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Mental images and contextual clues: A comprehension study of animal idiomatic expressions in an EFL environment. by Wen-Shuenn (Michael) Wu Chung Hua University, Hsinchu, Taiwan for PacSLRF 2006. Agenda. Why did I conduct this research? Research Questions Subject and Materials

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Mental images and contextual clues: A comprehension study of animal idiomatic expressions in an EFL environment

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Mental images and contextual clues: A comprehension study of animal idiomatic expressions in an EFL environment

by Wen-Shuenn (Michael) Wu

Chung Hua University, Hsinchu, Taiwan

for

PacSLRF 2006


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Agenda

Why did I conduct this research?

Research Questions

Subject and Materials

Methods

Data Analysis

Conclusion


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Why did I conduct this research?

  • Imageable idioms are defined as “idioms that have associated conventional images” (Lakoff, 1987).

    • keep someone at arm’s length

    • spill the beans

  • Imageable idioms can invoke vivid conventional images in the mind of NSEs.

  • L1 learners of English have an unconscious image to help them comprehend imageable idioms.


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Why did I conduct this research?

  • Lakoff and Turner (1989) gave examples of metaphorical propositions within schemas for animal:

    • Pigs are dirty, messy, and rude.

    • Lions are courageous and noble.

    • Foxes are clever.

    • Dogs are loyal, dependable, and dependent.

    • Cats are fickle and independent.


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Why did I conduct this research?

  • “Young children and non-native speakers of a language may actively form mental images for idioms as a way of making sense of such phrases. But experienced speakers easily understand the figurative meanings of idioms without necessarily forming mental images” (Gibbs & O’Brien, 1990)


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Definition of animal idiomatic expressions (AIEs)

  • In this study, a broader term animal idiomatic expressions (AIEs) rather than animal metaphor is used to include idioms, similes, slang, proverbs, clichés, and sayings as long as they are fixed expressions with at least one animal name that has a metaphorical tenor.


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Examples of AIEs in this study

  • dog and pony show

  • fight like cats and dogs

  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

  • like the cat that ate the canary

  • get off one’s high horse

  • take the bull by the horns


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Research Questions

  • Do mental images help EFL learners of different levels understand AIEs in a comprehension test without contextual clues?

  • Do mental images help EFL learners of different levels understand AIEs in a comprehension-friendly context?

  • Do contextual clues help EFL learners of different levels understand AIEs in a comprehension-friendly context?


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Subjects

  • A total of 61 EFL learners at Chung Hua University, Taiwan.

    • 29 students were seniors of the two-year program of the Department of Foreign Languages on weekends (IL=intermediate English proficiency level)

    • 32 students were full-time seniors of the Department of Foreign Languages (UIL=upper intermediate English proficiency level)


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Materials

  • 56 AIEs related to four domestic animals –dogs, cats, horses, and cows/bulls– were collected.

  • Seven NSEs were asked to rate how common these AIEs are used in an English-speaking country on a scale from 1 (the least common) to 5 (the commonest).

  • Finally 20 most frequently used AIEs were selected as targets for the 2nd and 3rd AIE comprehension tests.


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Dog:

1. let sleeping dogs lie

2. fight like cats and dogs

3. in the doghouse

4. a/the dog and pony show

5. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Cat:

6. curiosity killed the cat

7. let the cat out of the bag

8. (has the) cat got your tongue

9. like a cat on a hot tin roof; like a cat on hot bricks

10. like the cat that ate the canary

Horse:

11. get off one’s high horse

12. hold your horses

13. (right) from the horse’s mouth

14. put the cart before the horse

15. don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

Cow/Bull:

16. till/until the cows come home

17. a/the cash cow

18. a bull in a china shop

19. take the bull by the horns

20. hit a/the bull’s eye


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Methods – Test 1

  • Animal metaphor

    • Lakoff and Turner’s examples of metaphorical propositions within schemas for animal were used as an instruction in the 1st test.

    • Students were allowed to write down their answer either in Chinese or in English.


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Methods – Test 1 (cont.)

Example:

– Pigs are dirty, messy, and rude.

– Lions are courageous and noble.

– Foxes are clever.

Dog:____________________________________

Cat:____________________________________

Horse: __________________________________

Cow/Bull:_______________________________

Note: cow: a large female farm animal kept to produce meat and milk

bull: a male cow


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Methods – Test 2

  • mental images of AIEs

  • Subjects were asked whether they had learned these AIEs before.

    • Write down what mental images they had when they read these AIEs.

    • They had to try their best to figure out the figurative meaning of these AIEs.

    • Fourexamples were given with Chinese instruction. (e.g. put one’s head in the lion’s mouth; snake in the grass)


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Methods – Test 2 (cont.)


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Methods – Test 3

  • Three sentences with target AIE in it were provided to help them decode the non-literal meanings of AIEs.

  • They were asked to check how they deciphered the meanings of AIEs – either through the context of the examples or the mental images for the AIEs.

  • All the sentences in Test 3 were carefully chosen so that they could offer an appropriate, comprehension-friendly context.


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Methods – Test 3 (cont.)

in the doghouse: ______________________

Ex1. He is in the doghouse with his wife because he came home late last night.

Ex2. Jeremy’s in the doghouse. He forgot that it was his wife’s birthday and he didn’t even buy her a card!

Ex3. Jerry is in the doghouse because he dropped the ball, and the other team won because of that.

__ I understand this AIE from the contextual clues

__ I understand this AIE from mental images


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Data Analysis – Test 1

  • Subjects of both groups (IL & UIL) had similar metaphorical propositions about dogs and cows/bulls, but the connotations attached to cats and horses were not salient.

  • 28 (96.5%) IL participants and 28 (87.5%) UIL participants thought that dogs carried an intended connotation of loyalty.


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Data Analysis – Test 1 (cont.)

  • As to cows/bulls, 13 (44.8%) IL respondents and 10 (31.2%) UIL respondents associated cows/bulls with hard-working, but none of the six NSEs I asked had ‘hard-working’ association with cows/bulls.

bulls

oxen

cows

aggressive;

strong; volatile

friendly; calm;

dull; stupid

hard-working;

slow; stubborn


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Scoring of Test 2 and Test 3

  • Most students had learned curiosity killed the cat, this AIE was not counted for scoring.

  • Two items were beyond respondents’ comprehension so that none of them provided correct definitions to these two AIEs – don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and a bull in a china shop. They are not counted for scoring either.


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Scoring of Test 2 and Test 3 (cont.)

  • Only 17 out of 20 AIEs were included for scoring.

  • Participants who had learned an AIE, no matter whether their answers were correct or not, were excluded from valid samples.

  • Participants’ interpretations of these 17 AIEs were rates as (1) no response, (2) wrong definition, (3) partially correct, and (4) correct definition.


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Research Question 1

  • Do mental images help EFL learners of different levels understand AIEs in a comprehension test without contextual clues?

    • It appears that most participants (IL and UIL) conjured up mental images in their mind when they tried to decode these AIEs. However, the high percentage of mental images created by participants did not really help them comprehend AIEs.


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Research Question 1 (cont.)

  • Only two AIEs –fight like cats and dogs and put the cart before the horse– conjured up quite vivid and consistent mental images to IL and UIL respondents and also more or less motivate their comprehension of the figurative meanings of AIEs.

  • Pearson chi-square test of homogeneity was used to find out the relationship between the two results of IL and UIL. Only 2 items out of 17 AIEs were significantly different among the results of test 2 –has the cat got your tongue and hit the bull’s eye.


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Research Question 2

  • Do mental images help EFL learners of different levels understand AIEs in a comprehension-friendly context?

    • It is not easy to uncover how respondents really came up with a correct answer – through the help of contextual clues, or through mental images they had visualized, or both.


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Research Question 2 (cont.)

  • If participants from the valid sample meet the following conditions, they are treated as subjects who worked out the correct meanings of AIEs through mental images.

    • They described clearly their mental images in test 2. (without any contextual clues)

    • They gave a correct definition of AIEs in test 3.

    • They claimed that their definition resulted from the help of a mental image and only the mental image but not both.


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Research Question 2 (cont.)

  • Subjects who claimed that their definition resulted from the help of a mental image and indeed provided a correct answer were extremely few.


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Research Question 3

  • Do contextual clues help EFL learners of different levels understand AIEs in a comprehension-friendly context?

    • Participants who meet the following criteria are regarded as subjects who understand the meanings of AIEs through contextual clues:

      • They gave a correct definition of AIEs in test 3.

      • They claimed that they deciphered the figurative meanings of AIEs through the help of examples given and only through the examples but not both.


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Research Question 3 (cont.)

  • It is apparent that contextual clues potentially helped participants of IL and UIL decode the non-literal meanings of AIEs.

  • Examples of like the cat that ate the canary helped the largest participants of both IL and UIL.


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Research Question 3 (cont.)

  • L1 transfer, but a positive one, was seen in one AIE item –like a cat on a hot tin roof. Many respondents defined it as re4 guo1 shang4 de1 ma3 yi3熱鍋上的螞蟻(an-ant-at-the-top-of-a-hot-pot - very anxious or restless).

  • EFL learners in Taiwan may not have a rich conventional image about like a cat on a hot tin roof, but understanding the figurative meaning of English AIE through the context would unconsciously help them come up with a corresponding Chinese AIE.


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Pedagogical Implication and Conclusion

Our study suggested that mental images do not really help EFL learners comprehend idioms, or at least one specific type of idiomatic expressions – animal idiomatic expressions.

While some mental images of idiomatic expressions are universal, probably more is culture-specific.


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Pedagogical Implication and Conclusion (cont.)

Most EFL learners in Taiwan depended on comprehension-friendly contexts rather than mental images to work out the AIE definition.


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Pedagogical Implication and Conclusion (cont.)

Lakoff (1987) stressed that mental images were automatic, unconscious, and effort-free. Here comes a question: if mental images for some idioms are spontaneous and unconscious, can they be teachable?

If mental images are natural and not teachable, more effort should be concentrated to expose EFL learners in a natural and authentic context to acquire idiomatic expressions.


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PPT will be posted on my website:

http://www.chu.edu.tw/~wswu/SLRF2006.htm

My email: wswu@chu.edu.tw


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