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Commonalities and Differences in the Mental Lexicon between Native and Non-native Speakers of English: The Polysemous Senses of English Prepositions

Nobuhiko Akamatsu
Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan


This study aims to investigate the extent to which native and non-native speakers of English share the same mental structures regarding highly polysemous words, specifically the basic and widely used English prepositions: at, in, and on. Thirty-eight Japanese learners of English as a foreign language (the EFL group) and 36 native speakers of English (the NS group) participated in the study. Each participant took part in an individual experiment. For each preposition, they were asked to categorize 18 sentences based on the meaning of the target preposition. The sentences consisted of 15 instances, with three sentences representing each of the five sense types (spatial, temporal, state, manner, and area) (Dirven, 1993), and three phrasal verbs.

The results of the cluster analysis revealed that both groups exhibited remarkably similar mental structures concerning the polysemous English prepositions. Dendrograms indicated that the sentences were primarily grouped based on their respective sense types for each target preposition, with only one misplaced sentence for each participant group. This inter-group commonality was statistically confirmed by Cophenetic correlation (AT: r=0.87; IN: r=0.97; ON: r=0.70) and the Mantel test (AT: r=0.93; IN: r=0.96; ON: r=0.80).

However, further analysis using general linear mixed models to evaluate the agreement of the five sense categories for each participant highlighted differences rather than commonalities. The estimated means for the EFL group (M=0.609, SE=0.023) were significantly lower than those for the NS group (M =0.739, SE=0.022). Furthermore, the estimated means of intra-group agreement for the EFL group (M =0.552, SE=0.023) were also statistically lower than those for the NS group (M =0.700, SE=0.022). These findings suggest that, despite the observed inter-group commonalities, individual differences in the mental structures of polysemous words (i.e., English prepositions) within the EFL group were more pronounced than those within the NS group.


Bilingual Lexicon, Polysemous Words, English Prepositions, Japanese Learners of English

International Joint Conference of APLX, ETRA40, and TESPA 2023