News Release

Relying on native language is the most successful strategy when learning idioms

Book Announcement

Estonian Research Council

Rita Forssten

image: Rita Anita Forssten, doctoral student at the School of Humanities in Tallinn University. view more 

Credit: Tallinn University

The doctoral thesis analysed factors that influence the understanding of idioms in a foreign language. The aim was to identify how transparency and the identicalness/similarity between idioms in the native language and target language influence Estonian basic school students' understanding of idioms in English as a foreign language and which understanding strategies they usually rely on.

Doctoral student Rita Anita Forssten explains that based on her results, both transparency and the existence of an identical equivalent in Estonian facilitate the understanding of idioms, and that there was not a statistically significant difference between the two factors. "The test results arising from the analogy of idioms in the native language and foreign language also pointed at a negative transmission when the idioms in Estonian and in English were only partly similar but not identical," adds Forssten. The abovementioned results support the analyses and conclusions of earlier research, where the source language (and in some cases also target language) has been some other language. The doctoral student finds it interesting that the collected data showed that even 7th grade students in Estonia favoured semantic analysis for figuring out the meaning of unknown English idioms. Both interpreting them literally and linking the figurative and literal meaning were considered as semantic analysis. For example, horse trading is interpreted as switching horses (e.g. "black horse for a white one"). However individual differences occurred: some students relied on their knowledge about idioms in their native language and in fact the support of the native language was the most efficient way for finding the correct meaning of the idiom, although false interpretations of idioms in the native language transferring to the foreign language also occurred. For instance the phrase "kirss tordile" was wrongly interpreted as some object (a cherry) being the best part of something, when the correct interpretation is that this "cherry" makes something that is already good complete, so it becomes perfect.

"Based on the collected data, it is possible to provide recommendations both to English language teachers in Estonia and to authors of English textbooks in order to organise the teaching of idioms systematically," says Forssten. "Since the research results showed that relying on the native language is the most successful strategy when learning idioms, on a beginner level it would be useful to start with idioms that have an identical equivalent in Estonian. Especially with those that also have a component that can be interpreted literally. Still it is worth considering that idioms must often also be taught to children in their native language." Since the results suggested that more advanced students rather favour semantic analysis, the next logical step would be to implement idioms that have a component that is interpreted literally. For example the phrase "talk the hind leg off a donkey" (to talk for a long time). The word talk is interpreted literally. Idioms that have a clear link between figurative and literal meaning but which do not have an identical Estonian equivalent or a component that can be interpreted literally are more suitable for somewhat older students whose understanding of figurative language has already developed. Later, idioms that have a similar (but not exactly identical) Estonian equivalent could be added to the idioms that are taught, but more help from the teacher will probably be needed in order to avoid negative transmission. Non-transparent idioms without similar Estonian equivalents should be left for advanced level (except for idioms that are very common and that students will probably need in the near future).


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