Lexical Competence in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

Lexical Competence in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages



Lexical Competence in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

Meral Öztürk*


This study will make a critical evaluation of the construct of lexical competence as defined in the Common European Framework in the light of the literature on lexical acquisition in a second language. The comprehensiveness of the description in the C.E.F. will be reviewed from four perspectives: dimensions of vocabulary knowledge, vocabulary control, vocabulary size, and vocabulary range. The notion of ‘word’ in the C.E.F. will also be compared to the definition of ‘word’ commonly used in the studies on second language vocabulary acquisition.


The purpose of this paper is to make a critical evaluation of the C.E.F. with respect to its specifications of lexical competence in a second language. The definition of lexical competence in the C.E.F. is concise and conveniently simple: “the knowledge of and ability to use the vocabulary of a language” (Council for Cultural Cooperation, 2001, p.110). It needs to be further specified, however, what this knowledge and ability consists of as well as what sorts of elements are included in the ‘vocabulary’ of a language.


Basically, the vocabulary of a language consists of single words. In the C.E.F., single words cover both lexical words (i.e. nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) and grammatical words (e.g. articles, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, etc.). On the other hand, in the literature on second language vocabulary acquisition, a word is primarily lexical, the general assumption being that grammatical words belong to the grammar of a language and not the lexicon proper. Grammatical words like English relative pronouns (e.g. that, which, etc.) are better learnt in relation to the kind of structure they appear in (e.g. relative clauses). As such, learning of such words requires learning of grammar; and it is more appropriate to consider them as parts of grammatical competence.

The C.E.F. takes a rather broad view of a word and includes fixed expressions in the vocabulary of a language in addition to single word forms. Thus, several words which are conventionally used together and therefore form a group are counted as single words. The C.E.F. provides a fairly comprehensive list of the kind of items that can be covered by the term ‘fixed expression’ (Council for Cultural Cooperation, 2001, p.110-1). These range from phrasal verbs (e.g. to put up with, to make do, to look after), to whole sentences (e.g. How do you do?, It’s a long shot = It is unlikely to succeed). This account of what counts as a word is in line with the view of a word which has gained acceptance in the literature after the introduction of Sinclair’s ‘idiom principle’ (1991). Sinclair claims that language users do not construct everything they say from scratch. Some or most of what they say come already made. These ready-made expressions are known today as ‘multi-word units’ and are stored in the mind and retrieved when necessary as single units like single words. Moon (1997) reviews multi-word words in English in five categories: compounds, phrasal verbs, idioms, fixed phrases and prefabs (i.e. prefabricated routines). Of these the category of compounds is underrepresented in the C.E.F. While compound prepositions like ‘in front of’ are listed, lexical compounds like car park, wild flower, freeze-dry, long-haired, three-legged, royal blue, seem to be totally ignored.

In another respect, the C.E.F. takes a more restricted view of a word than is commonly taken in the field of second language vocabulary acquisition. The C.E.F. takes each word form to be a separate word and thus ignores the relationship between words like happy, happily, happiness, unhappy, happier, unhappiest, etc. These words are morphologically related forming what is called a ‘word family’. A word family is “a base form with its inflected and derived forms” (Laufer, 1998). It is common practice in estimates of vocabulary size to count all words in a word family as one word. The idea behind this is that when one learns the base form (e.g. happy) the rest can be arrived at by applying general morphological rules. Thus, using single word forms rather than word families in describing learners’ vocabularies will lead to overestimates of their vocabulary sizes in the L2.

Lexical Competence

Lexical competence in a second language can be described in four different ways: with respect to what is known about words, how well words are known, how many words are known, and which words are known. Each of these will be discussed in what follows and the treatment of these aspects in the C.E.F. will be evaluated.

The Dimensional Account (What?)

One way to describe lexical competence is to describe what the learner knows about words. It is widely accepted now that there are many types or ‘dimensions’ of knowledge to be learnt about each word.

A number of researchers have developed taxonomies of the knowledge types involved when one has complete mastery over a word (Richards, 1976; Cronbach, 1942; Nation, 1990; Bogaards, 2000; Laufer, 1990, 1993). It should be noted, however, that many of these dimensions would be missing in many of the words even in a native speaker’s lexicon. The knowledge types listed in these taxonomies can be classified into five categories: form, meaning, grammar, organisation, and discourse. All taxonomies make reference to the form (written and spoken ) of the word. Knowledge of meaning involves knowing the conceptual meaning as well as all the other meanings of the word (i.e. polysemy). It further involves knowing the connotational meaning of a word. For instance, knowing that the word slim has a positive meaning whereas its synonym skinny has negative connotations is part of knowing the meaning of these words.

Grammar refers to both morphological and syntactic knowledge about words. When one knows the grammar of a word he knows its major grammatical category (i.e. verb, noun, etc.), he understands the morphological make-up of complex words, he knows other forms in the same word family, and he knows the kind of sentence structure in which a given word can be used (e.g. with or without an object for verbs).

Organisation refers to the relations a word might have to the other words in the language (Meara, 1996). These relations can be ‘paradigmatic’ or ‘syntagmatic’. Paradigmatic relations would involve meaning relations like synonymy, antonymy, hyponymy, etc. Knowing the syntagmatic relations of a word would imply knowing the words a particular word can be used with in multi-word combinations. A word might also have a looser associative relation to other words in the lexicon. For instance, the words butterfly and summer (Meara, 1996, p.47) or cabbage and caterpillar (Meara, 1996, p.49) are related because they co-occur in the real-life experience of English native- speakers.

Finally, knowing the discoursal characteristics of a word refers to knowing about appropriate contexts of use. The underlying dimensions are knowledge of the stylistic value of a word (i.e. whether it is formal, informal, etc.), knowledge of the register restrictions (i.e. whether a word belongs to the written or spoken language or to a specific subject matter), intuition about the frequency of use as well as knowledge of any discourse function of the multi-word units it is a part of (e.g. ‘summarizers’ like in a nutshell, in effect, to make a long story short, etc. (Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992, p. 95).

The taxonomy I have presented is comprehensive but is not meant to be exhaustive. The amount of detail in the taxonomy nicely illustrates the richness of vocabulary knowledge. In view of this taxonomy, the description of lexical competence in the C.E.F. seems rather ‘shallow’ with respect to the knowledge dimensions included. Reference is made only to three of the dimensions in the taxonomy: conceptual meaning, polysemy and ‘multiple incompatibles’ (Hurford & Heasley, 1987, p.117), which is a type of antonymous relation among a set of words that form a system like days of the week, months of the year, etc.

The Developmental Account (How Well?)

A different way of describing lexical competence is specifying how well a particular word is known. While a number of testing formats like multiple-choice tests or Yes-No tests (Meara & Buxton, 1987) presuppose an all-or-nothing view of vocabulary knowledge, there is general agreement in the literature that vocabulary knowledge is a continuum between receptive knowledge and productive knowledge. Having receptive knowledge of a word entails “understanding the most frequent meaning” (Laufer & Paribahkt, 1998) of the word when encountered in written or spoken language. Productive knowledge is “the spontaneous use of a word in a context generated by the user” (ibid).

Several researchers offered scales with a number of stages representing different degrees of knowledge (Paribahkt & Wesche, 1993; Brown & Payne, 1994, Scarcella & Zimmerman, 1996, Faerch, Haastrup & Phillipson, 1984). What is common to all these efforts is that they describe degree of vocabulary knowledge in behavioural terms. They specify what the learner is able to do with the word. This is where the C.E.F. is sharply different. Under the title ‘vocabulary control’, the C.E.F. defines degree of knowledge predominantly in terms of ‘error’ as is apparent in the terms used such as ‘minor slip’, ‘significant vocabulary error’, ‘incorrect word choice’, ‘major error’. In other words, knowledge of words is measured in terms of what the learner cannot do or do incorrectly. There are a number of drawbacks to this approach. First, the fact that a learner has produced only a few errors in productive use doesn’t mean that he has an advanced lexical competence. It is possible to produce flawless discourse with limited vocabulary. This is regularly done, for example, in the graded readers for foreign language learners. On the other hand, research shows that when language learners stretch their linguistic resources they make more mistakes (i.e. Canale & Swain’s (1980) ‘comprehensible output’). Therefore, lexical errors might be a sign of an expanding lexicon rather than lexical inadequacy.

Second, there are difficulties involved in identifying a lexical error. The following sentence looks error-free:

I feel sorry for people who live in the suburbs. (Gairns & Redman, 1986, p.3)

A English native speaker would interpret this sentence as a criticism of the suburban people: maybe they are too careful about what they say and do. Thus, the hearer of this sentence may not suspect a mistake in lexical choice. In fact, the speaker of the sentence has made a mistake by transferring the word suburbio from his native language meaning slums. Thus, the intended meaning of the sentence is quite distant from the meaning conveyed. The speaker is expressing sympathy towards people living in slums. It is quite unlikely, however, that the error will be corrected later on as transcripts of NS-NNS talks show that people can engage in lengthy conversations when mutual understanding is lacking (Varonis & Gass, 1985 in Gass & Selinker, 1996, p.203-205).

Additionally, it may sometimes be difficult to draw the line between a lexical error and a grammatical error. In the sentence I am flu, the use of the auxiliary is incorrect and thus suggests a grammatical error. On the other hand, it is possible to interpret this to be a lexical error. In English, the word flu collocates with have and a Turkish learner of English might incorrectly use be with flu transferring the collocation from his/her native language.

In addition to these difficulties in using errors as the base for describing lexical control, the terms ‘minor slip’, ‘significant error’ and ‘major error’ demand precise definitions. It is not unlikely that a minor slip for some might be a major error to another.

The Quantitative Account (How Many?)

Another way to define lexical competence is to specify the number of words known, i.e. the size of vocabulary. The number of words known to a learner needs to be interpreted, however, in comparison to the number of words known to a native speaker. Although estimates vary widely, an educated English native speaker has a vocabulary around 20,000 word families (Nation & Waring, 1997, p.7). Nation & Waring (1997, p.7) suggest that “…between 3-5000 word families is needed to provide a basis for comprehension” in a second language and around 2-3000 words are needed for productive use. As such, by taking this as the threshold level , it is possible to describe vocabulary size in stages where the number of words that needs to be known at each stage is specified. The C.E.F. leaves this specification entirely to the users of the framework. This is unfortunate since vocabulary size is offered as one of the parameters of lexical competence alongside range and control in the C.E.F. (Council for Cultural Cooperation, 2001, p. 150) and is also one of the most frequently used measures of vocabulary knowledge.

The Selectional Account (Which Words?)

Finally, lexical competence can be described by specifying the words within the whole vocabulary of a language that is known or should be known at a particular point in the process of learning a language. The end point of learning second language vocabulary is not the whole of the lexicon as there is no single native speaker who knows each and every single word in his native language. Therefore, some specification of the target vocabulary is necessary. The main criterion that the specified words should meet is conduciveness to communication. A number of criteria have been suggested in the literature for the selection of vocabulary that would be most useful for successful communication in a second language. These are frequency, coverage, range and availability (i.e. disponibilite) (White, 1988, p.49).

‘Frequency’ is “the total number of occurrences of an item in a given corpus of language” (ibid). Learning more frequent words before less frequent ones is thought more useful since this gives quick access to textual meaning and also provides the basic means to self-expression.

‘Coverage’ refers to “the number of things which can be expressed by any given item” (ibid). The verb go, for instance, has wider coverage than other verbs of movement like move, walk or travel and therefore is more useful to learn.

‘Range’ is “the number of texts in which a word is found in a given corpus” (ibid). If a word appears in a great number of texts it has a high range. Such words are considered useful as a high range word would be used in understanding a number of different texts.

Finally, ‘availability’ is “the readiness with which a word is remembered and used by native speakers in certain situations” (ibid). The availability of salt and pepper is equal for an English native speaker although they are not equally frequent.

By far the most commonly used criterion used to describe real or targeted levels of vocabulary knowledge quantitatively is frequency. Sometimes, the description involves multiple-levels of lexical knowledge. For instance, learners’ vocabulary sizes are often estimated in percentages for each of the frequency bands separately like: 1000-word level, 2000-word level, 5000-word level, etc. (Nation, 1990). Vocabulary size is sometimes defined for receptive and productive vocabularies separately at each frequency level as well (Laufer, 1998).

Target vocabulary levels in the C.E.F. are specified in terms of themes / domains ‘required for the achievement of communicative tasks relevant to the learner’s needs’ (Council for Cultural Cooperation, 2001, p. 150). These are given under the descriptors for vocabulary range although the term vocabulary range is used in a non-technical sense referring to the vocabulary to be covered in the description. The progression is from survival vocabulary, through vocabulary for everyday topics to a vocabulary for general topics and for specialised topics relating to one’s field. The difficulty involved in specifying vocabulary for each of these themes is obvious. Ideally one would expect vocabulary lists that accompany these specifications, e.g. a list of ‘survival words’. At least more precise descriptions of the themes can be expected. For instance, the difference between ‘everyday topics’ and ‘general topics’ is far from clear. This is advisable for the sake of objectivity as well as standardisation of the description.


In general, I would argue that the C.E.F. could have been better informed from the work in the field of second language vocabulary acquisition although the description is quite up-to-date in certain respects like the definition of ‘word’. Also, more precision with the use of terms in the descriptors as well as a clearer delimitation of the stages of mastery is called for.


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