The Role of Idiomatic Expressions in Second Language Development: A Wealth of Proficiency and a Strategy in Communication
Rajakumar Guduru    
« Back to Index      

For a long time the role of idiomatic expressions in L2 development has not been recognised and even underestimated (Peters, 1983). Recently, these idiomatic expressions within the fields of linguistics, sociolinguistics, and applied linguistics is gaining much importance as much as productive rules (Weinert, 1995). It is also said that fluency is possible without grammatical accuracy but not without idiomaticity. So, this paper brings awareness and educates learners as well as teachers on the researcher’s assumption that the idiomaticity plays a major role in second language proficiency at advanced levels. With a brief introduction, this paper, defines idiomaticity, discusses its salient features that are a part of spontaneous connected second language discourse and presents the role of idiomaticity as a means of strategy to achieve second language proficiency. Thus, learners are motivated to move beyond literal language and to focus more on ‘figurative language’ which helps them achieve command over the language and sound like ‘native’ in their speech. In conclusion, a few suggestions, for the L2 teachers and learners, are offered on how to teach and learn idiomatic expressions.


It has been observed by Peters (1983) and Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) that, for a long time the role of formulaic sequences of L1 and L2 development has not been recognised and even underestimated. Recently, it is said that the area of phraseology has evolved from its peripheral status in Chomskyan linguistics to having a fundamental role in second language description and acquisition (Weinert, 1995). According to Weinert (1995), the ready made chunks of unanalysed language or the formulaic language within the fields of linguistics, sociolinguistics, and applied linguistics is gaining much importance as much as productive rules.

Second language learners, as they advance, should aim at learning beyond literal language i.e. “figurative language”. This figurative language helps learners sound natural when they speak. Today, the use of figurative language or idiomatic expressions by the adult second language speakers has been felt very much in all walks of life. These learners use it in their speech after fashion and for various other purposes to show that their language is highly polished and also to sound very natural in their speech. Therefore, idioms are considered as the ‘felt need’ by the advanced second language learners. These idiomatic expressions are even used in the textbooks and the students are tested on them in the examinations of secondary schools, colleges and even at the university level. So, it is not quite surprising to find the adult second language learners trying to use them more frequently in both written as well as spoken discourse. On these lines, it is quite interesting to look into some observations by the well known linguists in the area concerned. In the process, the terms such as idiomaticity, conventionalised language, formulaic sequences (FSs) have been used interchangeably.

According to Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992), formulaic sequences are frequently found in language use and they also make up a large proportion of any discourse. Erman and Warren (2000), (cited in Schmitt and Carter, 2004) calculated that formulaic language of various types constituted 58.6% of the spoken English discourse they analysed and 52.3% of the written discourse. Foster’s raters judged that 32.3% of the unplanned native speech they analysed was made up of formulaic language (Foster, 2001; cited in Schmitt and Carter, 2004). If the formulaic sequences are so widespread in English discourse, it shows that proficient speakers must have knowledge and mastery of these sequences at some level.

Defining Idiomaticity

Most of the linguists consider the issue of conventionalised language (idioms, formulas, prefabricated patterns, etc.) has been a problem in linguistic theory and is not a widely researched area. Therefore, it is said that there has not been an integrated theory on idiomaticity yet. In the opinion of many linguists, this lack of a coherent theoretical and empirical background creates serious definitional problems. Thus, in general “conventionalised language” has been used by many as the operational cover term; and ‘idiomaticity’ as an umbrella term for all the formulae and fixed expressions.

According to Wray (2000), formulaic sequence is “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 the memory at the time of use, rather than being subject to generation or analysis by the language grammar.”

The simplest definition of idiom, according to Cowie and Mackin, (1975; cited in Liontas, 2002) is, ‘an idiom is a combination of two or more words which function as a unit of meaning.’ Ellis (1996) is of the opinion that formulaic sequences are ‘glued together’ and stored as a single ‘big word.’

From the above definitions we can say that there is not one single common definition for idiomaticity. It is all the more obvious from the fact that Wray (2002) found over fifty to describe the phenomenon of formulaic language. For example; chunks, collocations, conventionalised forms, formulaic speech, formulas, holophrases, multiword units, prefabricated routines, ready-made utterances and so on. The scope of this list made it difficult to even decide on a cover term. Thus, the term ‘formulaic sequence’ has been used based on the Wray’s (2002) definition.


The salient features and functions of idiomatic expressions

We have seen briefly in the earlier section the definition and the terminology by which the formulaic language is known and used such as “ready-made utterances” and “schemata”, “prefabricated routines”, “prefabricated patterns”, “units”, and “formulaic speech”. These terms show that formulaic language is being recognised very much in various texts and genres.

Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) describe ‘lexical phrases’ as ‘the very centre of language acquisition’. It is claimed that formulaic language is so integral a feature of language that it is ‘difficult or impossible to draw a line between a formulaic and a non-formulaic expression’ (Hopper, 1998; cited in Prodromou, 2007).

Experts are of the opinion that idiomaticity is important to L1 fluency. They also believe that it is unquestioned and uncontroversial transition from L1 to L2 fluency via idiomaticity. In the empirical study of the idiom principle, it was found that as much as 50 per cent of the language may be explicable in idiomatic terms (Erman and Warren, 2000; cited in Prodromou, 2007).

It is said that fluent language use is not based on rules all times (Dreyfus and Athanasiou, 1986; cited in Weinert, 1995). All studies distinguish between entirely fixed strings (How are you?) and sequences with open slots (see you ———). This view is taken a step further by, for instance, Pawley and Syder (1983) who suggest that language is a continuum of the formulaic and the creative speech represented in dual form (analysed as well as unanalysed forms).

It has been found that recurring situations in the social world require certain responses from people. These are often described as functions, and include speech acts such as apologising, making requests, giving directions, and complaining. These functions typically have conventionalised language attached to them, such as I’m (very) sorry to hear about —— to express sympathy and I’d be happy/glad to ——— to comply with a request (Nattinger and DeCarrico, 1992). Since members of speech community know these expressions, they serve a quick and reliable way to achieve the related speech act.

Idiomatic expressions as a means of ‘Strategy’ in SL proficiency

Although language is not entirely rule governed, idioms are considered a problem for Chomskyan grammar (Chafe, 1968; cited in Weinert, 1995). According to Yorio (1980) native speakers use conventionalised formulas extensively in their language such as large stretches of memorised discourse in songs and prayers, routine greeting formulas, proverbs, euphemisms, idioms and collocations. It is assumed that these sequences which cannot be easily accounted in terms of generative rules are may be more pervasive than generally acknowledged. It is also said that native speakers do not seem to use all the possible rules available in their language. Rather, in many contexts particular functions are realised by particular forms, suggesting much closer link between forms and usage (Pawley and Syder, 1983; Nattinger and DeCarrico, 1992).

Formulaic language as a communicative strategy: Formulaic language allows L2 learners entry into minimal communication (social routines – greetings). This is due to lack of competence in terms of target language rules (Krashen and Scarcella, 1978; Bohn, 1986). It is said that, under this strategy, imitation and formulaic language are widely-documented phenomena in SLA. There can be complex sentences and pre-fabricated routines with open slots to smaller chunks which are not always recognised as units in linguistic analysis.
Formulaic language as a production strategy: Formulaic language as automatic sequences free the processing time. As a result, they allow the fluency in production and comprehension of second language (Raupach, 1984; cited in Weinert, 1995). They also make creative speech possible. Raupach’s (1984) study discusses the role of formulas in L2 production. He has tried to establish measures of formulaic language as an L2 production strategy. He provides some empirical evidence to suggest that L2 advanced learners make use of formulas in their speech production.
Formulaic language as a learning strategy: It implies that learners analyse memorised sequences and derive rules from them. In turn, learners use them productively. It was noted by various linguists in their experiments on the children’s natural acquisition of English, where these children employ creative construction process which are independent of previously learnt chunks of language, i.e. learners segment or break individual familiar words and reassemble these into single and two word utterances. Studies show that imitation appears to have been more spontaneous than rule formed utterances.


Teaching and learning idiomatic Expressions

The teachers and learners should be aware of the difficulties in learning idioms as there is lack of suitable materials for teaching them. So they should pay more attention to teaching strategies to help learners deal with both comprehension and production of idioms and also to help them to acquire more idioms outside formal classroom instruction.

Teachers should have knowledge that idioms generally appear in introductory reading or dialogue, a definition, translation or example will be provided in the margin or notes, and the idiom will then appear again in the vocabulary list of the lesson.
Teachers should provide additional exercises and practice.
Teachers should know that some exercises which do involve understanding usually require comprehension only and do not ask students to produce the idioms. For example matching the idiom with its definition or substituting one for the other, multiple choice exercises where the correct definition or phrase is chosen.
Teachers may teach idioms which are most frequently used in ordinary reading and conversation.
Teachers may teach learners the transparent idioms as they are easy to understand.
Idioms in simplicity of form and vocabulary may be preferred to those of low frequency vocabulary, in the passive, in the negative and are unusual in form.
Idioms can be added to the vocabulary being learned by including them in dialogues and stories which are created to supplement regular materials, and by providing idiomatic synonyms for
vocabulary words which the students are learning.
Learners may be asked to maintain their own idiom notebooks when they encounter more idioms in their reading and conversations.
Teachers and learners can bring in idiomatic expressions found in comics and advertisements.
Teachers may teach those idioms which contain the same vocabulary words students are learning.
For advanced learners special lessons may be designed specifically to teach idiomatic expressions.
Teachers can devote either one class period per week or a few minutes each day to teaching idioms.
Teachers may provide necessary context for practicing idioms for advanced learners. So that they will be able to guess the meanings from the context.
The learners as well as teachers may have access to a good idiom dictionary when needed.

The classroom practices may encourage the use of formulaic language. But only few studies have addressed the issue of imitation and formulas in classroom SLA directly. Ellis (1984) from his study of formulaic language uses in the language one Portuguese and two Punjabi ESL learners of English, opines that formulas enable the learner to perform a small range of communicative functions. He says that this may lead to increased input for more analytic processes, therefore contributing indirectly to acquisition.

Formulaic sequences may also provide language learners with more than an expedient way to communicate; they might also facilitate further language learning. It is interesting to note that for L1 learners, it has been proposed that unanalysed sequences provide the raw material for language development (Peres, 1983). If that is so, according to Bardovi-Harling, (2002) (cited in Schmitt and Carter, 2004), it is possible that these sequences serve the same purpose for L2 learner.


This paper has attempted to define and discuss the salient features of formulaic language that are part of spontaneous connected second language discourse. We have seen that the criteria used to identify formulaic language vary according to the focus of research, i.e. linguistic, psycholinguistic, first and second language acquisition. It seems in the usage of these criteria there is considerable overlap across the studies. It is possible to integrate the study of formulaic language into a larger theoretical framework which includes both linguistic and a learning perspective and which sees learning, knowledge, and production as closely related. Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) suggest that ‘lexical phrases’ which exist somewhere between grammar and the lexicon may be given a more central role in language teaching and may provide a suitable compromise between approaches which rely too heavily on either the notion of linguistic competence or communicative competence.

Finally, it is said that fluency is possible without grammatical accuracy but not without idiomaticity. In the opinion of the researcher, while learning a second or a foreign language, knowledge about grammar is important from the point of accuracy only. One should be aware of the fact that in the era of communicative language teaching and learning (CLT/L), less importance is given to teaching grammar. It is because, second language learners are threatened by conscious learning or formal teaching of grammar. Hence, all the emphasis is laid on the communicative performance rather than communicative competence. Under this phenomenon, learners are encouraged to communicate more and more and in the process, errors are seen as stepping stones for acquiring fluency. So, learners tend to be choosy and stick to the formulaic sequences or lexical chunks which aid them in their communicative performance. Thus, idiomaticity becomes an excellent indicator of bilingual system proficiency and, as such, it is to be studied and understood.



  1. Arnaud, P. and Savigon, P. (1997). ‘Rare words, complex lexical units and the advanced learner.’ In J. Coady and T. Huckin (Eds.), Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. (pp. 157-200) Cambridge: CUP.
  2. Bohn, O. S. (1986). ‘Formulas, frame structures, and stereo types on early syntactic development: Some new evidence from L2 acquisition.’ Linguistics, (24), 185-202.
  3. Ellis, N. C. (1996). ‘Sequencing in SLA: phonological memory, chunking and points of order.’ Studies in Second Language Acquisition, (18), 91-126.
  4. Gairns, R. and Redman, S. (1986). Working with Words: A guide to teaching and learning vocabulary. New York: CUP.
  5. Granger, S. (1998). ‘Prefabricated patterns in advanced EFL writing: collocations and formulae.’ In A. Cowie (Ed.), Phraseology: Theory, Analysis and Applications. (pp. 145-160), Oxford: OUP
  6. Howarth, P. (1998). Phraseology and second language proficiency. Applied Linguistics, 19 (1): 24-44.
  7. Irujo, S. (1986). ‘A Piece of cake: learning and teaching idioms.’ ELT Journal, 40 (3): 236-242.
  8. Irujo, S. (1993). ‘Steering clear: Avoidance of production of idioms.’ IRAL, 31 (3): 205-219.
  9. Kovecses, Z. and Szabo, P. (1996). ‘Idioms: a view from cognitive semantics’. Applied Linguistics, 17 (3): 326-354.
  10. Krashen, S. and R. Scarcella. (1978). ‘On routines and patterns in language acquisition and performance.’ Language Learning, 28, (2): 283-300.,/
  11. Liontas, I. J. (2002). Exploring second language learners’ notions of idiomaticity. System, (30), 289-313.
  12. Moon, R. (1998). Fixed Expressions and Idioms in English: A Corpus-Based Approach. Cambridge: Clarendon Press.
  13. Nation I. S. P. (1990). Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. New York: Newbury House.
  14. Nation I. S. P. (2001). Learning Vocabulary in another Language. Cambridge: CUP.
  15. Nation I. S. P. (2006). Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. In Eli Hinkel (Ed.), The Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning. (pp. 581-595). London: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  16. Nattinger, J. R. and J. S. DeCarrico. (1992). Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching. Oxford: OUP.
  17. Pawley, A. and F. H. Syder. (1983). ‘Two puzzles for linguistic theory: nativelike selection and nativelike fluency.’ In J. C. Richards and R. W. Schmidt (Eds.), Language and Communication. (pp. 191-226), New York: Longman.
  18. Peters, A. M. (1983). The Units of Language Acquisition. Cambridge: CUP.
  19. Prodromou, L. (2007). A sort of puzzle for English as a lingua franca. In Tomilson, Brian (Ed.), Language Acquisition and Development. London: Continuum.
  20. Schmitt, N. and Carter, R. (2004). Formulaic sequences in action: An introduction. In Nobert, Schmitt. (Ed.), Formulaic Sequences: Acquisition, processing and use (pp. 1-22), Amsterdam: John Benjamin publishing Company.
  21. Wallace, M. (1982). Teaching Vocabulary. London: Heinemann Educational Books.
  22. Weinert, R. (1995). The Role of Formulaic Language in Second Language Acquisition: A Review. Applied Linguistics, 16 (2): 180-205.
  23. Wray, A. (2000). ‘Formulaic sequences in second language teaching: principle and practice’. Applied Linguistics, 21 (4): 463-489.
  24. Wray, A. (2002). Formulaic Language and the Lexicon. Cambridge: CUP.
  25. Yorio, C. (1980). ‘Conventionalised forms and the development of communicative competence.’ TESOL Quarterly, 14 (4): 433-442.
  26. Yorio, C. (1989). ‘Idiomaticity as an indicator of second language proficiency.’ In K. Hyltenstam and L. Obler (Eds.), Bilingualism Across the Lifespan: Aspects of Acquisition, maturity and Loss. Cambridge: CUP.
  27. Zubair, S. (2007). Silent birds: metaphorical constructions of literacy and gender identity in women’s talk. Discourse Studies, 9 (6): 766-783.