Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Applying cognitive linguistics to second language idiom learning

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posted on 2021-12-08, 23:25 authored by Xinqing Wang

Idioms are known to cause great difficulty for second language (L2) learners, who may understand the literal meanings of the constituent words of idioms like (be) waiting in the wings, but often fail to interpret the idiomatic, figurative meaning of the expression. Proponents of Cognitive Linguistics (CL) claim that CL provides a pathway to more systematic and insightful learning of figurative expressions like idioms. They advocate that learners should be informed of the literal underpinning of idiomatic expressions and their relationship to the figurative meaning. This is supported by the results of several experimental studies employing ‘etymological elaboration’. However, little is known about how learners actually experience the CL-style explanations, or about how the learning is affected by other factors such as learners’ perceived transparency of the connection between the literal underpinnings and the idiomatic meanings, and their L1. The research reported in this thesis therefore (1) investigates the effectiveness of etymological elaboration in facilitating idiom comprehension and retention; (2) examines the problems that L2 learners, i.e., native-Chinese EFL learners in this study, experience when they encounter English figurative idioms, and identifies the factors influencing success in learning the meanings of idioms.  To achieve these objectives, a mixed methods design was employed. Etymological elaboration was implemented in a teaching experiment involving one-on-one interviews, in which 25 Chinese learners of English were presented with idioms whose meaning they were asked to guess first without and then with the aid of information about their literal underpinnings. After the correct figurative meaning was established, participants rated the transparency of the connection between the literal underpinning and the figurative meaning. One week later, the learners were presented with the same idioms and asked to recall their meaning. Follow-up interviews were also conducted to survey the learners’ experience with and awareness of idioms, and their general attitudes and strategies towards idiom learning. Participants’ responses and their recall of idiomatic meanings were scored by three raters. A combination of quantitative and qualitative analyses of the interview data investigated the learning process and the outcomes of the teaching experiment.  The major findings are: (1) Etymological elaboration can facilitate the interpretation and meaning retention of L2 idioms to a substantial degree; and the L2 idiom learning involves the interplay of multiple factors, including the transparency of the idioms, L1 transfer and cross-cultural differences, learners’ prior L2 lexical knowledge, and their proficiency levels. (2) The degree of transparency of the literal-figurative connection influences meaning retention, especially for the low proficiency learners. However, the mnemonic effect is not confined to idioms that learners find most transparent, but also affects those that are “far-fetched”. (3) The accuracy of meaning inference during the learning phase has a significant impact on memory for the idioms; many errors can be traced back to wrong guesses made in the prior learning phase, and some relate to false equivalents and partial equivalents in the L1. This suggests that trial-and-error learning potentially induces wrong memory traces and that teaching practices should therefore promote more accurate comprehension from the start, in order to facilitate better long-term memory for idioms. (4) More exposure to and better awareness of idioms help EFL learners foster positive attitudes towards idiom learning, which may facilitate the integration and automatization of figurative multiword expressions like idioms in their bilingual mental lexicon, and in turn lead to higher L2 proficiency. The findings of this study have implications for second language teaching and learning. The innovative research design and advanced statistical analyses contribute to the development of language teaching research methodology.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Applied Linguistics

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



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Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies


Boers, Frank; Warren, Paul; Gu, Peter