Linguistics English Idioms an Idiom Research Proposal

Excerpt from Research Proposal :

The reaction on the part of the community of language researchers has ranged between the grudging acceptance that some multiple word collocation do exist in the lexicon, and the lexicon re-conceptualized as incorporating elements from all levels of linguistic structure. "According to this second view idiomatic expressions represent one end of a continuum which places highly analyzable and semantically decomposable utterances at one end, and highly specified, semantically opaque idioms at the other" (Sanford, 2008).

Current literature says that idioms make up a very large and heterogeneous class of semi-fixed multiword expressions. Traditionally, in order to classify an expression as idiomatic it had to be non-compositional in nature. "If an expression is thought to be non-compositional, it is believed that its meaning cannot be inferred by simply adding up the semantics of its constituents. As a result, the meaning of idioms appears to be quite arbitrary" (Boers, 2007). It is because of this arbitrary nature of the semantics of idioms that has long been taken for granted in second or foreign language teaching. It is thought that because of the absence of reliable clues inside the idioms themselves, learners can only resort to contextual clues in order to try and interpret idioms and the only way learners can do this is to memorize each expression by rote-learning (Boers, 2007).

During recent years cognitive semantic studies regarding figurative language have shown that a considerable number of idioms are not completely arbitrary. It is thought now that figurative idioms are motivated. While it is true that their figurative, idiomatic meaning is not fully predictable on the basis of a literal reading, but that the derivation from that literal sense can nevertheless be explained. It is thought that figurative idioms can be motivated along various lines (Boers, 2007).

When people talk about idioms the term idiomatic is often used. It is usually used in one of the following three ways:

As a property of discourse; a piece of discourse is described as idiomatic if it sounds natural or native like. This means that a foreign learner's speech or text will be idiomatic if it resembles that produced by the native speaker

Lexical combinations which occur as grammatical units in the language like phrases

A general term equivalent to multi-word units or phrasal expressions

Many times the terms idiom and idiomatic expressions are used interchangeably, especially in language books. This is particularly true of internet sites which deal with idioms and idiomatic expressions. It is important to remember that these two terms have different senses during translation (Abu-Ssaydeh, 2004).

Translating an idiom by using an identical idiom in the end language has been found to be a good way to teach. If English idioms are examined carefully, a close link between the idioms and the culture in which they are found will become immediately clear. If it is often thought that hunting, the army, sports, gambling, card games and many other areas of life have contributed to the creation of many British idioms. American idioms are also a good representation of the culture of the nation as a whole. The famous Gold Rush in 1848 and 1849, gave us the idiom strike it lucky. The main influence for Americans has been sports, in particular baseball, that have contributed to the enrichment of idioms (Abu-Ssaydeh, 2004).

Even thought there is this close link between the idioms and their respective cultures, similarities do sometimes exist across languages. Once is a while, one might encounter an idiom that is a copy of an English idiom. "Spanish and English have the same idiom in skate on thin ice. Arabic, Hebrew and English all have I am all ears. German and English have he's getting on my nerves and she's got a screw loose. This allows a seasoned translator to give priority in idiom translation to those that are identical" (Abu-Ssaydeh, 2004). The result of this strategy is to be able to preserve the impact of the English idiom. The translation retains not only the lexical constituency, the semantic content and the brevity of the idiom but also the outcome it may have on the receiver. Idioms are very useful tools for communicating a great deal of meaning in just a few words (Abu-Ssaydeh, 2004).

A decomposable idiom happens when an idiom whose individual components contribute to its figurative meaning. But yet the components of a non-decomposable idiom do not make such a contribution. Because of this difference the Model of Dual Idiom Representation was introduced in order to help explain the differences between the two groups. At the lexical level, this model assumes the parallel existence of idiom entries and constituent entries. The degree of decomposability and the frequency with which the idiom is encountered determines its lexical representation. "If it so happens that there is no idiom entry for a particular idiom, conceptual representations are figured out during comprehension. Because nonnative speakers encounter idioms less often than native speakers, the first language and second language lexicon vary with regard to the number of idiom entries" (Abel, 2003).

In linguistic theories that are mainly concerned with literal language, idioms have always caused serious problems. This is why linguists and psycholinguists have developed a number of hypotheses to describe the special grammatical characteristics of idioms and also to explain their processing and representation. Although many insights have been gained from these studies, there are three aspects that have been neglected to be looked at. The first is that the studies deal exclusively with the native mental lexicon and do not try to integrate the second language lexicon. Secondly, the studies concentrate either on lexical representations or on conceptual aspects but do not try to combine the two into one theoretical model. And lastly, most of the studies do not allow for frequency effects to play a role in the representation or processing of idioms (Abel, 2003).

Over the last several years, psycholinguistic idiom research has been dominated by several approaches to idiom comprehension and representation and by the Idiom Decomposition Hypothesis. One of the central questions has been whether during idiom comprehension the literal or the figurative meaning is retrieved. A related question has been in which order the different meanings are accessed, if both meanings are retrieved. There are three prominent studies that experimentally tested these questions and that can be referred to as the first generation of idiom processing hypotheses. These are the Idiom List Hypothesis, the Lexical Representation Hypothesis and the Direct Access Hypothesis. All three hypotheses fundamentally rely on the idea that the meaning of an idiom is stored in a separate mental idiom list (Abel, 2003).

A more recent model, the Model of Dual Idiom Representation is a psycholinguistic model which not only combines the lexical and the conceptual level but also integrates the representation of idioms in the first language and the second language lexicon. In addition, it considers frequency effects that influence the representations. Supporting evidence for this model comes from empirical studies on the decomposability of idioms with native and nonnative speakers of English (Abel, 2003).

The DIR Model as developed to provide these requirements. The central assumptions and advantages of the DIR Model can be stated as follows: the model considers not only a lexical, but also a conceptual level of representation. Secondly, at the lexical level the duality it refers to the parallel existence of both constituent and idiom entries. The development of an idiom entry depends on the idiom's decomposability -- non-decomposable idioms definitely need an idiom entry -- and its frequency. The more frequent an idiom, the more likely it will develop an idiom entry. One of the DIR Model's advantages is its compatibility with regard to the L1 and the L2 lexicon. The differences between the native and the nonnative lexicon, which are mainly due to differences in the frequency of exposure to idiomatic configurations, can be described and explained by gradual variation of the same theoretical assumptions. For decomposable idioms, idiom entries should be regarded as additional pieces of information about frequently-occurring linguistic entities and not as a mandatory prerequisite to idiom processing. The claim of dual representations qualifies the special status that has been attributed to idioms in, for example, generative models of grammar and which has been responsible for their treatment as exceptions. but, considering the abundance of idioms in language, it is not justifiable to treat them as something special. What is needed is a representational model such as the one introduced in this article that, on the basis of the same theoretical assumptions, is able to describe and explain expressions located at various points on the continuum of compositionality and decomposability (Abel, 2003).

Problems and Issues

Idioms are perhaps one of the most problematic features of language learning for anyone who takes on learning a new language. The good thing is that a beginner in a language is…

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