What is it about?

Idioms are expressions within a language that are not interpreted literally. When we read "throw the baby out with the bathwater" we don't think about *literally* throwing a baby out with their bathwater, but we interpret it to mean "accidentally getting rid of something good when you try to get rid of something bad". Idioms often have some specific history of cultural usage. We wondered if people would still recognize the non-literal meaning of an idioms from their native language that had been translated into a second language. We presented English speakers and Mandarin-English bilinguals with English idioms and Chinese idioms that were translated into English and asked them to respond to the final word. English participants showed advantage when processing English idioms. Curiously both groups showed some advantage for the translated idioms.

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Why is it important?

It's important to understand how translated expressions are interpreted. Multilingual people might respond differently to idioms in their own language versus the translation of those idioms in another. This could have some intended (or unintended) consequences in dialogue and discourse, and so understanding how it happens is important for effective communication


One of the reasons I got interested in this is that a few years ago I had a question on an exam I was giving that use the expression "in a nutshell". Several students were unfamiliar with the idiom and raised their hand for clarification. It got me thinking about the challenges of ensure understanding across different language groups and cultures.

John Paul Minda
Western University

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This page is a summary of: An investigation of idiom processing advantage using translated familiar idioms., Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale, June 2021, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/cep0000245.
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