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Grasping the meaning of second language idioms. Sophia Skoufaki sskouf@essex.ac.uk Department of Language and Linguistics University of Essex. Outline of the talk. What are idioms? Why should second language teachers care about idiom learning?

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grasping the meaning of second language idioms

Grasping the meaning of second language idioms

Sophia Skoufaki

sskouf@essex.ac.uk

Department of Language and Linguistics

University of Essex

outline of the talk
Outline of the talk
  • What are idioms?
  • Why should second language teachers care about idiom learning?
  • Can second language learners remember idioms better if they first infer their meaning than if they are first given their meaning?
  • Brief summary of a study of mine as an example of such research.
  • Possible implications for teaching.
what is an idiom

Flip one’s lid

Render onto Cesar

What is an idiom?

put someone up,

take something down

flip one’s lid,

kick the bucket

Birds of a feather flock together,

Too many cooks spoil the broth

*He was kicking the bucket

He was lying low

something that all idioms share
Something that all idioms share
  • Compare ‘wooden table’ with ‘kick the bucket’

‘wooden table’ = wooden + table

‘kick the bucket’≠kick + the + bucket

  • “Non-compositionality” (of meaning)
why should second language teachers care about idiom learning
Why should second language teachers care about idiom learning?

Mastery of idioms is seen as a sign of near-nativeness.

Idioms and other multi-word expressions are useful to learners as they fill gaps in their speech.

guessing at an idiom s meaning
Guessing at an idiom’s meaning
  • First proposed by Irujo (1984) as a vocabulary-learning strategy
  • Arguments for it:
    • Students will be able to learn more idioms than those that teachers have time to teach in class (Irujo 1984).
    • The more difficult (‘deep’) the thinking that occurs during learning, the higher the chances that the idiom will be remembered (Lennon 1998).
a more specific suggestion
A more specific suggestion

Inferring idiom meaning with the help of meaning clues

  • Boers, Eyckmans and Stengers (2006) gave clues about the etymology of idioms (e.g., building, gardening, sports) to learners and saw whether this task led to better learning than guessing without any clues.
skoufaki 2008 a study using metaphorical clues to help idiom meaning inference
Skoufaki (2008): A study using metaphorical clues to help idiom-meaning inference
  • Theoretical background:

Some idioms seem to be related to some recurrentmetaphorical patterns

    • ‘take the high road’, ‘fall from grace’, ‘look down on someone’ - Moral goodness as being up
    • ‘be squeaky clean’, ‘do the dirty on someone’ - Moral goodness as cleanliness
research question
Research question
  • Will language learners remember idioms better if they guess at their meaning with the help of metaphorical clues than if they are given their meaning up front?
learners and idioms
Learners and idioms
  • 20 Greek students at the University of Athens attending classes for the CPE examination.
  • Verb phrase idioms about morality and comprehension (e.g., ‘come to grips with something’, ‘something dawns on someone’) which can be seen as related to more general metaphorical patterns.
results and conclusions
Results and Conclusions
  • Group 2 got significantly higher scores than Group 1 in the cloze test.
      • This result indicates that inferring an idiom’s meaning with the help of metaphoric clues is more effective than just trying to memorise an idiom presented in relation to a metaphoric association.
  • The number of correct answers given to the meaning-retention questions did not differ significantly between the two Groups.
    • This result agrees with other studies claiming that the retention of the meaning of new words is not higher when students are encouraged to guess at the new vocabulary’s meaning than when being supplied with it.
pedagogical considerations
Pedagogical considerations
  • Conclusions about the effectiveness of the assisted idiom-meaning guessing method in actual teaching contexts should be drawn with caution.
  • This task is time-consuming, so it would be appropriate only as homework.
  • A disadvantage of this method is that increased failure to guess at the meanings of idioms correctly could demotivate some learners.
  • How much a student can benefit from guessing at an idiom’s meaning with the help of a metaphoric clue depends on how much (s)he can think in terms of metaphors and/or language in general.
  • It is unclear how many idioms can be linked to this kind of general metaphoric patterns.
references
References
  • Boers, F., Eyckmans, J. and Stengers, H. 2006. Presenting figurative idioms with a touch of etymology: More than mere mnemonics? Language Teaching Research 11 (1): 43-62.
  • Irujo, S. 1984. The Effects of Transfer on the Acquisition of Idioms in a Second Language.Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Education, Boston University. UMI.
  • Lennon, P. 1998. Approaches to the teaching of idiomatic language. International Review of Applied Linguistics 36 (1): 11-30.
  • Skoufaki, S. 2008. Conceptual metaphoric meaning clues in two L2 idiom presentation methods. In Boers, F. and Lindstromberg, F. (eds) Cognitive Linguistic Approaches to Teaching Vocabulary and Phraseology, 101-132.Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.