Interpreting idioms in a second language: The role of context and transfer in interpreting English idioms by native Dutch speakers

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How do people understand figurative speech in a foreign language? What strategies do they use? By means of an online questionnaire, this study investigated to what extent contextual information and transfer play a role in the interpretation of idioms in a second language, controlling for familiarity. Sixty-one native speakers of Dutch were asked to guess the correct interpretation of English idioms with and without a Dutch equivalent, presented with and without context, out of four answer options. The results showed that correctly interpreting an idiom depends on both the presence of context and the possibility of transfer. More correct interpretations were given when an idiom was presented in a context, but only for English idioms without an equivalent in the native language. English idioms with an equivalent in Dutch, often rated as familiar, were mostly understood correctly. We interpret this result as the involvement of transfer from the native language.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)55-71
Number of pages17
JournalLinguistics in the Netherlands
Publication statusPublished - 2022

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