Second Language Learning

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Literature Review

This section will present theoretical background and previous research.

Second Language Learning

Mitchell, Myles, and Marsden (2013, p. 1) define second languages as languages learned “later than in earliest childhood” and second language learning defines the learning of any other language that takes place later than the acquistion of the first language. Another defintion made by Ellis (1997) states that: “ ‘L2 acquistion’ […] can be defined as the way in which people learn a language other than their mother tongue, inside or outside of the classroom, and ‘Second Language Acqustion (SLA) as the study of this’ ” (p. 3). Learning a second langauge could mean that one studies a foregin langauge which is a language that is not spoken in the nearby community, or a second language which is a langauge that is spoken in the surrounding community. However, the expression second language learning is used to describe both the learning of a foreign and a second langauge (Yule, 2010, p. 187).
Before the 1960s, studies were carried out to help teachers improve their language teaching and the studies were usually done from a theoretical point of view. Today, however, second language acqusition is considered to be theory neutral (Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991, p. 5). This means that research confirms that similar approaches and linguistic features are presented in both first and second langauge learning in children. This means that the linguistic and cognitive process of second language learning in children is generally very similar to first language learning. Also, it is stated that the second language learning of an adult is more affected by the first language. Furthermore,the later the second language learning process occurs the more the first language affects the learning process of the second langauge (Brown, 2007, p. 72-73).

Vocabulary Learning

The neglect of vocabulary has been a recurring theme in the literature of English language teaching and learning. It was noted already in the 1970s that there were remarkably few studies done on vocabulary learning that could be of any interest to language teachers. It is said that the neglect of vocabulary is because of the importance that is placed on vocabulary learning by the learners. Regardless of the neglecting of vocabulary, there has been a better awareness of vocabulary learning during recent years (Hedge, 2000, p. 110-111).
The question is how second language learners acquire vocabulary? Taking Swedish students as an example, it is acknowledged that when they start studying English as their second language they have already been in contact with the language when for example listening to music or watching movies. Being in contact with the second language facilitates the learning process of it. Also, vocabulary learning in English as a second language is all about learning the words that one already knows in one’s first language. This means that the vocabulary students have in their first language facilitates the acquisition of English vocabulary (Lundahl, 2012, p. 338).
Tornberg (2009) describes five different learning styles, based on Gardner’s intelligence theory, which language learners use when learning vocabulary:
1. Linguistic intelligence
2. Logical-mathematical intelligence
3. Visual – spatial intelligence
4. Musical intelligence
5. Bodily – kinesthetic intelligence
Learners with linguistic intelligence study vocabulary by writing their own sentences using the words and construct their own word games. The learner with a logical-mathematical intelligence would most likely make vocabulary lists, use dictionaries and play word games on the computer. The student with a visual-spatial intelligence makes use of pictures to acquire vocabulary. Having a musical intelligence signifies that one learns new words with the help of music. One could for example sing the words out loud or maybe listen to the words by someone else. Lastly, the student with a bodily-kinesthetic intelligence would make use of their own body by example dramatizing the words (Tornberg, 2009; Gardner, 1983). Hedge (2000, p. 117-118) points out that some of the strategies used for vocabulary learning can be called cognitive which she defines as “direct mental operations which are concerned with working on new words in order to understand, categorize, and store them in the mental lexicon”. Some cognitive strategies teach words in groups, use keywords, making use of context and similarity to the words in their first language. Other strategies, specifically indirect strategies can be called metacognitive. Such strategies include making word cards, word lists and collecting words from their context.


One specific kind of vocabulary is known as idiom which is a term with many definitions. The availability of many definitions suggests that researchers do not completely agree what an idiom is. It is, for example, said that idioms are of metaphorical origins but that they now are “frozen, semantic units” as they have lost their metaphorical sense over time (Gibbs R. , 1992, p. 485). According to Gibbs (1992) idioms are dead expressions that share the same meaning of simple literal expressions. Gibbs discusses how idioms are explained and defined in dictionaries and it is found that dictionaries give simple definitions of idioms. The article refers to other research done by Cruse (1986) and Palmer (1981) which both claim that “the meanings of idioms are best represented by simple definitions because idioms are mostly dead metaphors” (Gibbs R. , 1992, p. 485). This is something noticed when working with the dictionary of Collins for this study. All idioms are defined with simple literal expressions. Yet, it is important to mention that more recent research done in the field suggests that the idea of idioms as frozen units is not as static as before. Gustawsson (2006, p.7) states that “due to corpus-based research, the view on idioms is shifting. Once regarded as frozen phrases with monolithic meaning, idioms are today recognized as surprisingly flexible phrases whose meanings may be unexpectedly complex”. The online dictionary of Merriam Webster (2015) defines an idiom as “[a]n expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own”. The same definition is provided by Cacciari & Tabossi (1988, p. 688) who define an idiom as “a string of words whose semantic interpretation cannot be derived compositionally from the interpretation of its parts”. This means that an idiom cannot be understood when studying the separate words of it, but one has to study the idiom as a whole. For example, when studying the words of the idiom paint the town red we reach the literal meaning of the idiom which is that one paints the town using the color red. However, the semantic interpretation of the idiom means that one has fun without caring about the consequences. This example demonstrates that there is no obvious relation between the literal meaning of the idiom and the semantic meaning. Cooper (1998) explains that “[a]n idiom can have a literal meaning, but its alternate, figurative meaning must be understood metaphorically. For example, over the hill can mean on the other side of the hill, but the figurative meaning is to be very old” (p. 225). This point of view is also supported by Glucksberg (2001, p. 68) who states“[w]hat sets idioms apart from most other fixed expressions is their ‘non-logical’ nature, that is, the absence of any discernible relation between their linguistic meanings and their idiomatic meanings”. Furthermore, it is stated that the meanings of idioms cannot be determined from its literal translation “nor can meaning always be determined from the surrounding material” (D’Angelo Bromley, 1984, p. 274). Vocabulary learners will, with no doubt, be facing a difficulty if they are not able to define an idiom with the help of its literal meaning or by the surrounding tools as for example still pictures.

Second Language Idiom Processing

This section will discuss the processing and comprehension strategies used by second/foreign language speakers of English to comprehend figurative expressions as idioms. This section will help the reader to understand how nonnative speakers process idioms. Research in this field has focused on the influence of the learner’s first language into the processing of idioms in second/foreign languages.
Second language (L2) learners cannot fully understand figurative expressions in the language they are studying even though they will encounter such expressions in all kinds of discourse: in movies, conversations, lectures, and many more (Cooper T. , 1999, p. 234). There are many strategies of how to learn new vocabulary when learning a second or a foreign language and it is important to know that language learners could benefit from using different strategies (Oxford, 1990, p. 40). Previous studies have shown that the first language plays a role in second language idiom processing. A study conducted by Irujo (1986) shows that it was easier for the advanced learners of English to comprehend and learn English idioms that were identical to the idioms in their mother tongue, Spanish. This means that the more similar the idioms are between the languages, the easier it is for second/foreign language learners to comprehend and acquire these idiomatic expressions. It was also shown that the subjects’ mother tongue was dominant in the production tests they had to take. Again, we are able to see the influence the first language has on second/foreign language learning.
Cooper (1999) examined the processes/strategies of understanding English idioms used by non-native speakers. The study examined how non-native speakers attempt to understand English idioms when they encounter them. The subjects were presented with 20 idioms in written context on the computer and they were asked to identify the idioms on the spot. Participants stated that “a stumbling block in comprehension was often the lack of a clear and close relationship between the literal and figurative meanings of the idiom.” (Cooper T. , 1999, p. 244). This means that the participants had a hard time comprehending those idioms whose literal and figurative meaning was not close. It was found that the most frequently used strategies was guessing from context, discussing and analyzing the idiom, and using the literal meaning of the idiom. These three strategies were used 71% of the time.
The first strategy guessing from context was used 28% of the time. Participants did, with the help of the context in which they encountered the idiom, discuss the context in order to conclude the meaning of the idiom. The second strategy used was discussing and analyzing the idiom and this strategy was used 24% of the time. This strategy was based on general discussions about the idiom and the context before the participants attempted to guess the idiom’s meaning. The third strategy using the literal meaning of the idiom was used 19% of the time. The participants who made use of this strategy knew that the idioms had a figurative meaning. However, they concentrated on the literal meaning of the expressions to be able to reach the figurative meaning. (Cooper T. , 1999, p. 246-249).
According to Cooper (1999), L2 learners must experiment with possible solutions when encountering unknown idiomatic expressions since they do not have the same linguistic competence degree as native speakers do. Therefore, Cooper (1999) suggests the following: “L2 learners must develop an interpretive approach, a heuristic method, for solving the linguistic problem” (p.254). Cooper further defines what is meant by heuristic method and states that “a problem is solved by discovery and experimentation in a trial-and-error, rule-of-thumb manner /…/” (p. 254-255). Moreover, in teaching, the heuristic method encourages learners to learn, comprehend, experiment and solve their own problem. It is further stated that this method captures the processing of idioms for second language learners.
Another method to approach idioms for second language learners is to present a method for comprehending the idioms they face. It has been stated that learners tend to process idioms thinking out loud and it is suggested that teachers can adapt this procedure in class. In this case, the teacher has to help the students to tackle the problem of understanding the idiom. The teacher will have to give hints about the meaning of the idioms and also introduce to them the different strategies, discussed in previous paragraph, that exist to use. With the teacher’s help, students will be able to reach a correct interpretation (Cooper T. , 1999, p. 256).

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Learning Idioms from Written Context

As previously mentioned, one of the strategies used for L2 processing of idioms is to use the context in which the learner encounters the idiom. It is stated that learning vocabulary from context is the most important strategy for vocabulary learning especially for first language learning but also for second language learning. However, it is also stated that the conditions needed for learners to learn from context is not experienced by many second language learners (Nation, 2001, p. 232). According to Cooper’s study (1999) guessing the meaning of idioms from context is used 28% of the time. However, to be able to use this strategy the learners need to know around 95% of the text’s words. Learning by guessing from context allows learners to develop their vocabulary knowledge. In fact, findings from a number of studies conducted in this field present high percentage of success in guessing vocabulary from context (Nation, 2001, pp. 233-234). Using the strategy of guessing word meaning from context is found to be one of the most favored learning strategy among learners of a second or foreign language (Paribakht & Wesche, 1999; Harley & Hart, 2000).
Mediha and Enisa (2014) compared the traditional and contextualized methods used in vocabulary learning and teaching. The aim of the study was to investigate their effectiveness on the acquisition of vocabulary in English as a foreign language of 80 Turkish 9th graders. The results of the study show that integration of literature has a positive effect on vocabulary learning. In other words, using contextualized methods where students are able to encounter new vocabulary in context has a positive effect on the enhancement of students’ vocabulary knowledge. Another study (Cetinavci, 2014) investigated whether Turkish English foreign language learners use contextual clues in the process of guessing new words or not. The study tested their strategy use. The results indicated that unknown words in a rich context were guessed more successfully than words in a poor context.
Karlsson (2012) conducted a study with 15 first term university students. One of the aims was to investigate to what extent students used context to interpret idioms in their first language (Swedish) and second language (English). The results show that in most cases the students made use of the context in order to be able to offer a correct translation of the idiom. Most of the students indicated that they had used the context when interpreting the idiomatic expressions. In a study conducted by Cooper (1998), the results show that the comprehension of idioms is facilitated by contextual support. Cooper (1998) states that “when the idiomatic expression is found in context, learners use an already constructed representation of what has gone before (the context) as a conceptual framework for interpreting a target sentence, or any other linguistic unit” (Ortony et al. 1978, p. 476). This is also found in another recent study by Holsinger (2013) which states that “contextual information of the idioms guides the learners’ interpretations of the idioms” (p. 389). Furthermore, Liontas (2003) conducted a study trying to gain information about how second language learners process, comprehend and interpret idiomatic expressions in and out of context. The study shows that idiom comprehension in Spanish improves if the idiom is given with contextual information. Kavianpanah and Alavi (2008) conducted a study where two important factors that affect the guessing ability of unknown words in context were highlighted. The first factor is what is called reader-related variables which include the reader’s vocabulary size, knowledge of grammar, language proficiency, and cognitive and mental effort. The second factor is the text-related variables which include the characteristics of the words in the text, the presence of contextual clues in the text, and topic familiarity. All of these factors affect how well or bad the language learner is able to guess the meaning of unknown words. Since there are so many factors affecting the guessing of the words in context, the researcher chose to study how precise the understanding of English foreign language learners of unknown words is when guessing words in context. However, the results of the study point out that the reliability of the learners’ assessment is very low. According to the researcher of the study it is due to the fact that English second language learners are not aware of the fact that they do not know the meaning of unknown words and because of this their guessing is not reliable. The findings of this study are indeed interesting since guessing from context it the most preferable strategy among second language learners.
The general idea found in the studies presented above is that context facilitates the comprehension of vocabulary as well as idiomatic expressions. Guessing word meaning from context is one of the most preferred vocabulary learning strategies.

Learning Idioms with Still Pictures

Working with words in their context is one strategy in order to acquire new vocabulary. However, it is not the only strategy. One of the strategies one could use is to work with vocabulary together with visual aids in order to comprehend. Al-Seghayer (2001, p. 226) claims that “exposing learners to multiple modalities of presentation (i.e., printed text, sound, picture, or video) produces a language-learning environment which can have a real impact on learning”. In order to learn new words, it is very useful to link the verbal with the visual because images will then be transferred to long-term memory (Oxford, 1990, p. 40).
Furthermore, it is stated that using strategies to apply images is very useful for learning new expressions that one has encountered before. Also it is a good way to remember the words one has encountered (Oxford, 1990, p. 61). Additionally, it is preferable to use for teaching in order for the students to achieve knowledge that is transferred directly to long-term memory (Olivestam & Ott, 2010, p. 115). It is also claimed that the learning process of vocabulary is faster when students see a word/expression together with a picture/object (Hatch & Brown, 1995, p. 375). Learning idioms, or vocabulary for that matter, with the help of pictures is found to be very useful for students with dyslexia. Visualizing text as images makes them acquire the words/idioms easier (Boström & Svantesson, 2007, p.59).
Boers (2009) conducted a study with Dutch students in Brussels where he examined the effect of pictorial education and found that using pictures to illustrate the meaning of idioms has a distracting effect on idiom comprehension among the students. However, another study conducted by Nasab and Hesabi (2014) found differing results on the impact of pictures on idiom comprehension. They conducted an experiment where they divided 39 English translation and literature students into two groups which worked with idioms differently. Group 1, the control group, was presented to the idioms with definition and examples whereas Group 2, picture group, was presented to the idioms with definition, examples and pictures. The result of the study shows that there is a positive correlation between the subjects’ use of pictures and learning styles when working with idioms. This means that Iranian learners seem to gain from the use of pictures and illustrations which is a conclusion that contradicts Boers findings. Another study (Fotovatnia & Khaki, 2012) also investigated the effect of using pictures on the learning of 20 idioms by 68 Iranians. The study compared the effect of using pictures for idiom comprehension with giving Persian translation equivalent or English definition of the idioms. In all conducted tests, the picture group outperformed the other group. The pictures used in this study enhanced the subjects’ understanding of the idiom as well as preserving the idiom in the memory. Moreover, Ghaderia and Afshinfar (2014) investigated the effects of using animated versus static funny pictures on idiom comprehension and intake. The aim of the study was to find out whether funny pictures could lead to higher intake of English idioms among the Iranian English learners. The results of the study show that using pictures, more specifically animated funny pictures, could enhance learners’ intake and retention of idioms.

Table of contents :

1. Introduction
1.1 Aim and Research Questions
1.2 Structure
2. Literature Review
2.1 Second Language Learning
2.2 Vocabulary Learning
2.3 Idioms
2.4 Second Language Idiom Processing
2.4.1 Learning Idioms from Written Context
2.4.2. Learning Idioms with Still Pictures
3. Methodology
3.1 Experiment
3.2 Questionnaire
3.3 Ethical Considerations
4. Results
4.1 Pre-test – Group 1: Written context
4.2 Pre-test – Group 2: Visual context
4.3 Comparison between Group 1 & 2 (Pre-test)
4.4 Post-test (1) – Group 1: Written Context
4.5 Post-test (1) – Group 2: Visual Context
4.6 Comparison between Group 1 & 2: Post-test (1)
4.7 Post-test (2) – Group 1: Written Context
4.8 Post-test (2) – Group 2: Visual Context
4.9 Comparison between Group 1 & 2 (Post-test 2)
4.10 General comparison between Group 1 & 2
5. Conclusions
Appendix 1 – Idioms in written context
Appendix 2 – Illustrations of idioms
Appendix 3 – Questionnaire


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