vocabulary in Language Teaching and Antony Cowie's English Dictionaries for Foreign Learners: A History are interesting, compendious, informative, and meticulous reads documenting an important intellectual transformation. Like it or not, we live in a world where our ideas about words, language, fluency, correctness, and production have been subjected to analyses by powerful machines. Consequently, ours is an historical moment between the naive linguistic certainties of the Saussurean past and some future theory of language comprehensive enough to mediate relations among many problematized concepts. "Let's take stock for a moment," both of these authors seem to be saying. "Let's itemize exactly how we got here, and tell ourselves not only what we know about language and language teaching, but also how we know what we know." [-1-]

Cambridge's publication of Schmitt's book is significant in and of itself. Until 1991, Cambridge generally shied away from publications concerning vocabulary issues, tacitly acknowledging this as the domain of Oxford University Press, publishers of the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary. For years, Oxford capitalized on its dictionary by publishing a strong backlist of theoretical and pedagogical books concerning vocabulary. But in the late 1970s, concordances substantially changed lexicography. With the changes came a growing awareness of, in Cowie's words, "the opportunities of an expanding, worldwide market, especially for general-purpose learner's dictionaries" (1999, p. 144). This environment led to the publication in 1978 of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and in 1987 to that of the Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary. Collins' success, in particular, acted as a green light to Cambridge University Press. So in 1991, Michael McCarthy left OUP for Cambridge with the publication of his Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge, in other words, was preparing its list to support the impending release of The Cambridge International Dictionary of English in 1995. In the intervening years, McCarthy has collaborated with Schmitt, his protégé, in coediting the Cambridge collection Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition, and Pedagogy (McCarthy & Schmitt, 1997). That same year, Cambridge strengthened its vocabulary offerings by publishing James Coady and Thomas Huckin's important Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition (Coady & Huckin, 1997).

The purpose of Schmitt's current book is to make "research and theory accessible enough to be of use in informing best classroom practice" (p. xiii). Schmitt hopes his book will make its readership (second language teachers) "aware of the major issues . . . and . . . [equip them] to read more advanced writings" (p. xiii). His orientation repeats that of his 1995 M. Phil. thesis at the University of Wales under Paul Meara, which concerned the lexical knowledge of Japanese English students. It relies most heavily, however, on Schmitt's doctoral thesis at University Nottingham, which was supervised by McCarthy. It also relies heavily on Paul Nation's (1990) model in Teaching and Learning Vocabulary, and even hearkens back to the more recent Vocabulary: Applied Linguistic Perspectives by McCarthy's frequent collaborator Ronald Carter (1998), another of Schmitt's prestigious mentors. Schmitt's book is, in fact, dedicated to these four men.

In terms of its teacher-oriented goals, the book is a palpable success. Chapter 1 starts small, providing basic but essential theoretical information about vocabulary and its acquisition. We learn, for example, the advantages of discussing lexemes instead of words because lexeme describes a unit of meaning which may extend (in the case of collocations, phrasal verbs, or idioms) to a length greater than single words. We also learn that the wildly varying figures for the number of words in a language and for individual vocabulary size are a direct result of a lack of distinction between words, which are individual lexical units, and word families, clusters which include "the base word, all of its inflections, and its common derivatives" (p. 2). Schmitt sets the vocabulary size of English-speaking university graduates at about 20,000 word families, then contextualizes this figure by writing, "imagine learning . . . 20,000 telephone numbers. For each of these numbers you must remember the person and address connected with [it]. This . . . is somewhat analagous to learning all the various kinds of lexical knowledge attached to each word" (p. 4). [-2-]

Chapter 2 offers readers historical information that informs the phraseological trajectory of modern vocabulary research. Especially important are pages 15-19, which recount the history of the Vocabulary Control Movement, a group of EFL teachers in the 1920s and 1930s who identified a minimum core vocabulary in order to maximize the learning efforts of their foreign students. Modern lexicography owes a great deal to this movement's fundamental concern with word frequency, a term that describes the number of times any given word appears in sample stretches of naturally occurring language. The movement believed it was an advantage for language students to learn first those words most commonly used; in other words, those with the highest frequencies.

Once this background information is firmly established, Schmitt begins the body of his book, contained in chapters 3 to 7. The first two of these chapters concern the problem of what exactly it means to know a word, how complex this knowledge can be, and how we have chosen to imagine it might be organized in the brain.

In chapter 5, "The Use of Corpora in Vocabulary Studies," Schmitt emphasizes the monstrous size (320 million words) of the COBUILD dictionary's Bank of English Corpus at Birmingham University. Since an average native speaker may be exposed to "one million words per month," Schmitt writes, "the Bank of English Corpus could represent 25 years' total exposure" (p. 69). Such a mass of raw material enhances the credibility of Collins' various COBUILD dictionaries and puts into perspective popular works such as the BBI Dictionary of English Collocations (Benson et al, 1997), The LTP Dictionary of Selected Collocations (Hill & Lewis, 1997), [1] and the now out-of-print Oxford Dictionary of English Collocations, all of which were based on the much smaller Brown Corpus. [-3-]

An especially significant subsection of chapter 5 (pages 76-81) might better fit into chapter 6, since it concerns collocations, the troubling area of language study that first attracted the attention of Vocabulary Control theorists. Schmitt introduces us to John Sinclair's (1991) opposition between the open choice principle of language and the idiom principle. The first of these describes the open nature of a language, how grammatically appropriate fillers can freely occupy a variety of morphological slots. In reality, however, Sinclair would say, linguistic strings such as Chomsky's "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" are impossible because the idiom principle constrains many elements in that famous sentence. It is important to realize that this is no casual suggestion, and that Sinclair himself is the leader of the original COBUILD research team whose observations are firmly grounded in quantitative linguistics, a field which has been a showcase at Birmingham since the code-cracking days of the Enigma machine.

Schmitt next discusses James Nattinger and Jeannette Decarrico's (1992) discoveries that collocations appear discontinuously across separations of up to five words, and that they reflect the way the mind "chunks" (p. 78) prefabricated pieces of language in order to produce sentences quickly and economically. Part of this chunking includes semantic predispositions towards lexical sets: to cause, for example, typically collocates with negative words, while to provide generally has positive collocations (pp. 78-79). This kind of semantic constraint indicates how the mind often organizes words along collocational axes. The strength of such collocational organization is formidable, Schmitt notes, since even after aphasics have lost most other aspects of language, they still retain accurate knowledge of collocations.

Chapter 6 considers three aspects of vocabulary as it appears in discourse, including multiword units (MWUs) and lexical patterning. MWUs, Schmitt writes, appear in a great variety of forms including strong collocations. For every MWU, however, three criteria are relevant: institutionalization, fixedness, and noncompositionality. By institutionalization, Schmitt means any MWU must be recognizable within a speech community. MWUs are also fixed to some degree. Idioms are generally thought of as completely fixed, but this is not so, Schmitt writes, since most of them allow some variation and free play. It is better therefore, to think of MWUs as relatively fixed. Finally, the inability to discern the meaning of some MWUs from their parts is termed their noncompositionality. Among all MWUs, lexical phrases/lexical chunks are noteworthy because, although a brain can "store vast amounts of knowledge in long term memory, . . . it is able to process only small amounts of it in real time . . ." (p. 101). Schmitt continues, "these [phrases or chunks] can easily be retrieved and used without the need to compose them . . . through word selection and grammatical sequencing" (p. 102), resulting in "less demand on cognitive capacity" (p. 102).

Lexical patterning, the second major concern of chapter 6, is a phenomenon originally studied by Sinclair, that words are united in larger ways than those described by MWUs. Collocational prosody (see chapter 5, page 79) is the tendency of a MWU or lexical phrase to condition the choice of words that follows it to a specific lexical set. It is a minor weakness of his book's organization that this definition does not reappear in chapter 6, before Schmitt discusses wider lexical patterns. In any case, Schmitt points out that in the corpora, structures such as so sorry for invariably precede references to people (the bereaved), whereas so sorry to is almost always followed by some form of inconvenience. Evidence such as this indicates that words are "not chosen in isolation," Schmitt writes, "but have ramifications at some distance from their actual placement" (p. 104). This in turn suggests that language is "not constructed word by word, but key word by key word, each with its own patterns" (p. 105). [-4-]

Chapter 7 marks a transition to the two final pedagogical chapters. It is useful reading for ESL teachers since it discusses what is now known (and not known) about how the brain recognizes and retains lexemes. Basically, Schmitt writes, there are two ways we input new words, through explicit learning and through incidental learning. In either case, full familiarity with any word is acquired gradually through repeated exposures. If we learn anything first, we learn the single contextual meaning in which the word is first used. Over time, we acquire more meanings and more familiarity and command of the orthographic, inflected, and derivative forms of the word. It is only very late in our learning that we develop "intuitions about the word's frequency, register constraints, and collocational behavior, simply because these features require a large number of examples to determine the appropriate values . . . The key point," Schmitt says, "is that some word knowledge aspects develop at different rates than others" (p. 118).

For EFL teachers, chapters 8 and 9 together are worth the price of the book. They concern "Teaching and Learning Vocabulary" and "Assessing Vocabulary Knowledge." Very simply, my own classroom practice concerning vocabulary has changed radically as a direct result of reading these sections, which summarize the best research and the most skillful techniques to date. In addition, as with all other books in Jack Richard's Language Education Series from Cambridge, each chapter is followed by a useful summary, an exercise section consolidating and expanding the reader's understanding, and a very useful suggested reading section. The result is a highly practical, eminently readable book; one that answers the nagging questions nicely while it also summarizes the most recent research and leaves new questions bristling inside the reader's head. It is also very affordable.

For those of us interested in global English, the professional history of EFL teaching, and vocabulary in theory and practice, Antony P. Cowie's English Dictionaries for Foreign Learners: A History is an essential, if somewhat pricey, resource. It follows the publication of Cowie's highly technical but valuable collection Phraseology: Theory, Analysis, and Applications (1998), now scheduled for paperback release in February 2001. Cowie, a onetime EFL teacher in West Africa, is currently Honorary Reader in Lexicography at Leeds, and editor of Oxford's International Journal of Lexicography. His book English Dictionaries is a compendium of historical insight from the perspective of a highly informed and articulate participant in one of the major linguistic movements of the 20th century, one whose outlines have only begun to be understood in the West following a growing familiarity and understanding of the works of Russian phraseologists Victor Vlinogradov and Natalya Amosova (for a very useful summary of these theorists see pages 213-218 of Cowie's Phraseology). An historical vein permeates Cowie's work. His introduction to English Dictionaries, for example, begins with biographical and professional histories of the main players in the Vocabulary Control Movement, the earliest beginnings of our profession in the last century. Cowie focuses on three men in particualr: Harold Palmer, Cowie's own mentor "Ash" Hornby, and Michael West. [-5-]

Chapter 1 of English Dictionaries charts how these men's efforts in the area of vocabulary limitation led to the General Service List of basic English words, West's New Method English Dictionary in 1935, and Palmer and Hornby's Thousand Word English in 1937. These word lists, Cowie writes, were early precursors of the monolingual learner's dictionaries of English that are the subject of this book. Cowie notes how Hornby received international acclaim for the later Idiomatic and Syntactic English Dictionary which Cowie himself co-edited in its third edition under the title of The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English (1974) before succeeding Hornby as its editor in chief for the fourth edition in 1989.

Chapter 2 contains useful insights into the origins of the term collocation. A generation before the studies of J. R. Frith (to whom the term is usually attributed), Palmer and Hornby published a work called "The Second Interim Report on English Collocations." Palmer, moreover, had informally described these "comings-together-of-words" (p. 53) very early on, at a 1927 convention of the Institute for Research in English Teaching, the organization he had established under the sponsorship of the Japanese Department of Education. Following these initial historical observations, Cowie's chapter traces the development of phraseological dictionaries from Professor Saito's Idiomological English-Japanese Dictionary (a major source for the Palmer and Hornby 1933 list), to the best known dictionaries of collocations whose descriptions conclude this chapter. Most readers will be aware of one or more manifestations of The BBI Combinatory Dictionary (1986). Many fewer western readers will be aware of a book called Selected English Collocations published in Warsaw in 1982.

Chapter 3 concerns what Cowie terms the transition from the second generation of learner's dictionaries (a rubric which includes the later editions of The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary) to, in 1978, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE). Cowie hails this dictionary as a groundbreaking effort because of how it extended the already common features of a controlled vocabulary and a system of construction patterns linked to the dictionary entries. Explanations of the dictionary's vocabulary were cleverly written in the basic 2,000 words of English, which were assembled by "thorough study of frequency and pedagogic lists" describing only "the most central meanings" (p. 110) of words. The construction patterns or grammatical scheme of the dictionary were similarly innovative, using a simple numerical system to enable foreign learners with limited vocabulary to use them easily. [-6-]

Chapter 4, one of the most interesting chapters in Cowie's book, concerns the evolution of the computer's role in learner lexicography from the mid-1970s onwards. It details the progress made in corpus building, but it also examines how theories that developed within corpus linguistics influenced ideas of what needed to be included in learners' dictionaries. Finally, the chapter considers alternative methods of analyzing corpus data beginning in the 1990s. In 25 pages, in other words, Cowie succinctly provides an overview of concordances and concordancers for the uninitiated. Cowie's overview is readable and interesting and substantially more up-to-date than even the best previous sources, such as Tribble and Jones' Concordances in the Classroom (1990).

Chapter 5, "The Third Generation of Learner's Dictionaries," compares three dictionaries published by Longman, Oxford, and Collins in the 1980s, in order to reveal how they "reflect . . . developments in linguistic and corpus research" (p. 144). Generally, Cowie demonstrates that "the gap between learner's dictionaries" (p. 174) and learner's thesauri narrowed through a variety of innovations accompanying the professionalization of lexicography and lexicographers.

Chapter 6, "Focus on the Dictionary Users," illuminates the historical trend emphasizing encoding information for English learners (to facilitate writing and translation) over reading assistance (decoding) tools. From the earliest days of the Vocabulary Control Movement this encoding bias had manifested itself in three basic structural ways within dictionaries: first, it involved a limited vocabulary so that definitions would be easily understood; second, it provided detailed information about function words such as verbs and pro-forms; finally, it included detailed descriptions of word combination patterns, including idioms, collocations, and formulae. Since the introduction of concordances and corpora studies in the 1980s, however, the new field of dictionary-related research has focused less on the actual structure of dictionaries and more on the needs of monolingual dictionary users.

To speak personally, for a moment, I enjoy Cowie's practiced and informed prose, and his ability to render simply a complicated notion or intricate set of information. As an EFL teacher, I am principally interested in Cowie's brilliant overviews and summaries of difficult theoretical issues, and in the chapters dealing with pedagogical history. Most EFL professionals will find English Dictionaries for Foreign Learners a source book containing much more information than they need at any given time. For this reason, I recommend it as an historical resource, a very complete and useful one at that.

Cowie's previous collection, Phraseology: Theory, Analysis, and Applications (1998) contains the same mix of history and praxis as English Dictionaries. The hardcover was priced in a way that most teachers would find prohibitive. (To be fair, although Oxford has a reputation for high list prices, these are usually the combined result of their uncompromising production quality and a refreshing willingness to issue specialist publications in relatively small runs. Their more popular titles, such as those in Alan Maley's Resource Books For Teachers series, are often very affordable. For example, Wright's Dictionaries (1998) and Windeatt et al's The Internet (2000) are listed at $13.95 each, well below the price of Schmitt's book.) In any case, a more affordable paperback edition of Phraseology has just been issued. Sections of it are extremely valuable. [-7-]

I have already pointed out the utility of Cowie's overview of Victor Vinogradov and Natalya Amosova's founding theoretical work (pp. 213-218). In addition, Cowie includes an essay on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which situates linguistic relativity in the cultural connotations of phraseological strings. This essay, "Phraseology as a Language of Culture" (pp. 55-75), by Professor Veronika Teliya of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is the most convincing argument I have ever encountered for Sapir-Whorf. As far as I can tell, this approach is wholly new in the West.

Another essay, Sylvanie Granger's "Prefabricated Patterns in Advanced EFL Writing" (pp. 145-160) demonstrates the importance of prefabricated patterns (prefabs) or phrases in EFL writing, and recommends that we modify our pedagogy to accommodate this discovery, while simultaneously cautioning that "we do not know what to teach, how much to teach, and least of all, how to teach, hence the need for empirical work" (p. 159). Granger's essay is followed by a second useful paper on EFL writing by Peter Howarth, Cowie's frequent collaborator, who is both Senior Teaching Fellow and Cowie's colleague at Leeds. "The Phraseology of Learner's Academic Writing" (pp. 161-186) is a comparative analysis of native and non-native academic writing that once again draws conclusions about the necessity of prefabs in language learning (especially writing), and the difficulties of teaching something that is so poorly understood.

As a final word, I would say that the subfield of phraseology is an area which will continue to grow in importance for EFL professionals. Books such as these by Norbert Schmitt and Antony Cowie provide us with useful and complete basic knowledge in an area that has already established itself so well in Europe that it has attracted a substrata of popularizers, including Michael Lewis of The Lexical Approach (1993), [2] Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice (1997), [3] and Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach (2000). As the acceptance of lexical linguistic models grows in North America, it will become increasingly important to look to the best practitioners and the best theorists for intellectual leadership. Norbert Schmitt and Antony Cowie are very good places to begin your own search.

Editor's Notes

[1] The LTP Dictionary of Selected Collocations was reviewed in TESL-EJ, Vol. 3, No. 3, R-11, September, 1998.

[2] The Lexical Approach was reviewed in TESL-EJ, Vol. 1, No. 2, R-3, August, 1994.

[3] Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice was reviewed in TESL-EJ, Vol. 3, No. 1, R-10, November, 1997. [-8-]


(Out of print first editions of dictionaries have been omitted)

Benson, M., et al (Eds.). (1997). The BBI dictionary of English collocations. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Carter, R. (1998). Vocabulary: Applied linguistic perspectives (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Coady, J. & Huckin, T. (Eds). (1997). Second language vocabulary acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hill, J. & Lewis, M. (Eds.). (1997). The LTP dictionary of selected collocations. Hove, UK: Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove, UK: Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (1997). Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting theory into practice. Hove, UK: Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (Ed.). (2000). Teaching collocation: Further developments in the Lexical Approach Hove, UK: Language Teaching Publications.

McCarthy, M. (1991). Discourse analysis for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, M. & Schmitt, N. (Eds). (1997). Vocabulary: Description, acquisition, and pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nation, I. S. P. (1990). Teaching and learning vocabulary. New York: Newbury House Publishers.

Nattinger, J. & Decarrico, J. (1992). Lexical phrases and language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sinclair, J. (1991). Corpus, concordance and collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tribble, C. & Jones, G. (1990). Concordances in the classroom. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Windeatt, S., et al (Eds.). (2000). The Internet. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wright, J. (1998). Dictionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Giles Slade
British Columbia Institute of Technology and Columbia College

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