Teaching Semantic Meaning to English Students

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Begin the lesson on semantic meaning by defining the linguistic term “semantics.” Offer several definitions for better understanding. For example, semantics is:

  • “the study of how meaning is generated in language.” [1]
  • “the branch of linguistics which studies meaning in language.” [2]
  • “in general, the study of the relationship between words and meanings….The field of semantics has three basic concerns: the relations of words to the objects denoted by them, the relations of words to the interpreters of them, and, in symbolic logic, the formal relations of signs to one another (syntax).” [3]
  • “is a subfield of the study of language which focuses on meaning. Semanticists examine how words, phrases and sentences combine in ways that are acceptable to language users, observing that appeals to grammaticality alone cannot explain these….The field also examines how sentences that are grammatically very different can nevertheless be semantically equivalent…and how language users can recognise ambiguity in sentences…” [4]

Semantics, therefore, is the study of meaning in a language including the relationship between words and referents, the relationship between words and language users, and the relationship between words and other words.

Semantics versus Pragmatics

Next explain the difference between semantics and pragmatics. While semantics is the study of meaning in a language, pragmatics is the study of language from the point of view of language users. Semantic meaning focuses on the meaning of words, phrases, clauses, and speech acts and pragmatic meaning on how speakers and addressees perceive language use. Semantics is concerned with meaning regardless of context while pragmatics is concerned with communication within a specific context. [5] Take, for example, the following sentence:

Can you pass the salt?

Semantically, the sentence Can you pass the salt? is a question that asks about the ability of the addressee to pass the salt? Pragmatically, however, the same sentence can be a question of ability as well as a request for the addressee to pass the salt. Understanding the semantic meaning of utterances tends to be much easier for language students than discerning pragmatic meaning.

English Semantics Practice

After the lesson about semantics, assign some exercises to allow students to practice their new understanding of this concept. One of the best ways to practice the understanding of semantic meaning is to write a sentence in another way without changing the meaning. For example:

  • She has been feeling blue. → She has been feeling sad.
  • Reading a book, the woman jumped from fright. → The woman who was reading a book jumped because she was frightened.
  • The detective was digging for the truth. → The detective was seeking the truth.

Semantics is the study of meaning in a language. This lesson plan on semantic meaning offers definitions and ideas for practice exercises for teaching English students about semantics.