Idioms in cross-linguistic language acquisition

“Don’t let him get your goat.” What does that even mean? One theory attains that the term actually stems from horse racing. Racehorses were stabled with goats to keep them calm. If someone wanted to sabotage a horse they would steal the goat the day before the race, and the horse would become so agitated it would not perform well the next day.

Now to “get one’s goat” means to pester, to rile someone, but there’s little chance that anyone would ever get the association without first being told. Even for native speakers, who use idioms on a daily basis they can be confusing. Since idioms leave no hints towards their meanings, they open a whole new can of worms for L2 language learners. But native speakers use idiomatic expressions on a daily basis and thus a basic comprehension of common idioms is important. The research done in this particular area of L2 acquisition traces the seemingly random occurrence of their creation to the difficulties encountered while learning them. If no concrete grammatical rules can be assigned to an idiom, how then, are they to be taught to the non-native speaker?

Much of the research done on idioms attempts to find a grammatical regularity in their structure.  Their comprehension and proper usage poses a myriad of problems for non-native speakers because they often do not follow the normal grammatical structures in such a way that can be navigated through by syntax and logical deciphering. When words become collocated with other words and rigidly fixed expressions occur, idioms are created. As Ray Jackendoff describes, a word is “a fragment of conceptual structure that is linked in longterm memory with a phonological structure (its pronunciation) and a syntactic structure (its part of speech and other syntactic properties such as grammatical gender and casemarking properties). That is, the words one knows consist of stored concepts linked with stored elements of linguistic expressions” (1992: 55). Words’ meanings as they have been learned, become replaced. For L2 learners, there is a far smaller mental dictionary of words to work with in first place, and when some of the words that they know take on a completely different meaning in the form of an idiom, it can be confusing.

Compounding this problem, idioms are not stored in a person’s mental lexicon as the individual words they consist of, but rather as one unit of meaning. Idioms are essentially a “cluster” of regular words whose new meaning is undecipherable to a person based upon common language knowledge, even for native speakers, and specifically, the L2 speaker (Cooper 1998). Cooper 1998 compares the effects of learner’s age and other factors to their acquisition to the language, and how these factors change how they process the idiom. Children for example, tended to interpret the literal meaning of an idiom while trying to understand its meaning. (Cooper 1998: 256). The meaning also only remains assigned to the group of words so long as it is continually used in that manner and remains through time, thus remaining fixed.

While comparing a very literal language, such a German, to English for example, one may see the difficulty in effective and proper usage of an English idiom. For Germans specifically, it is hard to assign such a figurative meaning to words. Many idiomatic expressions used in German have a more grammatical functional effect and are often prepositions that collocate with certain verbs. The question, woran liegt es eigentlich [what is the reasoning for] is a good example of a common German phrase using the words where-lies-it-actually. But because wo means where and is generally used with a question of place, but the usage of it in this expression is strictly idiomatic. The majority of German’s collocated words are verbs or prepositions that commonly occur together, and these preposition-verb agreements are simply idiomatic, rather than metaphorical compositions of words that are nondecomposable, as in the examples of English idioms. The German language poses the ideal platform to study the figurative and metaphorical possibilities within the English language, which leaves a German native speaker struggling to find the literal sense of a very nondecomposable English idiom.

Irujo’s study on the usage of English idioms by non-native speakers claimed that the easiest idioms to use were the ones that most closely resembled the person’s native language. Irujo based her study upon the transference that occurs from the learner’s first language to acquiring a new language. She discovered that the speakers used knowledge of their own native language’s idioms in order to try and a produce a logical meaning from the English idioms (Irujo 1986: 290). By analyzing a group of Spanish speakers, she discovered that the majority of the people could most easily interpret the meaning of idioms most closely related to an idiom in their own language, not so much based on their literal meanings. If the word’s meaning strayed too far from the literal meaning, or in no way resembled an idiom of the person’s native language, it caused confusion (Irujo 1986: 287-89). Idioms whose meaning in no way resemble the literal meaning, as in got your goat were the most difficult to understand. Idioms whose meaning can potentially be determined by their words, such as Irujo’s example; he’s skin and bones, might be determined by basic knowledge of the meaning of the words in the sentence. (Irujo 1986: 288).

The comprehension of an idiom goes far beyond the basic grammatical knowledge of a language and delves deeper into the psycholinguistic branch of the study of language, Cieślicka claims that in order for the L2 learner to understand an idiom, they “must first compute the literal meaning of the utterance, identify the computed literal meaning as anomalous, and only then arrive at its figurative meaning” (2004: 117). The extent to which an idiom can be decomposed is a key factor in determining its meaning, or the ease of its interpretation, another study analyzed whether the semantic decomposition of the idiom influenced the processing of its meaning (Gibbs 1998: 578-579). The analysis looked at an idiom such as kick the bucket, a nondecomposable idiom whose meaning leaves no hints towards its actual idiomatic meaning. The idiom; To go in the red would be another good example of a nondecomposable idiom in which would be impossible to assign a meaning to. Obviously these kinds of idioms would prove much more difficult for the L2 learner to process.

The linguistic capacity of a person to acquire a second language is to be derived from the unconscious knowledge of their first language, and the internal dictionary of words and grammar that has already been acquired. The brain’s process of analysis is to first attempt to reach for a logical meaning of each word in the new encountered word in the language. It follows the same logical process of assigning a meaning to each part of the sentence and grammatical parts. In the case of idioms, in a transparent non-literal expression such as; He’s got X’s goat, an L2 learner, the interlocutor, and specifically a German native speaker receiving this information would attempt to assign a literal meaning to each piece within the clump of words. The problem then, is taking the literal meaning into consideration would cause the L2 learner confusion, as he probably does not own a literal goat to be got, and therefore would have difficulty assigning a meaning. Any resemblance to sabotage is not present. Spill the beans [to divulge] [information] is another idiom with a nondecomposable fixed meaning. Each part that makes up an idiom is so crucial to determining the group of words’ syntax that it is therefore almost impossible to unravel its meaning through a potential misuse by a non-native speaker. If the previous phrase was changed to he spilled the information, for example, the sentence makes almost more logical sense, but the words are not collocations and therefore have no real meaning together. The verb spill is not collocated to information the way leak is, for example. Another example of misuse of an idiom by a non-native speaker is Irujo’s example; go out on a stick as opposed to go out on a limb (1986: 287). This example, substituting stick for limb, renders the idiom incomprehensible. That noun is not associated with the expression. The native speaker’s brain assigns a literal meaning to all the parts of the expression instead of the accepted new metaphorical meaning as a whole, because their mind does not recognize this construction as an idiom. Although other research, namely Gibbs et. al 1988 on the decomposition of idioms, underlines that the comprehensibility of idioms is based upon the degree of their decomposition, and the more decomposable the idiom is, the easier it is to interpret.

William O’Grady’s research attempted to find patterns and regularity of idioms and demonstrated in The Syntax of Idioms 1998 how difficult it is to assign concrete definitions and predictable standards to idioms. The studies done on the syntax of idioms have tried to determine a predictability of their occurrence and usability.  The problem with idioms is that they can be opaque and transparent, literal or figurative.  Adding to the confusion, an idiom cannot be defined as, “an accepted group of words that remain fixed together in a commonly used expression” because words that always appear together. The common greeting what’s up for example, is not an idiom, but is two words that often occur together. Idiomiticity of a common cluster of word varies. Although O’Grady mostly defined what could be ruled out from becoming an idiom, applying a set of rules that weeded out what idioms cannot be, he stated that the idiom is consistent in how it does follow a basic grammatical structure and is bound to grammatical constraints. But not even an underlying level of representation can be assigned to certain word’s meanings, and many of the mobile (transparent) idioms are subject to much variation within many of their meanings, specifically in the modification of their prepositions (O’Grady 1998: 281).  In Grady’s example: you’re skating on thin ice, the preposition on can be substituted for near, close, or over thin ice (O’Grady, 1998: 281). He demonstrated that most idioms still require a verb, and the head of its theme complement essentially reduces the entire idiom to a chain of head-head word relationships.  (O’Grady 1998: 282-287). Another study analyzed the flexibility and decomposition of the idiom as a determining factor in their acquisition. (Gibbs 1988: 577) This difficulty and yet flexibility of some idioms shows just how tricky are, and how knowing the proper way in which to construct an idiom is an impossible task the non-native speaker, not to mention the explanation of why an idiom’s meaning functions the way that it does.

The human brain creates meaning by the connection of concepts of the word’s meanings, and words do often have more than one meaning. The brain logically connects the word to a representation of what it “looks like, what it tastes like, what it sounds like, and what actions can be performed on it; if the word names an action, this connection specifies what the action looks like, what it is like to perform the action, and so forth. This connection, then, is the present theory’s counterpart of what the philosophical tradition calls the reference of the word. However, it concerns not the realworld counterpart of the concept but the mental representations linked to the concept in the perceptual and motor modalities” (Jackendoff 1992: 56). If this is true, then idioms misconstrue previous accepted meanings of the head-words involved, posing great difficulty towards determining a meaning without a proper explanation. Although some idioms do remain fixed, for example, to lose your mind. The meaning of the verb lose has become metaphorical and the noun mind are collocations that remain together. To throw one’s mind for example, because this verb is not associated with a person’s saneness and remains literal, with no syntactical logic. A native speaker would not understand.

There are no holds barred on idioms, so to speak. Idioms can be either figurative or literal; one can kick a bucket and not die, spill some beans and not say a word, and everyone is to some extent skin and bones. From a learner’s point of view, idioms will have to remain a part of the English language that is acquired through usage and making mistakes.  And the more contact that a L2 learner has with the natural usage of English idioms, the easier they will be able to understand them. As all of the articles considered, none offered a useful pedagogical tool, which would ease the syntactic acquisition of idioms in a foreign language.


Cieślicka, Anna. 2006. Literal salience in on-line processing of idiomatic expressions by second language learners. Second Language Research 22(2).115-144.

Cooper, Thomas C. 1998. Teaching idioms. Foreign Language Annals 31(2).255-266.

Gibbs, Raymond W., Nandini Nayak and Cooper Cutting. 1988. How to Kick the Bucket and Not Decompose: Analyzability and Idiom Processing. Journal of Memory and Language 28 (5).576-593.

Horn, George M. 2003. Idioms, metaphors and syntactic mobility. Journal of Linguistics 39 (2).245-73.

Irujo, Suzanne. 1986. Don’t put your leg in your mouth: Transfer in the acquisition of idioms in a second language. TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 20 (2).287-304.

Jackendoff, Ray S. 1992. Languages of the mind: Essays on mental representation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Grady, William. 1998. The syntax of idioms. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 16(2).279-312.

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