Skip to main content Accessibility help

Incidental acquisition of new words during reading in L2: Inference of meaning and its integration in the L2 mental lexicon*



A novel combination of several experimental and non-experimental paradigms was applied to explore initial stages of incidental vocabulary acquisition (IVA) during reading in German as a second language (L2). The results show that syntactic complexity of the context positively affects incidental acquisition of new words, triggering the learner's shift of attention from the text level to the word level. A subsequent semantic priming task revealed that the new words establish associations with semantically related representations in the L2 mental lexicon after just three previous occurrences and without any consolidation period. The semantic inhibition effect for the new words (contrary to semantic facilitation for known L2 words), however, indicates that the memory traces of the new semantic representation are still very weak and that their retrieval is probably hindered by stronger semantically related representations that have much lower activation thresholds and higher potential for being selected.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Denisa Bordag, Herder-Institut, University of Leipzig, Beethovenstr. 15, 04107 Leipzig, Germany


Hide All

We would like to thank Thomas Pechmann and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on the earlier version of the manuscript, as well as Kornelia Bochniak, Marcel Fuchs and Tabea Verma for running the experiments. The research was a part of a project grant provided to Denisa Bordag (BO-3615/2-1) by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation).



Hide All
Altarriba, J., & Basnight-Brown, D. M. (2007). Methodological considerations in performing semantic and translation priming experiments across languages. Behavior Research Methods, 39, 118.
Altarriba, J., & Canary, T. M. (2004). Affective priming: The automatic activation of arousal. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 25, 248265.
Arya, D. J., Hiebert, E. H., & Pearson, P. D. (2011). The effects of syntactic and lexical complexity in the comprehension of elementary science texts. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 4, 107125.
Baayen, R. H., Piepenbrock, R., & Gulikers, L. (1995). The CELEX Lexical Database (CD-ROM). Philadelphia, PA: Linguistic Data Consortium, University of Pennsylvania.
Baker, E. L., Atwood, N. K., & Duffy, T. M. (1988). Cognitive approaches to assessing the readability of text. In Davison, A. & Green, G. (eds.), Linguistic complexity and text comprehension, pp. 5581. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.
Bentin, S., Deutsch, A., & Liberman, I. (1990). Syntactic competence and reading ability in children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 49, 147172.
Bordag, D., Kirschenbaum, A., Opitz, A., & Tschirner, E. (2014a). To store, or not and if so, where? An experimental study on incidental vocabulary acquisition by adult native speakers of German. Ms. University of Leipzig. [To appear in Torrens, V. & Escobar, L. (eds.), The processing of lexicon and morphosyntax. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.]
Bordag, D., Kirschenbaum, A., Rogahn, M., & Tschirner, E. (2014b). The influence of form (a)typicality on incidental and intentional vocabulary acquisition. Ms., University of Leipzig.
Borovsky, A., Elman, J. L., & Kutas, M. (2012). Once is enough: N400 indexes semantic integration of novel word meanings from a single exposure in context. Language Learning and Development, 8, 278302.
Borovsky, A., Kutas, M., & Elman, J. (2010). Learning to use words: Event-related potentials index single-shot word learning. Cognition, 116, 289296.
Breitenstein, C., Zwitserlood, P., de Vries, M. H., Feldhues, C., Knecht, S., & Dobel, C. (2007). Five days versus a lifetime: Intense associative vocabulary training generates lexically integrated words. Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, 25, 493500.
Britton, B. K., Glynn, S. M., Meyer, B. J., & Penland, M. J. (1982). Effects of text structure on use of cognitive capacity during reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74, 5161.
Brown, R., Waring, R., & Donkaewbua, S. (2008). Incidental vocabulary acquisition from reading, reading-while-listening, and listening to stories. Reading in a Foreign Language, 20, 136163.
Carr, T. H., & Dagenbach, D. (1990). Semantic priming and repetition from masked words: Evidence for a center-surround attentional mechanism in perceptual recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 16, 341350.
Chung, H. (1995). Effects of elaborative modification on second language reading comprehension and incidental vocabulary learning. Master's thesis. University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, Honolulu.
Clay, F., Bowers, J. S., Davis, C. J., & Hanley, D. A. (2007). Teaching adults new words: The role of practice and consolidation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33, 970976.
Cobb, T., & Horst, M. (2004). Is there room for an AWL in French? In Harley, B. & Hulstijn, J. (eds.), Selected papers from the Leiden-Haifa SLVA Symposium. (Language Learning and Language Teaching Series), pp. 1538. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Crossley, S. A., Louwerse, M. M., McCarthy, P. M., & McNamara, D. S. (2007). A linguistic analysis of simplified and authentic texts. The Modern Language Journal, 91, 1530.
Dagenbach, D., Carr, T. H., & Barnhardt, T. M. (1990a). Inhibitory semantic priming of lexical decisions due to failure to retrieve weakly activated codes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 16, 328340.
Dagenbach, D., Horst, S., & Carr, T. H. (1990b). Adding new information to semantic memory: How much learning is enough to produce automatic priming. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 16, 581591.
Davis, M. H., & Gaskell, M. G. (2009). A complementary systems account of word learning: Neural and behavioural evidence. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364, 37733800.
Deutsch, A., & Bentin, S. (1996). Attention factors mediating syntactic deficiency in reading disabled children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 63, 386415.
Devitto, Z., & Burgess, C. (2004). Theoretical and methodological implications of language experience and vocabulary skill: Priming of strongly and weakly associated words. Brain and Cognition, 55, 295299.
Elgort, I. (2011). Deliberate learning and vocabulary acquisition in a second language. Language Learning, 61, 367413.
Elgort, I., & Nation, I. S. P. (2010). Vocabulary learning in a second language: Familiar answers to new questions. In Seedhouse, P., Walsh, S. & Jenks, C. (eds.), Conceptualising ‘learning’ in applied linguistics, pp. 89104. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Ellis, R. (2008). The study of second language acquisition (2nd edn.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ellis, R., & Barkhuizen, G. P. (2005). Analysing learner language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Favreau, M., & Segalowitz, N. (1983). Automatic and controlled processes in the first- and second-language reading of fluent bilinguals. Memory & Cognition, 11, 565574.
Ferreira, F. (2003). The misinterpretation of noncanonical sentences. Cognitive Psychology, 47, 164203.
Frenck-Mestre, C., & Prince, P. (1997). Second language autonomy. Journal of Memory and Language, 37, 481501.
Grabe, W. (2009). Reading in a second language: Moving from theory to practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Greve, A., van Rossum, M. C. W., & Donaldson, D. I. (2007). Investigating the functional interaction between semantic and episodic memory: Convergent behavioural and electrophysiological evidence for the role of familiarity. Neuroimage, 34, 801814.
Horst, M., Cobb, T., & Meara, P. (1998). Beyond a Clockwork Orange: Acquiring second language vocabulary through reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 11, 207223.
Houghton, G., & Tipper, S. P. (1994). A model of inhibitory mechanisms in selective attention. In Dagenbach, D. & Carr, T. H. (eds.), Inhibitory processes in attention, memory, and language, pp. 53112. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Huckin, T., & Coady, J. (1999). Incidental vocabulary acquisition in a second language: a review. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21, 181193.
Hulstijn, J. H. (1992). Retention of inferred and given word meanings: Experiments in incidental vocabulary learning. In Arnaud, P. J. L. & Béjoint, H. (eds.), Vocabulary and applied linguistics, pp. 113125. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Hulstijn, J. H. (1993). When do foreign language readers look up the meaning of unfamiliar words? The influence of task and learner variables. Modern Language Journal, 77, 139147.
Hulstijn, J. (2003). Incidental and intentional learning. In Doughty, C. J. & Long, M. H. (eds.), The handbook of second language acquisition, pp. 349381. Oxford: Blackwell.
Isel, F., Gunter, T. C., & Friederici, A. D. (2003). Prosodyassisted head-driven access to spoken German compounds. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 29, 277288.
Iwashita, N. (2006). Syntactic complexity measures and their relation to oral proficiency in Japanese as a foreign language. Language Assessment Quarterly: An International Journal, 3, 151169.
Jiang, N. (2004). Semantic transfer and its implications for vocabulary teaching in a second language. The Modern Language Journal, 88, 416432.
Jiang, N., & Forster, K. I. (2001). Cross-language priming asymmetries in lexical decision and episodic recognition. Journal of Memory and Language, 44, 3252.
Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1983). Mental models: Towards a cognitive science of language, inference and consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Keatley, C. W., Spinks, J. A., & de Gelder, B. (1994). Asymmetrical cross-language priming effects. Memory & Cognition, 22, 7084.
Keuleers, E., & Brysbaert, M. (2010). Wuggy: A multilingual pseudoword generator. Behavior Research Methods, 42, 627633.
Kotz, S. A., & Elston-Güttler, K. E. (2004). The role of proficiency on processing categorical and associative information in the L2: Reaction times and event-related potentials. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 17, 215235.
Kroll, J. F., & Stewart, E. (1994). Category interference in translation and picture naming: Evidence for asymmetric connections between bilingual memory representations. Journal of Memory and Language, 33, 149174.
Laufer, B. (2001). Reading, word-focused activities and incidental vocabulary acquisition in a second language. Prospect, 16, 4454.
Laufer, B. (2005). Focus on form in second language vocabulary learning. EUROSLA Yearbook, 5, 223250.
Leach, L., & Samuel, A. (2007). Lexical configuration and lexical engagement: When adults learn new words. Cognitive Psychology, 55, 306353.
Leikin, M., & Assayag-Bouskila, O. (2004). Expression of syntactic complexity in sentence comprehension: A comparison between dyslexic and regular readers. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 17, 801821.
Lindsay, S., & Gaskell, M. G. (2010). A complementary systems account of word learning in L1 and L2. Language Learning, 60, 4563.
Lindsay, S., & Gaskell, M. G. (2013). Lexical integration of novel words without sleep. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39, 608622.
McClelland, J. L., McNaughton, B. L., & O’Reilly, R. C. (1995). Why there are complementary learning systems in the hippocampus and neocortex: Insights from the successes and failures of connectionist models of learning and memory. Psychological Review, 102, 419457.
McDonough, K., & Trofimovich, P. (2008). Using priming methods in second language research. New York: Routledge.
McNamara, T. P. (2005). Semantic priming: Perspectives from memory and word recognition. New York: Psychology Press.
Mestres-Misse, A., Camara, E., Rodriguez-Fornells, A., Rotte, M., & Münte, T. F. (2008). Functional neuroanatomy of meaning acquisition from context. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20, 21532166.
Mestres-Misse, A., Rodriguez-Fornells, A., & Münte, T. F. (2007). Watching the brain during meaning acquisition. Cerebral Cortex, 8, 18581866.
Meyer, D. E., & Schvaneveldt, R. W. (1971). Facilitation in recognizing pairs of words: Evidence of a dependence between retrieval operations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 90, 227234.
Nagy, W. E., Anderson, R. C., & Herman, P. A. (1987). Learning word meanings from context during normal reading. American Educational Research Journal, 24, 237270.
Nation, I. S. P. (1983). Testing and teaching vocabulary. Guidelines, 5, 1225.
Nation, I. S. P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nation, I. S. P. (2007). The four strands. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1, 112.
Pallotti, G. (2009). CAF: Defining, refining and differentiating constructs. Applied Linguistics, 30, 590601.
Paribakht, T. S., & Wesche, M. (1993). The relationship between reading comprehension and second language development in a comprehensionbased ESL programme. TESL Canada Journal, 11, 929.
Paribakht, T. S., & Wesche, M. (1997). Vocabulary enhancement activities and reading for meaning in second language vocabulary acquisition. In Coady, J. & Huckin, T. (eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition: A rationale for pedagogy, pp. 174200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Parker, K., & Chaudron, C. (1987). The effects of linguistic simplifications and elaborate modifications on L2 comprehension. University of Hawai‘i Working Papers in ESL, 6, 107133.
Perfetti, C., Landi, N., & Oakhill, J. (2005). The acquisition of reading comprehension skill. In Snowling, M. & Hulme, C. (eds.), The science of reading, pp. 227247. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Phillips, N. A., Segalowitz, N., O’Brien, I., & Yamasaki, N. (2004). Semantic priming in a first and second language: Evidence from reaction time variability and event-related brain potentials. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 17, 237262.
Pulido, D. (2003). Modeling the role of L2 proficiency and topic familiarity in L2 incidental vocabulary acquisition through reading. Language Learning, 53, 233284.
Pulido, D. (2004). The effect of cultural familiarity on incidental vocabulary acquisition through reading. The Reading Matrix, 4, 2052.
Qiao, X., Forster, K., & Witzel, N. (2009). Is Banara really a word? Cognition, 113, 254257.
Read, L. E. (2004). Stimulus-response compatibility and negative priming without distractors: Implications for perception to action. Ph.D. dissertation, Purdue University.
Rezaee, A. A., & Norouzi, M. H. (2011). Readability formulas and cohesive markers in reading comprehension. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 1, 10051010.
Rieder, A. (2002a). Beiläufiger Vokabelerwerb: Theoretische Modelle und empirische Untersuchungen. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Tübingen.
Rieder, A. (2002b). A cognitive view of incidental vocabulary acquisition: From text meaning to word meaning. VIEWS, 11, 5371.
Rott, S. (1999). The effect of exposure frequency on intermediate language learners’ incidental vocabulary acquisition through reading. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21, 589619.
Saragi, T., Nation, I. S. P., & Meister, G. F. (1978). Vocabulary learning and reading. System, 6, 7278.
Shokouhi, H., & Maniati, M. (2009). Learners’ incidental vocabulary acquisition: A case of narrative and expository texts. English Language Teaching, 1, 1323.
Shtyrov, Y., Nikulin, V. V., & Pulvermüller, F. (2010). Rapid cortical plasticity underlying novel word learning. Journal of Neuroscience, 30, 1686416867.
Simensen, A. M. (1987). Adapted readers: How are they adapted. Reading in a Foreign Language, 4, 4157.
Szmrecsányi, B. (2004). On operationalizing syntactic complexity. In Purnelle, G., Fairon, C. & Dister, A. (eds.), Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Textual Data Statistical Analysis (vol. 2), pp. 10321039. Louvain-la-Neuve: Presses universitaires de Louvain.
Tamminen, J. (2010). Learning new words: Effects of meaning, memory consolidation, and sleep. Ph.D. dissertation, University of York.
Tamminen, J., & Gaskell, M. G. (2012). Novel word integration in the mental lexicon: Evidence from unmasked and masked semantic priming. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 66, 10011025.
Tipper, S. P. (1985). The negative priming effect: Inhibitory priming by ignored objects. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 37, 571590.
Tipper, S. P. (2001). Does negative priming reflect inhibitory mechanisms? A review and integration of conflicting views. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 54, 321343.
Tunmer, W. E., & Hoover, W. A. (1992). Cognitive and linguistic factors in learning to read. In Gough, P. B., Ehri, L. C. & Treiman, R. (eds.), Reading acquisition, pp. 175214. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Urano, K. (2000). Lexical simplification and elaboration: Sentence comprehension and incidental vocabulary acquisition. Master's thesis, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.
van den Bussche, E., van den Noortgate, W., & Reynvoet, B. (2009). Mechanisms of masked priming: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 452477.
van Dijk, T. A., & Kintsch, W. (1983). Strategies of discourse comprehension. New York: Academic Press.
Walley, R. E., & Weiden, T. D. (1973). Lateral inhibition and cognitive masking: A neuropsychological theory of attention. Psychological Review, 80, 284302.
Wang, M. D. (1970). The role of syntactic complexity as a determiner of comprehensibility. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 9, 398404.
Waring, R., & Takaki, M. (2003). At what rate do learners learn and retain new vocabulary from reading a graded reader? Reading in a Foreign Language, 15, 130163.
Webb, S. (2008). The effects of context on incidental vocabulary learning. Reading in a Foreign Language, 20, 232245.
Wesche, M., & Paribakht, T. S., (1996). Enhancing vocabulary acquisition through reading: A hierarchy of text-related exercise-types. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 52, 155178.
Weyerts, H., Penke, M., Münte, T. F., Heinze, H.-J., & Clahsen, H. (2002). Word order in sentence processing: An experimental study of verb placement in German. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 31, 211268.
Wiese, R. (2000). The phonology of German. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wigglesworth, G. (1997). An investigation of planning time and proficiency level on oral test discourse. Language Testing, 14, 85106.
Williams, J. N., & Cheung, A. (2011). Using priming to explore early word learning. In Trofimovich, P. & McDonough, K. (eds.), Applying priming methods to L2 learning, teaching and research: Insights from psycholinguistics, pp. 73103. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Witzel, N. O., & Forster, K. I. (2012). How L2 words are stored: The episodic L2 hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 38, 16081621.


Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Bordag Supplementary Material
Supplementary Material

 PDF (57 KB)
57 KB

Incidental acquisition of new words during reading in L2: Inference of meaning and its integration in the L2 mental lexicon*



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.