English idioms: Simplifying the acquisition of idioms for learners

Idioms are regarded as particularly challenging when it comes to learning a second language. And yet, the comprehension and appropriate use of these expressions can serve to demonstrate greater linguistic proficiency. An Austrian-Russian project is now set to explore how English language learners from two different linguistic and cultural backgrounds approach the challenge of learning idioms. The project is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF.

In English, when people use the expression “to spill the beans”, they mean “to divulge a secret”. What the spilling of beans has to do with revealing hidden knowledge is not immediately obvious. Alexander Onysko, who heads the project at the University of Klagenfurt, elaborates on the project background: “Findings from past research have revealed that the lack of transparency in terms of meaning can often be attributed to the figurative use of language, and especially to the use of metaphors.”

Together with their Russian project partners at Tver State University, researchers Alexander Onysko and Carina Rasse from the Department of English and American Studies aim to examine whether conceptual metaphors and accompanying visual aids can assist English language learners when it comes to learning idioms. Their focus is on learners who represent two different first languages and cultures (German and Russian). To achieve their objective, the project team has designed a series of experiments geared towards finding out what kind of information is most beneficial for the learning process.

“The first experiment will concentrate on the strategies English language learners use to interpret unfamiliar idiomatic expressions. The results gained from this study will provide an insight into the role of figurative processes in the construction of meaning and will also shed light on the potential transfer from the use of idioms in the learners’ first language”, Alexander Onysko explains. The second experiment will take a closer look at the relevance of different types of accompanying graphical illustrations. Finally, the project will conclude with an analysis of the effectiveness of combining metaphors and visual aids when learning idioms.

The results of the project, which has been awarded €388,000 in funding, will be used, for example, to develop guidelines and materials that will provide support to English language learners and teachers beyond their specific first language contexts.

The project entitled “Metaphors and visual aids in learning English idioms” is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF. It is due to commence in September 2021 and will run for four years.