The Acquisition of Idioms: Learning through Origins versus Extended Contexts

Wing Mun Tsui, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong;           Abstract:

Idiom acquisition is often considered as one of the most challenging aspects of learning a second language primarily because the meaning of an idiom can hardly be deduced from the meanings of its individual words. This study endeavours to investigate and compare the effects of providing leaners with the origins of idioms and short stories containing idioms on their idiom acquisition and retention in English. It was conducted with 24 upper-intermediate to advanced level Chinese learners of English. The experiment was carried out online and it consisted of a pre-test, a treatment session and two post-tests (immediate and delayed) and employed two task types including a multiple-choice task and a meaning task in the post-tests. The results showed that both the origin group and the extended context (i.e. short stories) group achieved significantly higher scores than the control group in the multiple-choice task but not the meaning task at both the immediate and delayed post-tests. No significant differences were found between the mean scores of the two experimental groups in the multiple-choice task and among all groups in the meaning task at the two post-tests. This suggests that providing the information of the origins of idioms and longer contexts can enhance learners’ ability to understand and use idioms in proper contexts in both short and longer term. However, regarding the ability to remember or explain the meanings of idioms, it seems that participants in the control group who were only exposed to the definitions of the idioms could perform as well as the participants in the two experimental groups. The findings of this study can have implications for teachers and learners of English and materials developers.

Keywords: idiom acquisition, idiom retention, origins, extended context, dual coding theory

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