Second language learners’ processing of idiomatic expressions: Does compositionality matter?

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Second Language Learning and Teaching


The Idiom Decomposition Hypothesis (Gibbs et al. 1989) states that, depending on compositionality, i.e., the degree to which idiom components contribute to the overall figurative interpretation, idioms will differ with regard to their storage and processing. However, research results concerning processing differences between idioms varying along the dimension of compositionality are mixed and equivocal. The present paper aims to address this controversial issue by exploring the role of compositionality in the course of processing idioms by second language users. The study employed a cross-modal priming technique in which English decomposable and nondecomposable idioms were embedded in sentences (e.g. ‘George wanted to bury the hatchet soon after Susan left’) and presented auditorily via headphones to Polish fluent speakers of English. While participants were listening to the sentence, a target word related figuratively (e.g. FORGIVE) or literally (e.g. AXE) to the idiom was presented on the computer screen for a lexical decision either at the end of the idiom or before the last word of the idiom. Contrary to the predictions of the Idiom Decomposition Hypothesis (Gibbs and Nayak 1989; Gibbs et al. 1989), figurative meanings of decomposable idioms were not available faster than those of nondecomposable idioms. In addition, strong activation was found for literal meanings of idiom constituents, in line with previous L2 processing research (Kecskes 2000; Liontas 2002; Abel 2003).

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