In a recent article, I discussed the importance of phonetics for ESL instructors. But instructors can also benefit from an understanding of semantics — the study of meaning.

Linguistic semantics has been defined as the study of how languages organize and express meanings. The ACTFL Standards encourage this type of study:

"COMPARISONS Develop insight into the nature of language and culture in order to interact with cultural competence.

Language Comparisons: Learners use the language to investigate, explain and reflect on the nature of language through comparisons of the language studied and their own.

Cultural Comparisons: Learners use the language to investigate, explain and reflect on the concept of culture through comparisons of the cultures studied and their own."

The grammatical description of a language is conveniently divided into two complementary sections: morphology and syntax. Morphology accounts for the internal structure of words, and syntax describes how words are combined to form phrases, clauses and sentences.

Another component, semantics, is the study of meaning in language. It can be defined as "the relationship between signs and the outside world, for example, red's denoting 'stop.'"

The goal of semantic study is to explain how sequences of language are matched with their proper meanings and placed in certain environments by speakers of the language. "Semantics seeks to account for the relationships of words and sentences with things and events in the outside world," according to Winfred Philipp Lehmann.

The importance of meaning is revealed in the following well-known example from Noam Chomsky: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." Though grammatically correct, this sentence is largely meaningless in ordinary usage.

Semantics aims to determine meanings and explain relationships between patterns of language and what is referred to. "In dealing with meaning, a distinction is generally made between grammatical meaning, which is treated in the grammar, and referential meaning, which is treated in the lexicon," Lehmann writes.

Note the semantic ambiguity of these sentences from Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman. What are the implications for ESOL?

  • Is he really that kind?
  • The long drill was boring.
  • It takes a good ruler to make a straight line.

Look at the verb, to mean, in these examples from David Crystal:

  • John means to write.
  • A green light means go.
  • Health means everything.

This sentence is grammatical: "Honesty eats a sandwich." Why is it not correct?

What are the two possible meanings for this statement: "She can't bear children."? Answer: She can't stand children. / She can’t give birth to children.

What are two possible meanings of this sentence: "Flying planes can be dangerous."? Answer: The fact that you fly planes can be dangerous. / Planes that are flying can be dangerous.

Here is another example from Alpha Dictionary:

"Lawyer: a person who practices law. Notice that there are three basic components of this meaning: person, practice, law. Now, let's say that even though the structure of "criminal" can only modify lawyer as a whole, the meaning of "criminal" may modify any one of these semantic concepts. It would follow that criminal lawyer may mean:

  • 'a [criminal person] who practices law'
  • 'a person who [criminally practices] law', or
  • 'a person who practices [criminal law]'"

In fact, all of these meanings can be attributed to "criminal lawyer." Semantics determines which words can be used with other words. For example, "Honesty plays golf” is correct but meaningless because only a something with human and animate properties can play golf.

Another problem for ESOL learners is that they must decide whether something is literal or not, as David and Yvonne Freeman note: "I have a frog in my throat" of course does not mean that the person is trying to eat a frog. This is an example of an idiom that needs some explanation. Also, if someone says, "Is there any salt on the table?" This is not a "yes-no" question from the grammar book but a request to pass the salt (Freeman & Freeman, 2004).


Read the following from William Ladusaw:

"Consider two people, Pat and Chris, who are getting to know each other on a first date. If Chris says to Pat at the end of the evening, 'I like you a lot,' Pat will likely feel good about the situation. But imagine that Pat and Chris have been dating for some weeks, and Pat asks, 'Do you love me?' Now if Chris says, 'I like you a lot,' the reaction will likely be quite different, as Chris' statement is taken as a negative answer!"

The difference is in the background. One background is positive, and the other is negative. According to Lehmann, three terms are generally used to discuss the carriers of meaning and their relationship to our surroundings:

  • A term for the linguistic item, often a word, but also when pertinent a morpheme
  • The referent, that is the thing referred to
  • The reference, that is the individual's concept of the thing referred to

But other items must also be considered: "In a comprehensive treatment of meaning, all linguistic items must be managed thoroughly."

For example, to with verbs as in I want to see you. To further define meaning, the idea of distinctive features has been introduced into semantics: "Semantic features, also called semantic components, have been used to specify small sets of words in a language such as relationship terms."

A word such as bachelor is marked as +animates to distinguish it from an object such as bathtub. In its most common usage, it is marked +human as opposed to another meaning as a young male seal without a mate.

Implications for reading instruction

Extensive reading is the key to mastering the semantics of L2, according to Stephen Krashen: "Readers can move from elementary levels of vocabulary knowledge in a second language (knowledge of 2,000-word families) to a very high level (knowledge of 9,000-word families) after a total 1,223 hours of reading, about one hour a day over three years."

Students select the readings themselves for their own enjoyment, not just for an assignment. The results are enhanced L2 acquisition: "Moreover, the finding that the amount of free reading was strongly related to gains in literacy and language development is highly consistent with many previous studies."

Content-based instruction

Content ESL allows students to relate their language learning to the academic subjects they are studying or will be studying. Making the language learning relevant to the students' field of study enhances L2 learning. Here is a quotation from an ESL learner who first learned English in isolation from real applications:

"First, although learning in a one-pupil classroom gave me exposure to English language learning, English was not contextualized in that I never knew how to make connections between what I was learning in the ESL pullout program and what was happening in my mainstream content classes."