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Assessing the Vocabulary Mastery of English Language Majors at the University of Buea

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The focus of this study is to assess the vocabulary mastery of first, second and final year English Language majors at the University of Buea. Using data collected from the vocabulary test scripts of some selected students, this research identifies, analyses and explains the various elements of vocabulary in which students have greater deficiencies and attempts an explanation for this.

Using this vocabulary test, the study reveals the students level in synonyms, antonyms, word classification, and vocabulary in context. This work has highlighted the need for students to read widely, to use didactic materials frequently such as dictionaries and the need for better teacher training and generally improved vocabulary mastery techniques and English language teaching.



Background of the Study

Vocabulary is an important and major aspect of every language. Vocabulary mastery helps to build the diction of students and also enables them to speak well and have a good mastery of word meanings. According to Wikipedia, vocabulary is the knowledge of words and word meanings.

Knowing a word well enables us to use it correctly in a given context. Wikipedia goes further to tell us that words come in two forms: oral and print. Oral vocabulary includes those words that we recognize and use in listening and speaking.

Print vocabulary includes those words that we recognize and use in reading and writing. In addition to this, second-word knowledge also comes in two forms, receptive and productive. Receptive vocabulary includes those words that we recognize when we hear or see them. Productive vocabulary includes words that we use when we speak and write.

There is always the need to find out how much vocabulary students have to master for reading fluently and what strategies students use. In order to understand English texts, students have to learn the elements of vocabulary which include antonyms, analogies, synonyms, vocabulary in context and academic language.

So many observations have been made regarding the mastery of elements of vocabulary mentioned above. These observations have pinpointed a number of reasons why some students have these difficulties.

  • The student/individual himself
  • Poor memory and forgetting the teacher’s instructions
  • Emotion, instability due to shyness, quick temper, stubbornness, poor concentration
  • Poor use of language, speaking too fast, running of words together
  • Poor group participation, passive in integration
  • Lack of interest in reading, uninterested when the teacher reads or tells stories.

It is important to note that vocabulary is one of the language aspects which should be learnt. Learning vocabulary is important because we are able to speak, write, and listen nicely. A person is said to know a word if they can recognise its meaning when they see it (Cameron, 2001:75).

It means that in learning vocabulary you need to know the exact meaning of a word and how to use it correctly in a sentence. Apart from mastering synonyms and Antonyms, a good knowledge of vocabulary also entails having the knowledge of analogies and collocations.

Collocations involve a familiar grouping of words especially words that habitually appear together thereby convey meaning by association. Collocation range refers to the set of items that typically accompany a word. The size of a collocation range is partially determined by a word’s level of specificity and number of meanings. It is important to note that collocation is of Latin origin which means to place together.

The term was first used in its linguistic sense by British linguist J.R. Firth (1890 -1960) who famously observed “you shall know a word by the company it keeps. The familiar string of words that are used together. For example, “blond” collocates with hair, flock with sheep and neigh with the horse. Collocations should not be confused with associating ideas. The way lexemes work together may have nothing to do with ideas (Green with jealously not blue or red).

Antonyms according to the Advanced Learners Dictionary refer to words or expressions accepted as another name for something that is words having opposite meanings. While synonyms on the other hand refer to words having the same or nearly the same meaning as another in the language as happy; joyful, elated. Some students tend to master some synonyms better than others.

That is common synonyms like (happy, joyful), words or expressions that they are familiar with in their day to day activities. A lot of means has however been put in place for students to master vocabulary. Useful vocabulary oriented activities move from whole to part (face: eye, nose) agent or object to function (oil: cooking; babies: cut) or from superset to subset (animal: cat: dog).

Games and competitions are easily developed that evoke differences (rock: stone, stone: feather) consequences (cliff: fall precedence (lunch: breakfast) relax: come home) valuable also because they establish relationships among groups of words which are the processes of compounding; dividing off prefixes and suffixes in such ways to demonstrate their contributions to meaning in many combinations (the same process revealing the meaning nucleus between prefix and suffix); and the creation of new meaning with different arrangements of word segments.

Exercises for these processes should emphasize creativity. Creativity even if some of the new words created are not in actual use, but are nevertheless possible words of the language (for instance, compounding: egg – scooper; applying meanings conveyed by prefixes and suffixes or lopping and tailing”; to underwhelm) students need to acquire linguistic flexibility and confidence in drawing freely from their networks elements that facilitate both interpretation and production.

Free associations, practice with collocations and chaining words (down the street, down the stream, downhill; never again, nevermore) also enable students to activate and reuse all kinds of routes within their semantic networks (both those that are conventional within the language and those that arouse idiosyncratic connections) close exercises, word puzzles and word games all help to establish and confirm our mastery of a language, the activated processes of recall and retrieved providing further opportunities for the rehearsal that is so essential if the material is to remain available in long-term memory.

Since one’s vocabulary is a very personal possession and one’s ability to pvnlnit its elasticity in acceptable and comprehensible ways is equally individual, students should be encouraged for expanding and maintaining their knowledge of the lexicon and the semantic potential of the English language. Some students make a list of words that they come across for the first time; some simply mark asterisk by them. This enables them to look at the meaning of the words reference works.

This helps them not only to know the meanings of the words but to also master the context relevant for their use. Above all, students should not master vocabulary through ways they find unappealing or personally unsatisfying if the ultimate goal for each student of developing autonomous long-term learning strategies is to be achieved.

The analogy is also an important aspect of vocabulary mastery. To Chomsky, language is not a habit structure. Ordinary linguistic behaviour characteristically involves innovation, the formation of new sentences and new pattern in accordance with rules of great abstractness and intricacy. For this reason, he speaks continually of the “creative aspect of language use.

Statement of the Problem

In spite of the cardinal role of vocabulary mastery ineffective language usage especially at tertiary levels, it has been observed through interactions that the majority of these students seem to have problems in elements of vocabulary such as synonyms and antonyms, analogies, academic language, vocabulary in context and collocations.

If the students are not able to master all these vocabulary elements, there is therefore a strong tendency for them to have a big vacuum in the language. So in this study, we will point out these weaknesses and try to look for possible solutions and also make a number of suggestions to help some of these students rise above their weaknesses.

Objectives of the Study

  • To find out if the English language majors of the University of Buea have a good mastery in synonyms and antonyms
  • To assess the mastery of academic language and vocabulary in the context
  • To find out if they have a good mastery in academic language and vocabulary in context.
  • To diagnose peculiar weaknesses
  • To find out if the vocabulary mastery of the levels 200, 300, and 400 differ generally in some particular elements
  • To propose possible solutions on how to improve their vocabulary mastery so that their various weaknesses can be mitigated.

Research Questions

  • What elements of vocabulary mastery do the levels 200, 300 and 400 students find difficulties?
  • What accounts for their deficiencies?
  • How can these weaknesses be mitigated?
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