American University of Beirut
Education 345: "Second Language Acquisition"
Instructor: Dr. Kassim Shaaban
By Nada AbiSamra
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"
Nonliteral / Figurative Language: "These forms of language are difficult to understand and learn because they do not mean what they literally state."2- Frequency of Idioms:
- 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.
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:
They concluded that those people used about 4.08 idioms per minute.
- political debates
- taped psychotherapy sessions
- compositions written by students and adults
- 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 Hypotheses3.1- The literal first hypothesis.(Cronk & Schweigert, 1992)There are two modes of idiom processing:3.2- The simultaneous processing hypothesis
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.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 LearnerChildren interpret idioms literally until the age of nine.4.2- Use of figurative language by teachers
=> Piaget's theory of cognitive development (abstract thinking with maturity)The more language teachers use figurative language in classroom discourse, the better children master idiom interpretation.4.3- Characteristics of idiomsPeople acquire more easily the idioms that are syntactically frozen and those whose literal meaning is close to their figurative one.4.4- Role of context
- 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.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 themeIdioms can be grouped according to the main words they contain:4.6- Second language learners
Idioms can be grouped according to their underlying metaphorical themes.
e.g., Time is money, argument is war ...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:
- Understanding idioms figuratively begins around the age of nine.
- Syntactically frozen idioms are easier to learn than syntactically flexible idioms.
- Idioms whose meanings are figuratively transparent are easier to learn than those with opaque meanings.
- Idioms are easier to understand if given contextual support.
- Many idioms can be categorized.
- Idioms are difficult for second language learners.
- 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.6- Teaching Suggestions:
Of course, the linguistic intelligence is the one teachers and learners work with most.6.1- Choosing Idioms7- Conclusion:A- Choose idioms that are frequently encountered in TL (Target6.2- Discussing Idioms
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 IdiomsLead 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 IdiomsChoose a few idioms carefully and define them, then present them within the larger context of a short paragraph or dialogue.6.4- Dividing Idioms into Categories
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.Dividing idioms into thematic categories will make them easier to learn.6.5- Drawing Idioms
Examples of categories:
- Body parts (the eye, the finger...)
- Idioms expressing emotions (anger, happiness, ...)Drawing idioms is effective for showing the contrast between the literal and figurative meanings.6.6- Dramatizing IdiomsAct them out to compare in a humorous way literal and figurative meanings of idioms.6.7- Retelling Exercise
Another activity: Charades.
Act out the literal meaning of an expression and the class must guess the figurative meaning.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 StoryWrite 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 StripsStudents select a comic strip that uses idiomatic language from a Sunday newspaper. List idioms on the board and discuss them.6.10- Idioms in CartoonsCollect cartoons and discuss the idioms in them.6.11- Idioms from TV ShowsCompile idioms from TV shows (Sit-coms are a good source), view in class and discuss.6.12- Paragraph CompletionOmit 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 ClassmatesInterview native speaker classmates and collect a list of idioms used.6.14- Idiom-of-the-Day MobileSet aside classroom space to post idioms students collect.6.15- Idiom Board GameStudents create a board game that tests their knowledge of idiomatic expressions.6.16- Idiom Jazz ChantsPractice idioms through music. Students can create chants.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