Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-684899dbb8-gbqfq Total loading time: 0.563 Render date: 2022-05-16T12:45:08.832Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true }

NS and NNS processing of idioms and nonidiom formulaic sequences: What can reaction times and think-alouds tell us?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 December 2021

Hang Zheng*
Department of Chinese (Zhuhai), Sun Yat-Sen University, Zhuhai, China
Melissa A. Bowles
Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, USA
Jerome L. Packard
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, USA
*Corresponding author. Email:


Although researchers generally agree that native speakers (NSs) process formulaic sequences (FSs) holistically to some extent, findings about nonnative speakers (NNSs) are conflicting, potentially because not all FSs are psychologically equal or because in some studies NNSs may not have fully understood the FSs. We address these issues by investigating Chinese NSs and NNSs processing of idioms and matched nonidiom FSs in phrase acceptability judgment tasks with and without think-alouds (TAs). Reaction times show that NSs processed idioms faster than nonidioms regardless of length, but NNSs processed 3-character FSs faster than 4-character FSs regardless of type. TAs show NSs’ understanding of FSs has reached ceiling, but NNSs’ understanding was incomplete, with idioms being understood more poorly than nonidioms. Although we conclude that idioms and nonidioms have different mental statuses in NSs’ lexicons, it is inconclusive how they are represented by NNSs. TAs also show that NNSs employed various strategies to compensate for limited idiom knowledge, causing comparable processing speed for idioms and nonidioms. The findings highlight the importance of distinguishing subtypes of FSs and considering NNSs’ quality of understanding in discussions of the psychological reality of FSs.

Original Article
© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Abbot-Smith, K., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Exemplar-learning and schematization in a usage-based account of syntactic acquisition. The Linguistic Review, 23(3), 275290. Scholar
Abel, B. (2003). English idioms in the first language and second language lexicon: A dual representation approach. Second Language Research, 19(4), 329358. Scholar
Adrada-Rafael, S. (2017). Processing the Spanish imperfect subjunctive: Depth of processing under different instructional conditions. Applied Psycholinguistics, 38(2), 477508. Scholar
Adrada-Rafael, S., & Filgueras-Gómez, M. (2019). Reactivity, language of think aloud protocol, and depth of processing in the processing of reformulated feedback. In Leow, R. (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of second language research in classroom learning (pp. 201213). Routledge.Google Scholar
Baayen, R. H., Davidson, D. J., & Bates, D. M. (2008). Mixed-effects modeling with crossed random effects for subjects and items. Journal of Memory and Language, 59(4), 390412. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bannard, C., & Lieven, E. (2009). Repetition and reuse in child language learning. In Corrigan, R., Moravcsik, E., Ouali, H., & Wheatley, K. (Eds.), Formulaic language: Volume 2: Acquisition, loss, psychological reality, and functional explanations (pp. 299321). John Benjamins.Google Scholar
Bardovi-Harlig, K. (2009). Conventional expressions as a pragmalinguistic resource: Recognition and production of conventional expressions in L2 pragmatics. Language Learning, 59(4), 755795. Scholar
Bardovi-Harlig, K., & Stringer, D. (2017). Unconventional expressions productive syntax in the L2 acquisition of formulaic language. Second Language Research, 33(1), 6190. Scholar
Bates, D., Kliegl, R., Vasishth, S., & Baayen, R. H. (2015). Parsimonious mixed models. Available from arXiv:1506.0496Google Scholar
Boers, F., & Demecheleer, M. (2001). Measuring the impact of cross-cultural differences on learners’ comprehension of imageable idioms. ELT Journal, 55(3), 255262. Scholar
Boers, F., & Lindstromberg, S. (2012). Experimental and intervention studies on formulaic sequences in a second language. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 32, 83110. Scholar
Boers, F., Eyckmans, J., Kappel, J., Stengers, H., & Demecheleer, M. (2006). Formulaic sequences and perceived oral proficiency: Putting a Lexical approach to the test. Language Teaching Research, 10(3), 245261. Scholar
Bowles, M. A. (2008). Task type and reactivity of verbal reports in SLA: A first look at a L2 task other than reading. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 30(3), 359387. Scholar
Bowles, M. A. (2010). The think-aloud controversy in second language research. Routledge.10.4324/9780203856338CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bowles, M. A., & Leow, R. P. (2005). Reactivity and type of verbal report in SLA research methodology: Expanding the scope of investigation. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 27(3), 415440. Scholar
Cacciari, C., & Tabossi, P. (1988). The comprehension of idioms. Journal of Memory and Language, 27(6), 668683. Scholar
Carrol, G., & Conklin, K. (2014). Getting your wires crossed: Evidence for fast processing of L1 idioms in an L2. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 17(4), 784797. Scholar
Carrol, G., & Conklin, K. (2017). Cross language lexical priming extends to formulaic units: Evidence from eye-tracking suggests that this idea ‘has legs’. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 20(2), 299317. Scholar
Carrol, G., & Conklin, K. (2020). Is all formulaic language created equal? Unpacking the processing advantage for different types of formulaic sequences. Language and Speech, 63(1), 95122. ScholarPubMed
Carrol, G., Conklin, K., & Gyllstad, H. (2016). Found in translation: The influence of the L1 on the reading of idioms in a L2. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 38(3), 403443. Scholar
Carrol, G., Littlemore, J., & Dowens, M. G. (2018). Of false friends and familiar foes: Comparing native and non-native understanding of figurative phrases. Lingua, 204, 2144. Scholar
Cieślicka, A. (2006). Literal salience in on-line processing of idiomatic expressions by second language learners. Second Language Research, 22(2), 115144. Scholar
Cieślicka, A., & Heredia, R. (2011). Hemispheric asymmetries in processing L1 and L2 idioms: Effects of salience and context. Brain and Language, 116(3), 136150. Scholar
Conklin, K., & Schmitt, N. (2008). Formulaic sequences: Are they processed more quickly than nonformulaic language by native and nonnative speakers? Applied Linguistics, 29(1), 7289. Scholar
Cooper, T. C. (1999). Processing of idioms by L2 learners of English. TESOL Quarterly, 33(2), 233262. Scholar
Coulmas, F. (1994). Formulaic language. In Asher, R. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (pp. 12921293). Pergamon Press.Google Scholar
Dai, Z., & Ding, Y. (2010). Effectiveness of text memorization in EFL learning of Chinese students. In Wood, D. (Ed.), Perspectives on formulaic language: Acquisition and communication (pp. 7187). Continuum.Google Scholar
Ellis, N. C. (2012). Formulaic language and second language acquisition: Zipf and the phrasal teddy bear. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 32, 1744. Scholar
Ellis, R. (1991). Grammatically judgments and second language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 13(2), 161186. Scholar
Fraser, B. (1970). Idioms within a transformational grammar. Foundations of Language, 6(1), 2242.Google Scholar
Gibbs, R. W., & O’Brien, J. E. (1990). Idioms and mental imagery: The metaphorical motivation for idiomatic meaning. Cognition, 36(1), 3568. ScholarPubMed
Gyllstad, H., & Wolter, B. (2016). Collocational processing in light of the phraseological continuum model: Does semantic transparency matter? Language Learning, 66(2), 296323. Scholar
Hubers, F., Cucchiarini, C., & Strik, H. (2020). Second language learner intuitions of idiom properties: What do they tell us about L2 idiom knowledge and acquisition? Lingua, 246, 102940. Scholar
Inhoff, A. W., & Liu, W. (1997). The perceptual span during the reading of Chinese text. In Chen, H. (Ed.), Cognitive processing of Chinese and related Asian languages (pp. 243266). The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press.Google Scholar
Irujo, S. (1986). Don’t put your leg in your mouth: Transfer in the acquisition of idioms in a second language. TESOL Quarterly, 20(2), 287304. Scholar
Jiang, N. (2011). Conducting reaction time research in second language studies. Routledge.Google Scholar
Jiang, N., & Nekrasova, T. M. (2007). The processing of formulaic sequences by second language speakers. The Modern Language Journal, 91(3), 433445. Scholar
Jiang, S., Jiang, X., & Siyanova-Chanturia, A. (2020). The processing of multiword expressions in children and adults: An eye-tracking study of Chinese. Applied Psycholinguistics, 41(4), 131. Scholar
Kim, C. (2016). L2 learners’ recognition of unfamiliar idioms composed of familiar words. Language Awareness, 25(1–2), 89109. Scholar
Kim, H. R., & Bowles, M. (2019). How deeply do second language learners process written corrective feedback? Insights gained from think-alouds. TESOL Quarterly, 53(4), 913938. Scholar
Kuznetsova, A., Brockhoff, P., & Christensen, R. (2017). lmerTest Package: Tests in Linear Mixed Effects Models (Version 2.0-36) [Computer software]. 10.18637/jss.v082.i13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Laufer, B. (1989). A factor of difficulty in vocabulary learning: Deceptive transparency. AILA Review, 6(1), 1020.Google Scholar
Lenth, R. V., Buerkner, P., Herve, M., Love, J., Riebl, H., & Singmann, H. (2021). Estimated Marginal Means, aka Least-Squares Means (Version 1.6.3) [Computer software]. Google Scholar
Leow, R. P. (1993). To simplify or not to simplify: A look at intake. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 15(3), 333355. Scholar
Leow, R. P. (2000). A study of the role of awareness in foreign language behavior. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 22(4), 557584. Scholar
Leow, R. P., & Mercer, J. D. (2015). Depth of processing in L2 learning: Theory, research, and pedagogy. Journal of Spanish Language Teaching, 2(1), 6982. Scholar
Leow, R. P., & Morgan-Short, K. (2004). To think aloud or not to think aloud: The issue of reactivity in SLA research methodology. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 26(1), 3557. Scholar
Leow, R. P., Grey, S., Marijuan, S., & Moorman, C. (2014). Concurrent data elicitation procedures, processes, and the early stages of L2 learning: A critical overview. Second Language Research, 30(2), 111127. Scholar
Libben, G. (1998). Semantic transparency in the processing of compounds: Consequences for representation, processing, and impairment. Brain and Language, 61(1), 3044. ScholarPubMed
Libben, M. R., & Titone, D. A. (2008). The multidetermined nature of idiom processing. Memory and Cognition, 36(6), 11031121. ScholarPubMed
Lindstromberg, S., & Boers, F. (2008). The mnemonic effect of noticing alliteration in lexical chunks. Applied Linguistics, 29(2), 200222. Scholar
Liontas, J. I. (2003). Killing two birds with one stone: Understanding Spanish VP idioms in and out of context. Hispania, 86(2), 289301. Scholar
Martinez, R., & Murphy, V. A. (2011). Effect of frequency and idiomaticity on second language reading comprehension. TESOL Quarterly, 45(2), 267290. Scholar
Myles, F., & Cordier, C. (2017). Formulaic sequence (FS) cannot be an umbrella term in SLA: Focusing on psycholinguistic FSs and their identification. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 39(1), 328. Scholar
Nattinger, J. R., & DeCarrico, J. S. (1992). Lexical phrases and language teaching. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Nekrasova, T. M. (2009). English L1 and L2 speakers’ knowledge of lexical bundles. Language Learning, 59(3), 647686. Scholar
Park, J., Cardwell, R., & Yu, H. T. (2020). Specifying the random effect structure in linear mixed effect models for analyzing psycholinguistic data. Methodology, 16(2), 92111.10.5964/meth.2809CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pawley, A., & Syder, F. H. (1983). Natural selection in syntax: Notes on adaptive variation and change in vernacular and literary grammar. Journal of Pragmatics, 7(5), 551579. Scholar
Perception Research Systems. (2007). Paradigm stimulus presentation. Google Scholar
R Development Core Team. (2021). R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing (Version 4.1.0) [Computer software]. Vienna, Austria : R Foundation for Statistical Computing.Google Scholar
Sandra, D. (1990). On the representation and processing of compound words: Automatic access to constituent morphemes does not occur. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A, 42(3), 529567. Scholar
Schmitt, N., Schmitt, D., & Clapham, C. (2001). Developing and exploring the behaviour of two new versions of the vocabulary levels test. Language Testing, 18(1), 5588. Scholar
Siyanova-Chanturia, A. (2015). On the ‘holistic’ nature of formulaic language. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory, 11(2), 285301. Scholar
Siyanova-Chanturia, A., & Janssen, N. (2018). Production of familiar phrases: Frequency effects in native speakers and second language learners. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 44(12), 20092018. ScholarPubMed
Siyanova-Chanturia, A., & Martinez, R. (2015). The idiom principle revisited. Applied Linguistics, 36(5), 549569. Scholar
Siyanova-Chanturia, A., Conklin, K., & Schmitt, N. (2011). Adding more fuel to the fire: An eye-tracking study of idiom processing by native and non-native speakers. Second Language Research, 27(2), 251272. Scholar
Siyanova-Chanturia, A., Conklin, K., & van Heuven, W. J. B. (2011). Seeing a phrase “time and again” matters: The role of phrasal frequency in the processing of multiword sequences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 37(3), 776784. ScholarPubMed
Spöttl, C., & McCarthy, M. (2004). Comparing knowledge of formulaic sequences across L1, L2, L3, and L4. In Schmitt, N. (Ed.), Formulaic sequences: Acquisition, processing, and use (pp. 191226). John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Swinney, D. A., & Cutler, A. (1979). The access and processing of idiomatic expressions. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 18(5), 523534. Scholar
Tabossi, P., Fanari, R., & Wolf, K. (2009). Why are idioms recognized fast? Memory and Cognition, 37(4), 529540. ScholarPubMed
Titone, D. A., & Connine, C. M. (1994). Descriptive norms for 171 idiomatic expressions: Familiarity, compositionality, predictability, and literality. Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, 9(4), 247270. Scholar
Tremblay, A., Derwing, B., Libben, G., & Westbury, C. (2011). Processing advantages of lexical bundles: Evidence from self-paced reading and sentence recall tasks. Language Learning, 61(2), 569613. Scholar
Underwood, G., Schmitt, N., & Galpin, A. (2004). The eyes have it. In Schmitt, N. (Ed.), Formulaic sequences: Acquisition, processing, and use (pp. 153172). John Benjamins.10.1075/lllt.9.09undCrossRefGoogle Scholar
van Gelderen, A., Schoonen, R., de Glopper, K., Hulstijn, J., Simis, A., Snellings, P., & Stevenson, M. (2004). Linguistic knowledge, processing speed, and metacognitive knowledge in first- and second-langua ge reading comprehension: A componential analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(1), 1930. Scholar
Van Ginkel, W., & Dijkstra, T. (2020). The tug of war between an idiom’s figurative and literal meanings: Evidence from native and bilingual speakers. Bilingualism, 23(1), 131147. Scholar
Vanlancker-Sidtis, D. (2003). Auditory recognition of idioms by native and nonnative speakers of English: It takes one to know one. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24(1), 4557. Scholar
Vilkaitė, L. (2016). Are nonadjacent collocations processed faster? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 42(10), 16321642. ScholarPubMed
Vilkaitė, L., & Schmitt, N. (2019). Reading collocations in an L2: Do collocation processing benefits extend to non-adjacent collocations? Applied Linguistics, 40(2), 329354. Scholar
Weinert, R. (1995). The role of formulaic language in second language acquisition: A review. Applied Linguistics, 16(2), 180205. Scholar
Wolter, B., & Gyllstad, H. (2011). Collocational links in the L2 mental lexicon and the influence of L1 intralexical knowledge. Applied Linguistics, 32(4), 430449. Scholar
Wolter, B., & Gyllstad, H. (2013). Frequency of input and L2 collocational processing: A comparison of congruent and incongruent collocations. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 35(3), 451482. Scholar
Wolter, B., & Yamashita, J. (2014). Processing collocations in a second language: A case of first language activation? Applied Psycholinguistics, 36(5), 11931221. Scholar
Wolter, B., & Yamashita, J. (2018). Word frequency, collocational frequency, L1 congruency, and proficiency in L2 collocational processing: What accounts for L2 performance? Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 40(2), 395416. Scholar
Wray, A. (2002). Formulaic language and the lexicon. Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9780511519772CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wray, A., & Perkins, M. R. (2000). The functions of formulaic language: An integrated model. Language and Communication, 20(1), 128. Scholar
Yamashita, J., & Jiang, N. (2010). L1 influence on the acquisition of L2 collocations: Japanese ESL users and EFL learners acquiring English collocations. TESOL Quarterly, 44(4), 647668. Scholar
Zheng, H. (2019). The processing of two types of Chinese idioms by L1 and L2 speakers. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana.Google Scholar
Supplementary material: PDF

Zheng et al. supplementary material

Tables A-E

Download Zheng et al. supplementary material(PDF)
PDF 717 KB
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

NS and NNS processing of idioms and nonidiom formulaic sequences: What can reaction times and think-alouds tell us?
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

NS and NNS processing of idioms and nonidiom formulaic sequences: What can reaction times and think-alouds tell us?
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

NS and NNS processing of idioms and nonidiom formulaic sequences: What can reaction times and think-alouds tell us?
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *