Concreteness, Frequency, and Bilingual Language Dominance: Implications for the Impact of Context Availability in Explicit Memory

Randolph Steven Taylor, University of Texas at El Paso


One explanation for why concrete words are better recalled than abstract words is systematic differences across these word types in the availability of context information. In contrast, explanations for the concrete word advantage in recognition memory do not consider a possible role for context availability. Like concrete words, low-frequency words and L2 words also demonstrate item recognition advantages over high-frequency words and L1 words, respectively. Although the theories explaining these advantages do not explicitly discuss context availability, the mechanisms described suggest that context availability may play a role. The present study examined the extent to which context availability can explain the effects of word concreteness, word frequency, and bilingual language dominance in four explicit memory experiments. Concreteness and frequency effects across free recall and item recognition were consistent with previous research, with concrete word advantages in both tasks, a high-frequency advantage in recall, and a low-frequency advantage in recognition. In recognition, L2 words were better discriminated than L1 words. Additionally, language and frequency interacted such that the low-frequency advantage was larger in L2 words than in L1 words. In recall, studying target words in sentence contexts harmed performance at test, and the detriment was larger for high-constraint than for low-constraint sentence frames. Alternatively, in recognition, providing a sentence context at study was not detrimental at test when manipulated within subjects. Low-constraint sentence frames led to the best performance, while there was no difference between targets studied in isolated and high-constraint contexts. However, when manipulated between subjects, the presence of sentence context at encoding decreased recognition performance at test. Providing context at study did not reduce concreteness effects in either recall or recognition, which is inconsistent with predictions of the context availability account of concreteness effects. Language dominance and sentence context did not interact in item recognition, suggesting that the effect is driven by differences in base level familiarity. However, semantic constraint increased the low-frequency advantage in recognition, suggesting that accounts of the low-frequency advantage might be refined by considering the role of context availability.

Subject Area

Cognitive psychology

Recommended Citation

Taylor, Randolph Steven, "Concreteness, Frequency, and Bilingual Language Dominance: Implications for the Impact of Context Availability in Explicit Memory" (2017). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI10285350.