Word associations

2 Feb

We don’t know exactly how words are stored in the brain, but the mental lexicon has been described as a ‘gigantic multidimensional cobweb’ (Aitchison, 1987, p.86). Words are not stored in individual slots, but distributed across networks of associations. Obviously, the size of the web (i.e. the number of words) is important, but equally important is the strength of the connections within the web (as this determines the robustness of vocabulary knowledge). These connections or associations are between different words and concepts and experiences, and they are developed by repeated, meaningful, contextualised exposure to a word. In other words, the connections are firmed up through extensive opportunities to use language.

In the post below (Word association activities), I list a selection of classroom activities that aim to build connections between words. These activities require little or no preparation, are communicative and collaborative, and have no right or wrong answers.

Just for a bit of fun, you might like to look at three clips I have found on Youtube. They all relate to word associations.

  1. The magician, Derren Brown, doing a very clever trick with word associations:


  1. A cleverly edited comedy sketch with Barrack Obama!


  1. A very funny comedy sketch (contains swear words)



2 Responses to “Word associations”

  1. philipjkerr February 11, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    George Johnson (1991: p.98) offers the following description of the mental lexicon as an associative network:
    ‘Words are not hard little kernels of meaning. The pattern for ‘rock’ – whatever it happens to be – would also be linked to other patterns, a cluster of neurons that meant ‘hard’ or ‘rough’ or ‘gray’. It might be linked to patterns that stand for visual images of rocks you particularly remember – one you climbed with ropes and pitons, one that you threw at someone’s head. In addition to attributes and images, there must be patterns that represent how a word sounds. For ‘rock’, this auditory encoding would have to be linked to patterns representing other meanings: what a boat does in oscillating water, a kind of music, a dead actor’s first name. In the brain, ‘rock’ would have no definite edges. It would sprawl through the cortex, encroaching into the territories staked out by other words. Once a pattern of neurons was activated it would spread, stimulating patterns that stimulated other patterns. Meaning would ripple through the brain’s tissue of associations like the waves dropped from a rock dropped into a pond.’

    • philipjkerr May 6, 2012 at 10:03 am #

      Here’s Daniel Everett (‘Language: The Cultural Tool’, London, 2012, p.193) on the subject of word associations and culture:
      ‘There is evidence that word meanings are stored in an organized way, cross-linked to other word-meanings. For instance, when we hear a story about a single farm animal, such as a sheep, psychologists have discovered that several other words for farm animals – horse, cow, pig – are simultaneously activated in our minds, depending on our cultural conceptions of farms and the animals normally found on them. We can refer to this part of our long-term memory as our mental dictionary or lexicon. And no one should be surprised to learn that our lexicon is partially constructed by our culture, because words come from cultures.’

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