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AUTHOR: Anissa Daoudi TITLE: Cultural and linguistic encounters SUBTITLE: Arab EFL learners encoding and decoding idioms SERIES TITLE: Intercultural Studies and Foreign Language Learning Volume 6 PUBLISHER: Peter Lang YEAR: 2011
Robert A. Cote, Sharjah Women's College, United Arab Emirates
SUMMARY 'Cultural and linguistic encounters: Arab EFL learners encoding and decoding idioms' is a relatively short but challenging text derived from the author’s doctoral dissertation, Idiom-Solving Strategies by Arab EFL learners. The book’s primary theme is ''issues related to learners’ strategies in identifying, comprehending and producing idioms in the target language, all of which are incomplete without the consideration of ‘context’ at every stage'' (p. 8). Daoudi accomplishes this through five chapters, which together offer the following: an awareness of the issues EFL learners face when learning idioms in another language, useful strategies for understanding figurative speech and suggestions for making idiom teaching and learning successful in the foreign language classroom (p. 11).
The book’s introduction provides the reader with background information on the author’s beliefs regarding the problems yet necessity of teaching English idioms to native Arabic speakers. She mentions the debate about whether language learners should know all the idiomatic expressions of the target language ''because they are part of the culture, or simply be content with the most used ones'' (p. 3) based on corpora studies. Based on her personal experiences teaching EFL in Algeria and Saudi Arabia, Daoudi believes ''the majority of language learners had difficulty in recognizing, understanding and using idioms'' because ''idioms were not included in their curricula; nor were they exposed, in general, to the cultural aspects essential in contextualizing idiomatic expressions'' (p. 4). The reasons for these shortcomings are the widespread belief by instructors that idioms are not as important as other subjects, like grammar, and that ''idioms are badly formed expressions in English, and therefore, not worth studying'' (p. 4) at all. Her study aims to bring the value of idioms center-stage.
Chapter 1, ''The development of phraseological theories'', traces the history of phraseology from the 1920’s to the present by first focusing on Russian and American schools of thought and then concluding with a discussion of contemporary idiom theories. It is a lengthy chapter that begins with a brief description of Harold E. Palmer’s noteworthy work on the teaching of English collocations to Japanese students in the 1920’s which provided a ''detailed syntactic classification of word-combinations in English'' (p. 14) that greatly influenced EFL dictionaries for most of the 20th Century.
The chapter continues with the Russian School of Phraseology, consisting of the Broad and Narrow Schools. The former defines ''the field of phraseology as the study of set collocations, proverbs, aphorisms and free combinations'' (p. 15), while the latter ''considers phraseology as the study of idioms only and excludes all other kinds of set phrases'' (p. 15). The views of Viktor V. Vinogradov on free phrases, unities and set expressions, which are further divided into the subcategories of fusions, unities and combinations, are briefly explained as are Natalija N. Amosova’s later interpretations on the same topics. The works of Rosemarie Glaser are also introduced, in particular, her beliefs on ''the problems of translating idioms and collocations from literary, technical and scientific contexts into a foreign language'' (p. 18) due primarily to their creative and stylistic characteristics.
The Firthian School, based on the work of English linguist John Rupert Firth, is explored next. The main concepts are the notion that ''the meaning of words is affected by the words they collocate with'' and ''the principal difference between idioms and collocations is that there are no apparent parts of an idiom that are productive in relation to the whole expression'' (p. 19). The beliefs of several well-known proponents of Firthian ideology such as Terence Frederick Mitchell, Frank Robert Palmer and Anthony Paul Cowie are discussed as well. Lastly, there is a brief mention of The Neo-Firthians, including M.A.K. Halliday’s idiom principle, which supports the concept that meaning overrules grammatical accuracy, and John Sinclair’s belief that ''collocation is a matter of space, distance and proximity irrespective of syntactic mutuality'' (p. 24) and that a statistical or frequency-based approach is necessary.
The chapter continues with the American School of Phraseology, mentioning the Structuralists, Tagmemic School, which groups idioms into categories based on their syntactic functions, Transformational Generative Grammar, in which idioms are seen as linguistic outliers, and Stratificational Grammar (Makkai, 1972). Positive and negative aspects of each are presented, in varying detail.
The section on contemporary idiom theories draws on two models from semantics. The first is compositionality, which follows the approach that ''idioms vary in the degree to which the literal meanings of their constituent words add to their overall figurative meaning'' (p. 33). The other is non-compositionality, which claims that ''idiom meanings are generated arbitrarily and understood by retrieving the meaning of an idiom as a whole rather than by analyzing their constituent parts” (p. 18). This second group consists of three types: the literal processing model, the lexical representation model, and the direct access model, each which is explained in further detail, though beyond the scope of this review (see Cieślicka, 2004). A somewhat lengthy discussion concerning what occurs first in the brain -- analysis of the figurative or literal meaning -- ensues. A few relevant examples from Daoudi’s study are also introduced. The chapter contains many theories, so at times, it reads more like a reference manual than a textbook, which can be somewhat onerous.
In Chapter 2, ''Idiom identification/recognition'', Daoudi presents her first study on the decoding strategies learners utilize during the phase that immediately precedes idiom comprehension. She collected data via questionnaires, observed student language tasks and interviewed 60 Arab students with the goals of exploring systematic strategies and their non-arbitrariness, grammatical accuracy (or lack of), pragmatics, semantics, frequency and context and the roles they play for learners when identifying, comprehending and producing English idioms. Daoudi offers five conclusions based on her study: idiom identification follows a systematic pattern (p. 65), literal meanings are more frequently activated than idiomatic ones, ''identifying idioms cannot be done in isolation from the comprehension stage'' (p. 66), the salience factor assists the learner ''to associate parts of the expression with a tacit knowledge of the metaphorical basis for idioms'' (p. 66) and context plays a critical role in all aspects of idiomatic processing by the learner.
Chapter 3, ''Language transfer and semantic analysis'', explores psycholinguistic theories regarding idiom decoding, so some background knowledge of how the mind processes language is helpful. Topics such as positive and negative L1 transfer are defined and discussed as are how the markedness of an idiom and the extent of a learner’s knowledge of L1 idioms affects L2 idiom acquisition. The primary aim of the study presented here was to determine how both the existence and extent of similarity between idioms in different languages affects idiom comprehension in a new language. Idioms were divided into four categories: true cognates, false cognates, those with pragmatic equivalents and those with no equivalents at all. Again, data was collected through questionnaires, classroom observations and group interviews of presumably the same population sample of 60 from study one. Here it is mentioned that 45 of the participants were male, which raises the issue of possible gender bias. General findings included the positive effects of true cognates, widely-used ones based on corpora studies and multilingualism of the learner on understanding foreign idioms. Lack of target language idiom comprehension was most often the result of false cognates, culturally-based expressions and being monolingual. The chapter ends with a in-depth exploration of compositionality, including the graded salience hypothesis (Giora, 2003).
In Chapter 4, ''Dictionary use, idiom production'', Daoudi brings to light the shortcomings of bilingual dictionaries when addressing idiomatic expressions. This is accomplished by analyzing how Arabic learners of English employ specific skills that enable them to be successful or not at dictionary research and referencing using both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries. Daoudi begins with some rather outdated information based on surveys by Barnhart from the 1950’s and 1960’s on the primary reasons for native-speaker dictionary use: word meaning, pronunciation, synonyms and etymology (p. 102). Similarly, she provides non-native speaker data from research by Tomaszczyk (1979) which revealed synonyms, spelling, idioms and pronunciation as the main reasons, and that second language learners, whose frequency of dictionary use depended on their profession and target language competence, preferred to use L1 or bilingual dictionaries over monolingual target language ones (p. 103-4).
The chapter continues with a brief explanation of how idioms researching strategies are based on their macro-structural level, defined as ''the ordered set of headwords'' (p. 107) and microstructural levels, defined as ''the order structure made up of classes of items with the same function'' (p. 107) (see Hartmann, 2001; Hausmann and Wiegand, 1989). This is then followed by research by Tono (2001) who provided native Japanese speakers with 63 idioms and asked them ''to choose headwords under which they would look up the given idiom'' (p. 109). Interestingly, the challenges rested not in the language learners or their approach, but the mismatch between their research strategies and the presentation of idioms in the dictionaries ''due to the lexicographers' knowledge [or lack of] about users habits'' (p. 109). Daoudi offers more current and relevant data on similar issues that faced Arabic speakers during dictionary research (Al-Jabr 2008; Fateh and Bin Moussa 2007; neither in the works cited) including misleading and/or incomplete dictionary entries and a general lack of knowledge concerning how to use a dictionary properly. It seems that both the learners themselves as well as the texts they employ have a negative impact on their success. A second study is presented in the chapter, aiming to explain why Arabic speakers focus more on understanding idioms than producing them, but it seems oddly out of place. The reasons for the study are valid -- an examination of the roles of target language fluency, context and life relevance; however, the reviewer does not see the connection to the rest of the chapter.
In the final chapter, ''Conclusion and future directions'', Daoudi provides a general review of the book, including idiom identification, recognition, comprehension and production, all of which are covered in much greater detail in the text. It might be helpful for the reader to begin with the last chapter as an overview of what the rest of the text will focus on.
Pedagogically-speaking, it is the very last section of the book (5.4) that offers the most useful and practical information for classroom teachers on the teaching of idioms, including the importance of context, which was sometimes overlooked in the main text. This section, combined with the instructional model found in Appendix 1, is the most accessible and beneficial for the non-researcher audience.
EVALUATION Daoudi presents several challenges facing learners of idioms including the confusion of the literal meanings of the words in isolation versus their figurative meanings when combined in an idiomatic expression, which makes it nearly impossible to guess their meaning. She also mentions the ''difficulties posed by the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of idioms to non-native speakers as receivers of the speech'' (p. 1) and interference issues regarding transfer from one language to another due to the fact that ''a metaphorical concept in one culture does not necessarily evoke the same images in another'' (p. 2).
Because the research in the book is based entirely on the classroom experiences of predominantly male Arabic-speaking Algerians and Saudi Arabian students learning British and American English language idioms, its primary target audience is rather narrow: teachers of such students. However, due to the coverage given to the schools of thought on phraseology, the text also meets the needs of academics interested in phraseology in general. It is important to note, as Daoudi herself points out, that many of the Algerian subjects were also fluent in Berber, French or both, which allowed for more language transfer to occur since multilingual speakers possess a wider variety and range of idioms from which to draw concepts. For this reason, her studies could be replicated using students of any language learning idioms in English.
Much of chapter one’s exploration of Russian, American and current international schools of phraseology is demanding for someone not well-read in the field, and it is not likely that most classroom teachers would find this material easily accessible or useful. By the same token, academics may find some of the text lacking depth as materials are often presented in an abridged form. The viewpoints of many different researchers in the field of phraseology from the past century are presented briefly, offering the reader a solid overview but also leaving him/her wondering how all of this information will fit into the actual studies presented in the subsequent chapters. Despite Daoudi’s attempt to write in a manner that falls somewhere between novice and expert, this reviewer found himself rereading certain sections more than once to fully grasp the concepts.
Throughout the text, the author provides useful information on the major contributors to the field of phraseology over the past century, which gives the reader a solid foundation for further research on the researchers and their theories. One unusual yet helpful component of the text, particularly for classroom instructors, is the model lesson provided in Appendix 1, which offers the reader a practical method for teaching idioms to students of any foreign language.
A rather problematic issue is that no references are listed at the end of the chapter in which the citation appears. Instead, they are listed in the extensive bibliography; however, not all of the works cited are found in the list (i.e., Al-Jabr 2008; Fateh and Bin Moussa 2007; Glucksberg 2001). This forces the reader to search for the sources externally. There are also some minor errors in the numbering of appendices. For example, on page 17, the reader is referred to Appendix 16, which does not exist. (In fact, it is Appendix 14.) Though these issues have no impact on the worthiness of the book, they can be frustrating.
In conclusion, Daoudi’s book addresses the many issues encountered by persons learning idioms in a foreign language. Her belief that ''the analysis of learning strategies in the recognition, comprehension and production of idioms in the target language seems to be incomplete if it does not include the notion of ‘context’ in every stage'' (p. 5) is plausible. Furthermore, the book clearly supports the modernist viewpoint that ''figurative language involves the same kind of linguistic and pragmatic operations that are employed for ordinary, literal language'' (p. 5). This opinion, which directly opposes the traditionalist view that ''figurative language such as metaphors and idioms to be complex and different from straightforward language … and looks purely at linguistic factors such as lexical access and syntactic analysis'' (p. 5) will certainly raise some controversy. All in all, Daoudi meets her goal of presenting to the reader what Arabic-speaking EFL learners experience as they attempt to understand an American or British idiom (p. 6), and she sets the stage for academics to conduct similar idiom studies with other language groups.
REFERENCES Cieślicka, Anna 2004. 'On processing figurative language: Towards a model of idiom comprehension in foreign language learners'. Poznan: Motivex.
Giora, Rachel 2003. 'On our mind: Salience, context, and figurative language'. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hartmann, Reinhard & Rudolf Karl 2001. 'Teaching and researching lexicography'. London: Pearson Education.
Hausmann, Franz J. & Herbert E. Wiegand, 1989. Component parts and structures of general monolingual dictionaries: A survey. ‘Wörterbucher / Dictionaries / Dictionnaires’ 5 (1): 328-360.
Makkai, Adam 1972. 'Idiom structure in English'. The Hague: Mouton.
Palmer, Harold E. 1930. 'First interim report on vocabulary selection'. Tokyo: Kaitakusha.
Palmer, Harold E. 1933. 'Second interim report on English collocations'. Tokyo: Institute for Research in English Teaching.
Tono, Yukio 2001. ‘Research on dictionary use in the in the context of foreign language learning: Focus on reading comprehension’. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Robert Cote received his master’s degree in TESOL from Florida
International University and is currently writing his dissertation in
Second Language Acquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona in
Tucson. He has taught in public high schools and community colleges in the
USA, served as Director of EFL at Saint Louis University in Madrid, Spain,
and is currently the Chair of English at the Higher Colleges of Technology
in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. His interests include heritage language
learning, Generation 1.5 students and their use of language to negotiate
identity, peer collaboration, IEP writing, CALL and ESL/EFL Teacher Training.