Measuring Idiomatic Competence
Measuring idiomatic competence is problematic. Although the aspects of knowing a word can be academically described, designing a test for measuring multiple traits of words, such as forms, positions, functions, and meaning, tend to be unfeasible (Zareva, Schwanenflugel, &Nikolova, 2005). Some frequently used models for measuring vocabulary knowledge focus on two dimensions – the size and the quality (Nation, 2001; Richards, 1976). Other models, such as Henriksen’s (1999), may add the receptive and productive control of vocabulary in communication to establish a third dimension of vocabulary development. Idioms are considered multi-unit words; therefore, a measurement of idiomatic competence may follow the above attributes. It should determine the breadth and depth of idioms that a learner is able to comprehend and use for communication.
2.12 Idiom-Related Research in Language Learning and Use
Studies of idioms in language learning and use can be divided into three main categories. Firstly, early research concerned the constitution of idioms (e.g., Fernando, 1996; Grant & Bauer, 2004; Makkai, 1972). Secondly, a great deal of research focused on methods of teaching idioms (e.g., Buckingham, 2006; Copper, 1999; Lennon, 1998; Tran, 2012; Vasiljevic, 2011; Wray, 2000; Zyzik, 2009). These studies attempted to find effective ways of teaching idioms for language learners in ESL / EFL contexts. For example, Zyzik (2009) discussed some activities for teaching idiom comprehension as well as literal and figurative meanings. Tran (2012) suggested four-skill-integrated tasks for teaching idioms. Vasiljevic (2011) argued that using conceptual metaphors and code switching to the mother tongue in discussing idiom meaning may be effective teaching methods. Thirdly, selection of idioms to be learned is also of research interest. Liu’s (2003) and Simpson and Mendis’ (2003) have focused on idioms which are the most frequently used in different contexts by using a corpus-based research approach. However, there is little research that explores the idiomatic competence of language users in EFL contexts. Therefore, this empirical study is an attempt to partly fill this gap in idiom-related research on language learning and use.
Idioms seem to act very much like normal language, but they are quite different in many ways. It’s been said that “If natural language had been designed by a logician, idioms would not exist” (P. N. Johnson-Laird in a foreword to a collection of works on idioms). But exist they do, and not only that, they represent a rich vein in language behavior, so they cry out for explanation. Though they have been dismissed by many theorists to various extents, some have seen the need for theories of language to adequately explain the behavior of idioms, and, moreover, the potential for what analysis of idioms can tell us about language itself.
Put as simply as possible, an idiom is a fixed expression whose meaning cannot be taken as a combination of the meanings of its component parts. Thus, the common phrase kick the bucket has nothing to do with either kicking or buckets, but means simply, “to die.” In other words, idioms are not literal expressions. They are also, as mentioned, fixed expressions, to the extent that the elements which make up the idioms are limited in the kinds of variability they are able to demonstrate. Idioms can also be found comprising nearly any kind of syntactic phrase, right up to a full sentence (DiSciullo 1987), and it has been widely noted that they tend to exhibit similar syntax to nonidiomatic phrases (Van Gestel 1995, Fellbaum 1993, Abeillé 1995).
2.13 The Importance of Idioms and the Case for the Lexicon
Ray Jackendoff (1997) proposed an interesting argument for the importance of fixed expressions in natural language in the form of his Wheel of Fortune Corpus, a compendium of over six hundred solutions to the word puzzles on the popular game show. They were roughly categorizedin the corpus (Such as English proper names, clichés, idioms, foreignphrases and so on).In order for the game show to work, all of the expressions must be readily available to nearly any American speaker of English, and there must be a vast number of such expressions out there in order to have enough fodder for the shows to avoid repetition. It is the sheer size of this group which Jackendoff finds most intriguing. Jackendoff (1997) cites one estimate of 25,000 for the total number of fixed expressions in English (there is a similar estimate for French), which is the same order of magnitude as the number of individual words in the lexicon.
Given these facts – not to mention the very fundamental fact that these forms are made up of linguistic components and common components themselves in larger pieces of linguistic discourse – it would be shortsighted not to include serious analysis of the nature of idioms, being an important category of fixed expressions, in any theory of our knowledge of language. In other words, we can’t simply right them off as rule-breaking anomalies of little significance.At the very least, what the variability of idioms discussed shows is that all idioms have internal structure of some kind. They cannot simply be dismissed as structureless, frozen atomic units. Furthermore, the variability in passivization and modification shows that the structure they do have is related to the structure of their non-idiomatic counterparts.
Thus a division between transparent idioms whose syntactic structure is the same as their counterparts and opaque ones whose syntactic structure is different from their counterparts can be noticed. This distinction dictates how the idioms are allowed to behave. This is not to say that there is a distinction between fixed and flexible idioms, subject to different rules as Gazdar et al. (1985) suggest. Rather, no idiom can be truly said to be fixed, and all idioms have internal structure, but how that structure relates to their non-idiomatic counterparts affects their behavior.
2.14 Idiom Acquisition
Studies have shown that idioms are not understood before age 6 (Abkarian et al. 1992) and this is the likely age when the ability to interpret idioms takes off. However, while Nippold (1998, 2006) compares the development of idiom understanding to lexical development claiming that it is gradual, and virtually unlimited, other studies suggest that figurative competence develops between 7 and 11 years of age (Levorato&Cacciari 1995, Cain et al. 2009). Kempler et al. (1999) provide evidence from a large cross-sectional study that idiomatic knowledge starts plateauing after age 11 and approximates the adult state.A widely accepted view is that idioms are stored in the mental lexicon, much in the same way as words, the only difference being in terms of structural complexity and size (Gibbs, 1980).
While in the case of words, there is a simple association between a lemma (semantic) and a lexeme (phonological) representation, for idioms, there is a complex phonological representation comprising a string of individual lexemes. Idioms function as items of word size and can be inserted, replaced or deleted very much like words, and quite often, by items of word size. Semantically, they can participate in the same type of systemic relations of opposition (antonymy), similarity (synonymy), and the like. At the same time there are many differences between words and idioms. Idioms have a different grammar which resembles that of phrases and clauses, and may, to a certain degree participate in various alternations and derivations (e.g., passives) or modification (adverbial or adjectival).Recent research (Kempler et al. 1999, Nippold 1998, 2006, Nippold&Duthie 2003, Cain et al. 2009, Levorato&Cacciari 1995) suggests that the acquisition of idioms takes longer than vocabulary acquisition, and that it gradually takes off after age 5 and on.
Nippold&Duthie (2003) mention a couple of factors that play a role in idiom acquisition and comprehension. The most salient ones are frequen
cy of the expression, transparency of its structure, the context in which it is encountered, and linguistic skills and competences.Idioms are a type of multiple word units that have both literal and figurative meanings. In most cases, the figurative meaning of an idiom cannot be readily derived from the literal meaning of the individual constituent in the unit. Frequently cited examples are kick the bucket and bite the dust, whose figurative meaning is to die. However, most L2 learners would make no sense of the idiom if only decoding based on the literal meaning of its lexical units (i.e. kick and the bucket). Because the figurative meaning of an idiom is difficult to predict from its literal meaning, idiom processing and comprehension presents “special difficulty to L2 learners, as well as a never-ending challenge for ESL teachers” (Cooper, 1999, p.233).
Apart from difficulties in comprehension, idioms are frequently used by native English speakers and appear everywhere in written and spoken texts. According to a study by Pollio, Barlow, Fine, and Pollio (1977), in which they analyzed political debates, psychology texts, novels, and psychotherapy sessions, “Most English speakers utter about 10 million novel metaphors per lifetime and 20 million idioms per lifetime” (p. 140). Cooper (1999) points out, “Indeed, mastery of an L2 may depend in part on how well learners comprehend initially and produce eventually the idioms encountered in everyday language” (p234). Idiom acquisition has become an important constituent in L2 vocabulary acquisition and the necessity of research on it is well-grounded.
Liu (2008) lists six main reasons why L2 learners should spend time and effort in the area of idiom acquisition:
First, according to Sinclair (1987), language use is governed by two operating principles: the open choice principle and the idiom choice principle, and the two principles are complementary in ensuring successful language production. Specifically, the open choice principle posits that once a unit is completed (a morpheme, a word, a phrase), a large range of grammatical choices opens up to combine that unit with other units to build up the text. The idiom choice principle holds that word choices or combinations are not random, and speakers use a large number of pre-constructed phrases including idioms in their communication. Idioms are an important class of pre-constructed phrase and therefore play an essential part in language development.
Second, study indicates that because of their vividness and appeal to the senses and imagination, idioms are especially useful and effective in performing informative and evaluative functions and can sometimes help speakers convey their messages in a way non-idiom expressions can not (Fernando, 1996; Moon, 1998).
Third, formulaic expressions, especially figurative idioms, can, not only help L2 learners communicate more effectively but assist L2 learning by offering learners language input that can be segmented and analyzed (Bardovi-Harlig, 2002; D. Wood, 2002; Wray, 2000).
Fourth, many idioms are culture- or language-specific. Learning these idioms provides L2 learners with a good opportunity to understand and acquire information about L2 culture beliefs and customs as well as linguistic features of the second language. A common example of such culture-specific idioms is the abundance of many sports-related idiomatic expressions in American English, such as off base and touch base, which reflects Americans’ enthusiasm for baseball.
Fifth, colloquial idioms are used very frequently in casual conversations between friends or peers. Encouraging L2 learners to learn and use such expressions helps create more language practice opportunities to communicate with native speakers.
Sixth, as some researchers point out, the extent of an L2 learner’s mastery of idioms is a good indicator of