American University of Beirut
Education 345: "Second Language Acquisition"
Instructor: Dr. Kassim Shaaban
Spring 2002

By Nada AbiSamra

"Teaching Idioms"
by Thomas C. Cooper - 1998
The University of Georgia, Athens
" Idiom Acquisition Research has uncovered a number of findings that have pedagogical implications for idiom instruction. This article summarizes these research findings and presents the language teacher with a Systematic Plan for Teaching Idioms to:
  • Native language learners
  • Bilingual  (ESL) students
  • Foreign language  (EFL) learners"
1- Introduction:

Nonliteral / Figurative Language: "These forms of language are difficult to understand and learn because they do not mean what they literally state."

  • Metaphor: "A nonliteral usage of words in which one element, the topic, is compared to another, the vehicle, based on one or more shared features." (Nippold & Fey, 1983) => implicit comparison of one thing to another.
  • Simile: The comparison is explicitly stated by the use of "like" or "as"
  • Proverb: It also uses words figuratively, but the comparison is less obvious than in metaphors and similes. In addition, proverbs contain elements of folk wisdom, for we are advised (not) to follow a certain course of action.
  • Idiom: An expression whose meaning cannot be predicted from the usual meanings of its constituent elements.
2- Frequency of Idioms:

Of the 4 kinds of nonliteral expressions, IDIOMS are the most frequently encountered in discourse.

Frequency of use:

  • Pollio & colleagues (1977): Analyzed approximately 200,000 words from:
      • political debates
      • taped psychotherapy sessions
      • compositions written by students and adults
    They concluded that those people used about 4.08 idioms per minute.
  • Cooper: Transcribed the idioms from 3 hours of taped television programs.

  • => idioms occurred at the rate of about 3 per minute.
    => understanding those idioms was crucial to understanding the plot.

3- How we Process Idioms: Three Hypotheses

3.1- The literal first hypothesis.(Cronk & Schweigert, 1992)
There are two modes of idiom processing:
The active mode: it processes the literal meaning
The inactive mode: it processes the figurative meaning and only becomes active when the literal interpretation is inappropriate in the context.
3.2- The simultaneous processing hypothesis
The literal and figurative meanings are processed at the same time.
3.3- The direct access hypothesis (Gibbs, 1986)
The figurative meaning is retrieved directly from the mental lexicon.

4- Research on Idioms:

Studies looking into the merits of each of the above-mentioned hypotheses have investigated some of the variables affecting idiom learning and comprehension:

4.1- Age of Learner

Children interpret idioms literally until the age of nine.
=> Piaget's theory of cognitive development (abstract thinking with maturity)
4.2- Use of figurative language by teachers
The more language teachers use figurative language in classroom discourse, the better children master idiom interpretation.
4.3- Characteristics of idioms
People acquire more easily the idioms that are syntactically frozen and those whose literal meaning is close to their figurative one.

Gibbs, 1987:

  • Syntactically Frozen Idioms: cannot be syntactically transformed into the passive and still retain their figurative meaning.
    • These idioms are learned more quickly because heard more frequently in only one syntactic form.
  • Syntactically Flexible Idioms: retain their figurative meaning even if transformed into the passive.
  • Transparent idioms: close relationship between literal and figurative meanings.
  • Opaque idioms: obscure relationship between literal and figurative meanings.
4.4- Role of context
For learners of all ages, the comprehension of the idiomatic expressions is facilitated by contextual support. (Cacciari and Levorato, 1989; Nippold and Martin, 1989)
4.5- Grouping idioms according to theme
Idioms can be grouped according to the main words they contain:
  • verbs
  • nouns
Idioms can be grouped according to their underlying metaphorical themes.
e.g., Time is money, argument is war ...
4.6- Second language learners
Idioms are problematic for EFL and ESL learners.

Irujo, 1986: She conducted a study to determine whether advanced learners of English use knowledge of their first language to comprehend and produce second language idioms.
=> She created 3 lists of English idioms:

  • Identical idioms => easiest to understand and produce
  • Similar idioms
  • Different idioms => hardest to understand and produce.

SUMMARY of Research Findings:

  1. Understanding idioms figuratively begins around the age of nine.
  2. Syntactically frozen idioms are easier to learn than syntactically flexible idioms.
  3. Idioms whose meanings are figuratively transparent are easier to learn than those with opaque meanings.
  4. Idioms are easier to understand if given contextual support.
  5. Many idioms can be categorized.
  6. Idioms are difficult for second language learners.
  7. SL learners make use of their native language when processing target language idioms.

5- Teaching Idioms:

The theory of multiple intelligences provides a useful framework for teaching idioms.
Of course, the linguistic intelligence is the one teachers and learners work with most.
6- Teaching Suggestions:
6.1- Choosing Idioms
A- Choose idioms that are frequently encountered in TL (Target
B- Choose expressions that do not present special problems with vocabulary and grammar.
C- Choose expressions with transparent figurative meanings.
D- Teach First: Identical Idioms (in L1 and L2)
     Teach Second: Similar Idioms
     Teach Last: Dissimilar Idioms
6.2- Discussing Idioms
Lead a discussion about figurative language including metaphors, similes, and idioms in order to show the students why they are used in speech and writing.
6.3- Defining Idioms
Choose a few idioms carefully and define them, then present them within the larger context of a short paragraph or dialogue.
Contrast the literal and figurative meanings and show how they are related.

Effective techniques to use:

  • Situational vignettes: sketch a setting that will elicit responses in the slang, colloquial, and formal or standard speech registers.

  • Themes that could be used: getting someone's attention, reassuring a friend, asking for money, expressing anger...

    Example: To calm someone down
    - Chill out (slang)
    - Take it easy (colloquial)
    - Don't worry about it; everything will be all right. (standard)

  • Dialogues: demonstrate the relationship between the social situation and appropriate language choice.
6.4- Dividing Idioms into Categories
Dividing idioms into thematic categories will make them easier to learn.

Examples of categories:

  • Body parts (the eye, the finger...)
  • Animals
  • Idioms expressing emotions (anger, happiness, ...)
6.5- Drawing Idioms
Drawing idioms is effective for showing the contrast between the literal and figurative meanings.
6.6- Dramatizing Idioms
Act them out to compare in a humorous way literal and figurative meanings of idioms.
Another activity: Charades.
Act out the literal meaning of an expression and the class must guess the figurative meaning.
6.7- Retelling Exercise
The teacher tells a story containing several idioms and the students have to retell it or write it down trying to use as many of the expressions as they can.
6.8- Add-on Story
Write a list of idioms on the board and start the narrative by using one of the idioms. Students have to add to the story by each contributing one sentence containing a new expression.
6.9- Discuss Idioms from Newspaper Comic Strips
Students select a comic strip that uses idiomatic language from a Sunday newspaper. List idioms on the board and discuss them.
6.10- Idioms in Cartoons
Collect cartoons and discuss the idioms in them.
6.11- Idioms from TV Shows
Compile idioms from TV shows (Sit-coms are a good source), view in class and discuss.
6.12- Paragraph Completion
Omit the idiom in context from a paragraph and have students complete the passage with a phrase that fits the context, then give the omitted idiom => students will see how they have inferred the idiom's meaning from the context. (Irujo, 1986)
6.13- Interview Classmates
Interview native speaker classmates and collect a list of idioms used.
6.14- Idiom-of-the-Day Mobile
Set aside classroom space to post idioms students collect.
6.15- Idiom Board Game
Students create a board game that tests their knowledge of idiomatic expressions.
6.16- Idiom Jazz Chants
Practice idioms through music. Students can create chants.
7- Conclusion:
It is very important to have a plan of instruction that incorporates the various intelligences in order to give a chance to all students to succeed in learning idioms.

Using idioms appropriately in oral and written discourse generates confidence in the student and respect in those with whom he/she comes in contact.

Phrasal verbs & Idioms