Language Aptitude in the Development of Vocabulary Breadth and Depth of EFL Learners with Different Proficiency Levels*

Lingjie Tang, Jayeon Lim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The purpose of this study is to examine the role of language learning aptitude in the development of vocabulary breadth and depth of adult EFL learners with different proficiency levels. To this end, sixty Chinese EFL college students were divided into two proficiency groups of high and low and participated in three online tests of measuring vocabulary breadth, depth and aptitude. The results showed that high proficiency (HP) learners outperformed low proficiency (LP) learners in three subdivided aptitudes of rote memory, grammatical sensitivity and phonetic coding ability. HP also outperformed LP in vocabulary breadth at all frequency levels, indicating a positive relationship between language aptitude and vocabulary breadth. With vocabulary depth, HP produced more valid paradigmatic associations than LP. However, no difference was found based on the two proficiency group’s responses to syntagmatic and phonological associations of the vocabulary depth test. The results implicate that L2 learners’ vocabulary depth developed with a more paradigmatic tendency as their proficiency increased. No difference was found in syntagmatic associations between the two proficiency groups, indicating a possibility of it continuously posing a challenge for L2 learners. As with phonological associations, it seems that L2 learners rarely rely on phonological information when learning vocabulary. Among different aptitudes, rote memory strongly contributed to vocabulary breadth at all frequency levels and to paradigmatic and syntagmatic associations in LP learners. The contribution of aptitudes in HP was unclear. The findings show that rote memorization of vocabulary may be helpful for low proficiency learners, whereas additional factors may be at play in advanced level learners. Thus, further studies are needed in investigating additional factors that may contribute to vocabulary development as learners’ proficiency increases.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)285-302
Number of pages18
JournalKorean Journal of English Language and Linguistics
StatePublished - 2023


  • Chinese EFL learners
  • English proficiency level
  • L2 vocabulary breadth and depth
  • language aptitude


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