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Idioms: Description, Comprehension, Acquisition, and Pedagogy

reviewed by Luciana Diniz - December 05, 2008

coverTitle: Idioms: Description, Comprehension, Acquisition, and Pedagogy
Author(s): Dilin Liu
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 080586346X, Pages: 208, Year: 2008
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Idioms are a complicated aspect of language. They are difficult to be explained, identified, understood, and learned. Given the complexity of this topic, Dilin Liu does an excellent job of providing a comprehensive overview of current research and offering a balance between theory and practice in what concerns idioms in language teaching. The ten chapters of the book Idioms: Description, Comprehension, Acquisition, and Pedagogy are divided into three parts: (1) idioms and their use, (2) idiom comprehension, and (3) idiom acquisition and pedagogy.

The two chapters in Part I present a comprehensive discussion of idiom theoretical research. First, the author discusses the wide range of definitions and classifications of idioms across the literature. This language feature has received a variety of labels such as fixed expressions, stable collocations, core idioms, multiword units, pre- and semi-fabricated phrases, among many others. Because of the lack of consistency in the definition and classification of idioms, Liu points out that researchers seem to constantly redefine idioms according to their research interests. The author shows, however, that the various definitions of idioms have three points in common: a) the meaning of idioms is non-literal or semi-literal, b) idioms are often rigid in structure, and c) idioms contain a minimum of two words.


Part I also contains a description of Sinclair’s idiom principle (Sinclair, 1991). According to this language theory, words tend to co-occur and form fixed and semi-fixed phrases, which are constantly repeated by speakers to perform a number of communicative functions. From this perspective, idioms do not encompass only rare forms such as kick the bucket and rain cats and dogs and, therefore, they are much more present in language use than other theories might suggest.

Part II of the book focuses on the main similarities and differences between L1 and L2 idiom processing and comprehension. In this section, the author explains major theories on L1 idiom comprehension and also highlights a variety of strategies that L2 learners use in order to process the meanings of idioms, such as using contextual information, L1, and pragmatic knowledge. The last part of this section contains a series of factors that affect idiom comprehension, including frequency and decomposability, among many others specific to either L1 or L2.


Part III, the longest of the book, is dedicated to idiom acquisition and pedagogy. After investigating how idioms are acquired (and reasons idiom acquisition is important for language development) and introducing the concept of idiomatosis (i.e., “the malady of blind and excessive use of idioms, or their inappropriate use” (p. 105)), Liu discusses factors that teachers should take into consideration when prioritizing what idioms to teach. Such factors comprise students’ needs, usefulness, frequency, and easiness to learn. Furthermore, the author suggests an idiom-teaching framework, which might make learning easier. In such a framework, teachers can classify the idioms according to grammatical structure, grammatical function, origin and source, topic, motivating concept, among other categories.  


Attempting to bridge the gap between theory and practice, Part III also contains a series of useful approaches and techniques to promote idiom acquisition. The author provides comprehensive descriptions of these approaches, including raising students’ awareness of (and interest in) idioms, developing a habit for observing idiom use, keeping an idiom notebook, exploring idioms in authentic texts, and learning how to organize idioms in a variety of ways. Liu also recommends practical ideas to accommodate diverse learning styles.  


This more practical part of the book also presents ready-to-go activities that teachers can use to teach idioms in their classes. The activities cover an array of topics, including noticing, identifying and understanding idioms, as well as developing interpretation strategies. In such exercises, students are asked not only to identify idioms, but also to guess their meanings and discuss their possible origins. Some other activities focus on register and connotation, among other contextual features. Finally, in the last chapter, the author discusses “issues of error treatment and assessment in idiom learning” (p. 169).


Language teachers will particularly appreciate this more practical section of the book. The proposed activities are simple, effective, and easy to be adapted to a variety of learning contexts. However, the author does not provide a clear framework for the definition of idioms that he uses in the activities. For this reason, this last section of the book is fairly unsupported. In one of the proposed activities, for example, the author suggests that teachers select a passage from an authentic text and underline all the idioms. Because the definition of idioms is problematic and inconsistent (as pointed out by the author), teachers are likely to encounter difficulties in their selection. A clearer framework containing steps that could be used for the selection of idioms would help teachers to perform this task.

Overall, the book is an excellent reference for pre- and in-service language teachers, as well as those interested in the basics of idioms and language teaching. The accessible language, the quick summary and discussion questions that follow each chapter, the glossary, and the annotated list of selective idiom references make this book especially attractive for graduate courses in applied linguistics and related fields.


Sinclair, J. (1991). Corpus, concordance, and collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 05, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15460, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 7:04:02 PM

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