Volume 4, Issue 3 December 2021, pp. 82–102 Download PDF

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What constitutes vocabulary learning difficulty? A classroom-based study of semantic relatedness and L1 familiarity effects on L2 word learning

Hanzhong Sun https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3739-19841, & Shaohua Fang https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3342-57642

1 Quzhou University, CHINA sunhanzhong@foxmail.com
2 University of Pittsburgh, USA shf64@pitt.edu

DOI: https://doi.org/10.29140/ajal.v4n3.545


There has been a plethora of studies investigating the effect of semantic relatedness on second language (L2) word learning.However, most prior studies failed to control for the lexical properties of target words, which may be responsible for the mixed results yielded. This study, therefore, sets out to revisit this issue by controlling for L1 familiarity, one of the lexical factors confirmed to impact L2 learnability. Another goal of this study is to explore the extent to which semantic relatedness interacts with L1 familiarity, thus helping us determine the suitable condition under which word learning takes place. Towards these two aims, four sets of English target words matched in length were created (i.e.,words of high/low L1 familiarity placed in semantic related/unrelated set). For each set, after the timed learning session, an immediate posttest and an unannounced one-week delayed posttest, both of which measured the receptive knowledge of the target words, were administered to forty-one English as foreign language (EFL) learners. The results showed that (a) semantic relatedness negatively affected L2 word learning on the delayed posttest only, regardless of L1 familiarity status, suggesting a robust hindrance effect; (b) L1 familiarity persistently served as a facilitative force, as it aided the acquisition of both semantically related and unrelated word sets on both posttests; (c) similar L1 familiarity levels might result in additional interference. Our findings highlight the complex interplay between these two input-related variables.


© Hanzhong Sun, Shaohua Fang

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Suggested citation

Sun, H., & Fang, S. (2021). What constitutes vocabulary learning difficulty? A classroom-based study of semantic relatedness and L1 familiarity effects on L2 word learning. Australian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 4(3), 82–102. https://doi.org/10.29140/ajal.v4n3.545

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