ISLA: Idiomatic Second Language Acquisition

See also the website of ISLA:

Our lab’s at Drongo 2015 and 2016:
In the ISLA lab at Drongo 2016 you can test how well you know Dutch expressions:
Talking like BrugmanKun je praten als Brugman?
Missing the boat’: literally or figurativelyDe boot missen: letterlijk of figuurlijk?
ISLA labs at Drongo 2015:
Do you live up to your Dutch linguistic tasks?
Hoe goed kom jij uit de verf?

Brief summary in Dutch
Waar Abraham de mosterd haalt: Het leren van Nederlandse uitdrukkingen
Uitdrukkingen in een andere taal correct leren gebruiken is moeilijk. We laten taalleerders met een computerprogramma oefenen, en onderzoeken verbeteringen in begrip en productie van uitdrukkingen.
Deze resultaten, samen met metingen aan hersenactiviteit en een computermodel, geven inzicht in leerprocessen en hoe deze processen verbeterd kunnen worden in het onderwijs.

Summary in English
On July 23 2013, the Netherlands were suffering very hot weather with increasing risks of thunder. This inspired the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant to the headline ‘Onweersbuien zetten hittegolf op de tocht’ (‘Thunder storms jeopardize heat wave’). While the Dutch newspaper title is clear to natives, it poses serious difficulties to L2 learners of Dutch who are not familiar with the expression “op de tocht zetten” (‘to put in a draught’ = to jeopardize), because its meaning cannot be inferred from the composing words (although context may help). L2 learners have even more difficulties in actively using such expressions in language production, together with others like “Daar ben ik het niet helemaal mee eens” (‘I do not completely agree’) or “Daar zal ik niet op ingaan” (‘I will not discuss this’). These are all examples of formulaic expressions (FEs), which may vary from ‘frozen’ idiomatic polywords to variable phrasal constructions. Because of their opacity and multifaceted complexity, FEs are much harder to acquire and master for L2 learners than individual words.
In this programme, we investigate how L2 learners acquire and use such formulaic expressions. Subjects receive focused teaching to learn FEs and are tested experimentally to measure FE acquisition, comprehension, and production. Questions addressed are: How does specific training contribute to FE acquisition in L2? How do L2 learners comprehend and produce FEs? How can we model FE processing by L2 learners? Can we exploit the theoretical insights based on novel findings to improve L2 teaching methods?



The proposed research programme consists of four interrelated projects :

  • Wendy van Ginkel: Comprehension of FEs by L2 learners
  • Ferdy Hubers: Production of FEs by L2 learners
  • Catia Cucchiarini: Longitudinal acquisition of FEs by L2 learners
  • Alexander Wahl: A computational model of FE processing

Others who collaborated:

  • Students (for thesis, internship, lab rotation, etc.): Randi Goertz, Manon Hendriks, Johanna Odemann, Tessa Elfrink, and Lotte Minheere.
  • Student assistants: Marcel De Korte, Zina Al-jibouri, and Nino van Halem.

Problem statement and aim

Learners of a second language (L2) are known to have difficulties in processing and using formulaic expressions (FEs), which vary from frozen idiomatic polywords to more flexible recurrent multiword formulas (Pawley & Sider, 1983; Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992). A frequently-used well-known Dutch expression such as ‘hij liep tegen de lamp’ (He ran into trouble, literally: ‘he bumped into the lamp’) links a specific word combination to a specific meaning that has little to do with the literal meaning of the individual words. How do language learners acquire these expressions and at which stage do they learn to process and use them in a native-like fashion?

Many different terms and definitions have been used to refer to such expressions (for an overview, see Wray & Perkins, 2000: 3). In this proposal we adopt the FE working definition advanced by Wray and Perkins (2000: 1):
a sequence, continuous or discontinuous, of words or other meaning elements, which is, or appears to be, prefabricated: that is, stored and retrieved whole from memory at the time of use, rather than being subject to generation or analysis by the language grammar.

FEs are very frequent in written language and even more so in spoken discourse (Pawley & Sider, 1983; Siyanova, Conklin, & van Heuven, 2011). Although FEs received marginal attention in linguistics (Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992; Weinert, 1995), recently renewed interest emerged in computational linguistics (Villada Moirón, 2005; Gregoire, Evert & Kim, 2007), in second language acquisition (SLA) (Schmitt, 2004; Ellis et al., 2008; Meunier & Granger, 2008) and L2 teaching (Boers, Eyckmans, Kappel, Stengers & Demecheleer, 2006; Boers & Lindstromberg, 2012; Boers, Demecheleer, Coxhead, & Webb, in press).

Research so far suggests that even in advanced L2 learners, FE processing lags behind that of other linguistic aspects and deviates from native-like performance (Pawley & Syder, 1983). Nevertheless, the processing advantages generally attested for FEs in native speakers have been reported also for L2 learners (Conklin & Schmitt, 2007). FE acquisition and automatization seems crucial to L2 fluency development (Towell et al., 1996; Wood, 2004), but little is known about how L2 learners acquire and use FEs, and how FE acquisition is facilitated (Boers et al. 2006; Boers & Lindstromberg, 2012).

This programme aims to fill this gap by investigating the acquisition, comprehension, and production of FEs by L2 learners undergoing specific teaching and training to learn FEs in the L2.