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  • Cited by 3
  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: February 2015

12 - Gauging the Semantic Transparency of Idioms: Do Natives and Learners See Eye to Eye?

Summary

Abstract

The semantic opacity of idioms poses challenges to second language (L2) learners. L2 learners are known to be more inclined than first language users to activate literal readings of the constituent words of idioms. While this inclination can be put to good use in instructional methods that stimulate multimodal learning, it is also a double-edged sword when learners use lexical cues to work out idiomatic meanings independently. Pedagogy-minded applied linguists have in recent years proposed collections of high-utility lexical phrases for prioritized learning and teaching, and one of the recurring criteria used for selection has been the relative non-transparency of the expressions. We report a study in which we compare native speaker teachers’ ratings of the relative semantic transparency of multiword units to those of advanced learners. The results reveal poor inter-rater agreement among the teachers and marked divergence between the teachers’ and the learners’ transparency ratings.

Keywords: cognitive linguistics, cognitive semantics, compositionality, idioms, second language learning

Idioms are traditionally characterized as institutionalized (semi-)fixed expressions whose overall meaning does not follow straightforwardly from adding up the meanings of their constituents. A classic example is to kick the bucket, the idiomatic meaning of which (to die) does not follow from combining the separate meanings of kick and bucket.

Suggested Further Readings
Boers, F. (2011). Cognitive Semantic ways of teaching figurative phrases: An assessment. Review of Cognitive Linguistics, 9, 227−261.
Boers, F., & Lindstromberg, S. (2012). Experimental and intervention studies on formulaic sequences in a second language. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 32, 83–110.
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