What Is Vocabulary Acquisition?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2019
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Vocabulary acquisition concerns how people expand the number of words they understand when learning a new language. This includes both first and second language acquisition. Vocabulary refers to words and is divided into two types: functional words that perform a role in grammar and lexical words that provide information. The expansion of the mental lexicon is related to, but not part of, grammar and syntax acquisition.

A child’s vocabulary acquisition falls into the long-running debate over nature and nurture. Nature theory means children are born with certain linguistic tools, while nurture asserts that all tools are handed down from the people around the child as it grows up. Noam Chomsky believes that children are given basic syntax and structure tools before they are born and use these tools to make sense of the words they learn from their environment.

Linguists are agreed that vocabulary acquisition is 100-percent nurture. If nature provided children with an inbuilt vocabulary, then the child would speak the language of his or her parents or all children would be pre-programmed with the same proto-language. This clearly is not the case, so studies into vocabulary acquisition focus on how children learn words.


Vocabulary is divided into four basic types: listening vocabulary, speaking vocabulary, writing vocabulary and reading vocabulary. Each type has its own conventions and words. A child typically learns listening vocabulary first, then spoken, reading and finally writing. The number of words a child understands increases as he or she grows up and learns or experiences new things. More specialized vocabularies develop in adulthood through studies and hobbies.

It is important that a word is understood before it is used. This is important for both first and second language learners. This includes learning how to pronounce a word that is first encountered written and how to spell a word that is first encountered through hearing. Errors in both have led to spelling pronunciation and pronunciation spelling.

Learning a second language attempts to create a parallel vocabulary to the first language. In the 19th century and in many parts of the world today, importance is placed upon grammar and structure when learning a new language. The importance of vocabulary acquisition has only more recently been recognized. Another stumbling block in second language vocabulary acquisition is the first language. This not only causes confusion in structure, but can also cause confusion in vocabulary.

Knowing words in a first or second language is vitally important. In a first language, it allows for greater social integration and self-expression. It also gives a favorable interpretation of a person’s status. In a second language, the speaker will be able to communicate basic ideas through vocabulary even if the person does not understand how to create a grammatically-correct sentence.


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