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Review of  Cultural and Linguistic Encounters

Reviewer: Robert Arthur Cote
Book Title: Cultural and Linguistic Encounters
Book Author: Anissa Daoudi
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Issue Number: 23.1780

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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
YEAR: 2011

Robert A. Cote, Sharjah Women's College, United Arab Emirates

'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.

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

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.

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:

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.

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.

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