Of false friends and familiar foes: Comparing native and non-native understanding of figurative phrases

Gareth Carrol, Jeannette Littlemore, Margaret Gillon Dowens

Research output: Journal PublicationArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


Research into figurative language identifies variables such as familiarity, transparency, decomposability and motivation, all of which play an important role in how native and non-native speakers learn, process and understand figurative phrases. However, these variables are not always defined and operationalised in the same way, and are often treated as independent. We discuss these factors as they relate to the judgements that language users make, and as they relate to the ability to correctly infer meaning in a range of familiar and unfamiliar idioms, and novel metaphors. In a rating study, we show that familiarity has a clear effect on perceptions of transparency. For less familiar idioms, judgments of decomposability after the meaning became known were strongly affected by whether or not speakers were correct in guessing the meaning. We also saw clear cross-language effects, whereby idioms that exist in the L1 for non-native speakers were seen as more familiar, more transparent and were better identified. We discuss how these factors contribute at different stages to allow speakers to make sense of both familiar and unfamiliar figurative phrases.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-44
Number of pages24
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2018


  • Decomposability
  • Figurative language
  • Idioms
  • Metaphors
  • Semantic domain
  • Transparency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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