How do children who have recently begun to learn English map new L2 words into their existing mental lexicon? We tested the predictions of the Revised Hierarchical Model (Kroll & Stewart, 1994), originally introduced to explain language production processes and the relative strengths of the underlying connections between L1 and L2 word forms and the corresponding concepts. To examine how children map novel words to concepts during early stages of L2 learning, we tested fifth grade Dutch L2 learners with eight months of English instruction.
In Study 1, the children performed a translation recognition task, in which an English word (bike) was shown followed by a Dutch word and the children had to indicate whether the Dutch word was the correct translation. The Dutch word could be on of three: the correct translation equivalent (fiets), a semantically related incorrect translation (wiel [wheel]), or an unrelated incorrect translation (melk [milk]). The critical stimuli here were the semantically related incorrect translations: the RHM predicts that beginning learners should not be sensitive yet to L2 semantics, and hence perform equally on both kinds of incorrect translations. The children, however, were already sensitive to L2 word meaning and took longer to decide that a word was an incorrect translation when it was semantically related than unrelated.
In Study 2 the children performed backward and forward translation production tasks, and were faster in the backward direction, indicating direct translation from the L2 word to the L1 word without the detour via the concept, as predicted by the RHM. Our results indicate that depending on the task, Dutch beginning L2 learners do exploit conceptual information during L2 processing and map L2 word-forms to concepts, but evidently more so in recognition tasks than in production tasks. Critically, the children in our study had learned L2 words in contexts enriched by pictures and listening/speaking exercises.
This is further evidence that manner of L2 instruction may majorly impact the activation of lexical and conceptual information during translation.