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The Development of Polysemy and Frequency Use in English Second Language Speakers


  • The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant IES R3056020018-02 to the University of Memphis. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education. The authors would also like to thank Dr. Philip McCarthy of the University of Memphis for his statistical and methodological assistance. Additionally, the authors are indebted to the anonymous reviewers who provided critical assessments of the early and late versions of this article.

concerning this article should be addressed to Scott Crossley, Department of English, Mississippi State University, P.O. Box E., Mississippi State, MS 39762-5505. Internet:


Spoken language data were collected from six adult second language (L2) English learners over a year-long period in order to explore the development of word polysemy and frequency use. The data were analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively. In the first analysis, the growth of WordNet polysemy values and CELEX word frequency values were examined. For both indexes, significant growth was demonstrated from the 2nd to the 16th week of observation, after which values remained stable. Growth in word polysemy values also correlated with changes in word frequency, supporting the notion that frequency and polysemy effects in word use are related. A second analysis used the WordNet dictionary to explore qualitative changes in word sense use concerning six frequent lexical items in the learner corpus (think, know, place, work, play, and name). A qualitative analysis compared normalized frequencies for each word sense in the first trimester of the study to the later trimesters. Differences in the number of word senses used across trimesters were found for all six words. Analyses 1 and 2, taken together, support the notion that L2 learners begin to use words that have the potential for more senses during the first 4 months; learners then begin to extend the core meanings of these polysemous words. These findings provide further insights into the development of lexical proficiency in L2 learners and the growth of lexical networks.