commonly used strategies were: guessing from context, discussing and analyzing the idiom, and using the literal meaning. Overall, guessing from context was the most successful strategy (Zyzik, 2009). Palmer and Brooks (2004) pointed out that the interpretation of figurative language is mainly related to learner’s background knowledge (schemata) in order to interpret the expression within context.
They stated “figurative language interpretation is based on student’s schemata; therefore, direct or explicit instruction is often needed to provide the knowledge necessary to understand not only the figurative language expressions but the context surrounding them as well.” Instructions are needed to be provided for learners to guide them to figure out the intended meaning of the figurative language. Other researchers have turned the attention to a mnemonic strategy by stating its effectiveness. A strategy which is mnemonic and whose effectiveness has been established is encouragement of ”dual coding” (Clark and Paivio, 1991), that is, to help learners to form and process lexical understandings which have an imagistic component as well as a component that is symbolic/ propositional in nature. On the other hand, many researchers have studied the role of L1 in L2 idiom processing, but it is a double edged sword. In other words, L2 learners’ reliance on their own L1 in L2 idiom processing may assist or hinder their understanding of L2 idioms. Such a phenomenon is termed the “interlingual factor” by Cornell (1999, p.6).Irujo’s (1986) study suggests that the use of L1 may assist L2 learners in their comprehension of L2 idioms which are identical or similar to L1 equivalents. At the same time, idioms that have no similar or identical L1 equivalents cause difficulty for L2 learners.
2.9 The Role of Vocabulary and Culture in Understanding Idioms
M?ntyl? (2004) in her study about Finnish learners of English. Learning English idioms, shows that idioms are difficult for second languagelearners even though the participants in her study were mostly fourth yearuniversity students of English and, therefore, advanced ones. M?ntyl? foundout that idioms which have some sort of an equivalent in Finnish were easier tounderstand than idioms which did not have any. Thus, one can assume thatidioms are connected to the specific language and culture which leads to aconclusion that there has to be a relationship between idioms and languageproficiency. Therefore, one cannot understand idioms very well without agood knowledge of the target language and culture.
Understanding the lexicon of English demands more than knowing the denotative meaning of words, it requires its speakers to have connotative word comprehension and more, an understanding of figurative language. Idioms fall into this final category (Jacqueline Ambrose, 2003). It appears that it is easy to comprehend and interpret an idiom when it is more familiar to someone. Exposure to a wide range of idioms may play an important role in idiom comprehension. Therefore, more familiarity of idioms, the more frequently are use (Fusté-Herrmann, 2008). Word familiarity has an important influence on word recognition Connine et al., (1990) and the comprehension of new metaphors (Blasko and Connine, 1993). Schweigert (1986) studied the relationship between familiarity and idiom processing. Reading rates for sentences containing highly familiar idioms were shorter than those for sentences containing low familiar idioms. The fact that highly familiar idioms were understood more quickly than less familiar idioms as it is stated by Cronk and Schweigert (1992).
These studies reveal that idioms, like words, are processed more quickly depending on the degree of experience a comprehender has with a particular phrase. Nippold& Taylor (1995) stated that the frequency with which an idiom occurs in a language is often defined as familiarity; however, frequency and familiarity are both moderated by culture. Familiarity is relative and depends on such factors as geographical location, linguistic background (including dialect), culture, and age (Nippold&Rudinski, 1993). It appears that idiom comprehension is easier when an idiom is more familiar to someone because less conceptual analysis is required (Qualls & Harris, 1999). Exposure may play an important role in idiom comprehension since having more experience with idioms may make those idioms more salient (Norbury, 2004). Ultimately, more frequently used idioms may be more familiar. Glucksberg (2001) described idioms as a secret language and a language owned by a culture that one has to be steeped in. In other words, idioms vary in frequency and familiarity depending on variables like demographic characteristics and cultural and linguistic identification.
2.10 The Role of Context in Idiom Comprehension
Physical and discourse environments constrain the possible interpretations ofphrases or sentences and the referent of their constituents. Using contextual clues toinfer the meaning of unknown words is an effective strategy which helps learnersacquire skills and aids vocabulary learning (Dunmore, 1989). In addition, usingcontextual pragmatic clues seems to have a considerable effect on L2 idiomcomprehension particularly in understanding opaque idioms whose meaning cannotbe inferred from the individual word meanings.
As Swinney and Cutler (1979) state, most idioms have the feature of ambiguity.This means that idioms which are grammatically well formed have an acceptableliteral meaning as well as figurative meaning. So, the comprehension of such idiomswill be problematic. Swinney and Cutler (1979) believe that idioms are stored andprocessed in a mental lexicon like other words and sentences, and their literal andnon- literal processing take place simultaneously (lexical representation hypothesis).In the case of normal phrases and sentences, this ambiguity seems to be resolvedthrough prior context. In other words, contextual clues can influence theinterpretation of an ambiguous sentence with literal and non-literal meanings(Bobrow& Bell, 1973). Hence, contextual clues can account for ambiguous idiomstoo.
Studies on using contextual clues in L2 idiom comprehension have found thatguessing from context is an effective strategy and is recurrently used in L2 idiomcomprehension. Cooper (1999 used the think-aloud research method to investigatethe kind of strategies L2 learners employ in the comprehension of unfamiliar idioms.
M?ntyl? (2004, p.174) admits that the effects of context in the interpretationof unfamiliar idioms might reveal interesting viewpoints. The context maylimit the interpretation options but, on the other hand, it can assist in excludingthe obviously wrong ones.A given contextwould have restricted the possible meanings but it can be helpful for opaque idioms which cannot be understood without knowing the target culture.
Cain et al., (2005) demonstrated that there are three factors in idiom comprehension: familiarity, transparency and context. They state that idioms that are presented in texts are easier to understand than those are presented in isolation. Cain et al (2005) maintain that ‘context might facilitate the interpretation of figurative language by providing the necessary semantic information from which reader (listener) can extract or infer the appropriate sense of expression’ (p. 67). For them, ‘contexts are important for less common idioms whose meanings are not yet fully known, particularly for unfamiliar opaque idioms whose meanings are not fully derivable through semantic analysis of phrases’ (p. 67). In this study, therefore, the focus is on the specific problems students have in understanding and using idioms correctly, and the strategies used by them in order to understand those idioms based on this theoretical framework.
Idiom learning has recently attracted a greater level of interest in English learning contexts, from online learning websites to language textbooks. The website BBC Learning English, for example, has introduced a series of idiom-related sections called “To
day’s Phrase” and “The English We Speak.” Additionally, the latest course books widely utilized in teaching English programs in Asia put more emphasis on idioms in use. This tendency reflects the requisite necessity of idioms in the process of learning English as a foreign language (EFL). Indeed, the ability to use idioms helps establish figurative competence in the communicative competence model by Celce-Murcia (2008).Within this trend, the assessment of how well Asian language learners use idioms in communication is a growing need. English users in Asia, such as pupils, university graduates, and teachers of English, have to be qualified in accordance to the requirements for English as a second / foreign language (ESL / EFL) in the national curricula. For example, in Vietnam, English language learners are evaluated either in the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) or in international testing systems such as TOEFL, IELTS, and TOEIC. The National Foreign Languages 2020 Project in Vietnam states that the overall English proficiency of English teachers at secondary schools and of university graduates certified to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL) is expected to be at the C1 level in the CEFR or equivalent. One of the indicators, as listed in the CEFR listening skill band descriptors, is “I can understand a wide range of idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms” (Council of Europe, 2012, p. 66). In the IELTS speaking band descriptors, mastery of idiomatic expressions is mentioned as a criterion of lexical resource from Band 7 onward, which is equivalent to the C1 level in the CEFR. In Band 7, language users are expected to be able to “use some less common and idiomatic vocabulary” (British Council, n.d., p. 1).
However, idiom teaching might have not received adequate attention in foreign language teaching contexts yet (Tran, 2012; Vasiljevic, 2011). Few teachers in Asia are aware of the roles of idioms in communicative competence. They may have encountered difficulties in choosing a suitable teaching method, selecting idioms, and explaining the use of an idiom in its appropriate contexts. Many teachers tend to avoid idioms in their language and teaching (Tran, 2012). Although there have been significant studies of learning and teaching approaches for idioms (Cooper, 1999; Lennon, 1998; Levorato, Nesi, &Cacciari, 2004; Prodromou, 2003; Zyzik, 2011), research on the assessment of the idiomatic competence of EFL learners in Asia is limited.
2.11 Idiomatic Competence
Idiomatic or figurative competence has recently been discussed in accordance with communicative competence, which was inspired by Chomsky (1965) and Hymes (1972), Canale and Swain (1980), and Celce-Murcia (1995, 2008). In the revised model of communicative competence by Celce-Murcia (2008), the ability to use idioms is regarded as a component of formulaic competence. Formulaic competence refers to the selection and use of fixed chunks or stretches of language in communication (Celce-Murcia, 2008). As part of formulaic competence, idiomatic competence is the ability to appropriately communicate with idioms in the roles of both an addressor and an addressee (Buckingham, 2006; Burke, 1988). It helps communicators fully encode and decode the meaning of a conversation.Knowles (2004) described the learning process in five steps ranging from familiarization, recognition, and comprehension to mastery and automaticity. When students reach automaticity, they are able to confidently communicate in the language they are learning. Automaticity can be achieved through the practice of phrases and thought groups and the exposure to the target language, Knowles (2004) argues. This implies that language learners should be exposed to idiomatic expressions and should have intensive practice to be able to use idioms for communication.