Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Comprehension and Interpretation of Proverbs in L2. (Linguistics)

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Comprehension and Interpretation of Proverbs in L2. (Linguistics)

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The ability to understand and interpret proverbial sayings has been of great interest to researchers in many areas of psychology and psycholinguistics, attempting to account for the representation and processing of figurative language. Psycholinguists have researched proverb comprehension with the aim of uncovering the unconscious mental processes employed in understanding nonliteral language.

As Gibbs and Beitel rightly notice, empirical attempts to define proverbs have resulted in as many as 55 different definitions. For the purpose of the present discussion, I will adopt Gibbs' (1995: 134) view of proverbs, under which proverbs are "familiar, fixed, sentential expressions that express well-known truths, social norms, or moral concerns". While most proverbial expressions are metaphorical in nature (e.g., the fish rots from the head first), some of them may be based on personification (e.g., misery loves company), hyperbole (it's easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God), or paradox (the nearer the church, the farther from God), the presence of meter (as in the proverb you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink), rhyme (haste makes waste), slant rhyme (a stitch in time saves nine), alliteration (live and let live), assonance (a rolling stone gathers no moss), and parallelism (a penny saved is a penny earned). (Gibbs and Beitel 1995). To this list, Kemper (1981) adds another important characteristics of proverbs, namely the fact that these expressions exhibit a "generic" syntactic form, whereby the use of the imperative mood or the subjunctive present tense is very common.

For second language researchers, the issue of proverb comprehension and production seems particularly interesting in light of the fact that it is precisely figurative language that poses problems even for otherwise fluent second/foreign language learners. This paper is an attempt to address the question of comprehension and interpretation of proverbs by L2 learners. The paper thus begins with a review of traditional approaches to proverb understanding and then focuses on two most prominent contrasting accounts of figurative language processing, namely the Extended Conceptual Base Hypothesis and the Conceptual Metaphor Hypothesis. It then describes the study into the comprehension and interpretation of proverbs by L2 learners and examines implications that the results of the study might have for the model of bilingual metaphorical competence.

2. Traditional views of proverb understanding

Traditional approaches to interpreting proverbs and other kinds of figurative language are based on the assumption that literal language is a veridical reflection of thought and the external world, while figurative, or nonliteral language distorts reality and aims at serving special rhetorical purposes. As Bock and Brewer (1980) observe, such approaches postulate the existence of special mechanisms for figurative language comprehension, generally proceeding from the recognition of semantic anomaly at the literal level. Bock and Brewer refer to those approaches as multiple process accounts of proverb comprehension in that, under these views, figurative meaning computation depends on and follows from the earlier, obligatory recognition of literal anomaly.

Temple and Honeck (1999), in turn, employ the term multistage model of figurative language understanding, in order to capture the primacy of literal meanings that, on the traditional view, must be developed before figurative meanings. This conventional position on the issue of figurative language understanding has evolved from the writings of Clark and Lucy (1975), Grice (1975), and Searle (1979).

The multistage model, as described by Temple and Honeck (1999) presupposes three stages in which the listener processes figurative expressions. Confronted with an utterance, the listener tries to infer the speaker's intended meaning, assuming, in accordance with Grice's cooperative principle, that the speaker intends to convey truthful and relevant information. …

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