The Dynamics of Understanding Idiomatic Expressions in Language Learners
Idioms provide a particularly prominent example of language that can be both compositional and appears also to be, at its core, non-compositional. Consider the sentence Lisa got a grip on it. Taken literally, this sentence implies that Lisa grabbed something with her hands. However, there is a second, non-literal meaning according to which Lisa mastered or controlled something, for example, her exam anxiety. This figurative meaning cannot be directly derived via meaning composition of the individual constituent words of the sentence. One core issue this raises is whether idioms are represented and accessed holistically or in tandem with composition of the meaning of individual constituents. Here we follow the hypotheses that (i) early activation of non-decomposable figurative meaning along with the composition of literal meaning is a hallmark of cognitively and linguistically experienced language users, and that (ii) parallel processing in experienced adult listeners is preceded by serial processing mechanisms in ontogenetic development, and that (iii) strength and timing of figurative meaning activation varies dynamically with linguistic and situational context. These hypotheses will be investigated by taking the example of idiomatic expressions and testing first and second language learners in a series of behavioral and neurolinguistics comprehension experiments.