Exploring Rhyme and Reason in Vocabulary and Phraseology

No-one will dispute that language learning is to a large extent a matter of mastering myriads of words and phrases and that it therefore relies heavily on memory. Many pedagogy- minded applied linguists concur that a word or phrase is more likely to be remembered if the learner consciously “engages” with it in one way or another (Schmitt, 2008). This, then, raises the question of what kinds of cognitive engagement with lexical items are relatively fruitful, and how teachers (or materials writers) can prompt students to give these a try. This article considers a handful of proposals for stimulating engagement with words and phrases that are in broad agreement with a school of thought known as Cognitive Linguistics.

Cognitive Linguistics (CL) emerged in the 1980s as an alternative to the then dominant Chomskyan-style descriptions of language, and has been attracting a growing number of followers. Space constraints prevent me from doing justice to CL as a school of thought here (but see, e.g., Littlemore & Taylor, 2014, for extensive coverage). The essence of CL thinking is that language is an integral part of human cognition rather than a separate module in the mind. Accordingly, language should be described with reference to general cognitive phenomena which operate outside language as well (Lakoff, 1987; Langacker, 1987). Another corollary is that, as a manifestation of general cognitive phenomena, perhaps language need not be considered as a system of arbitrary signs1, a system without rhyme or reason for the way concepts and messages are packaged. Instead of being totally arbitrary, several facets of language use may be “motivated” (Radden & Panther, 2004). In what follows we explore this tenet that linguistic phenomena may be motivated instead of arbitrary, and how this can serve as a channel for second language learners’ engagement with (aspects of) vocabulary and phraseology.

Polysemy and figurative language

Many of the early investigations into the merits of applying CL to language teaching and learning concern polysemy. Polysemy refers to words or expressions which have more than one meaning. High-frequency words, such as prepositions (e.g., over and under), are particularly prone to polysemy (see Lindstromberg, 2010, for a reader-friendly treatment of English prepositions). However, as a quick glance at a handful of dictionary entries will reveal, polysemy is the norm rather than the exception in language. Very often, words have a basic, literal meaning (e.g., hurdles referring to the obstacles to be jumped over in a running race) and also figurative meanings derived from it (e.g., hurdles referring to problems or difficulties to be overcome). One can wield a weapon but one can also wield power. One can tackle a player in sports such as soccer and one can tackle problems. Plants may flourish but so can businesses. It is not difficult to see how the more abstract, figurative uses of these words have extended from their literal uses through metaphor. It is not unusual, however, for a learner (perhaps especially in ESP/EAP contexts) to encounter a word used in a more abstract sense first. Of interest for teaching practice is the finding that making learners aware of the literal meaning of those words makes them more memorable (e.g., Boers, 2000a; Verspoor & Lowie, 2003). This is not so surprising, since it is well known that concreteness of meaning facilitates retention, probably thanks to the mental imagery that comes with it (cf. Dual Coding Theory, e.g., Paivio, 1986).

This also applies to figurative idioms. Although the idiomatic meaning of being on the ropes is abstract, re-connecting it to the context in which the expression is used in a literal sense (i.e., boxing) makes it more memorable. Recognition that taking a back seat literally means taking the role of passenger in a car may help a learner infer the figurative meaning of the expression—allowing others to take control and responsibility—that is associated with not being in the driver’s seat. Giving attention to idioms may seem trivial, but studies have shown that even advanced second language learners often fail to comprehend idioms despite the presence of contextual clues (Boers, Eyckmans, & Stengers, 2007), and that this can cause serious communication problems in ESL contexts (Littlemore, Chen, Koester, & Barden, 2011). This is because, far from being the icing on the cake, idioms fulfill important pragmatic functions in discourse (O’Keeffe, McCarthy and Carter, 2007, pp. 80–99).

More impetus for endeavours to make words and phrases more memorable through the use of mental imagery has come from Conceptual Metaphor Theory, a strand of CL which began with Lakoff and Johnson’s seminal book Metaphors we live by (1980). According to this theory, metaphor is not just a trope, confined to literary genres where it serves the purpose of embellishment. Instead, it is a fundamental cognitive ability which helps us to talk and think about intangible, abstract domains of experience. As a result, everyday language abounds with figurative expressions, although we are seldom aware of their figurative nature. For example, expressions such as a chronic budget deficit, a financial injection, economic recovery, and a healthy economy suggest that one of the ways in which people have come to understand issues in economics is by seeking analogies with human health and illness. One and the same ‘metaphor theme’ will be manifested in various expressions, and this provides a way of organizing lexis that may facilitate learning (e.g., Boers, 2000b). Expressions such as being hot under the collar, being hot-tempered, losing one’s cool, adding fuel to the fire and blowing off steam can all be ‘motivated’ as instantiations of a general metaphor which likens anger to heat. The existence of this general metaphor itself is not arbitrary either; it is grounded in physical experience (a rising body temperature is symptomatic of agitation). In a similar vein, setting the stage, waiting in the wings, taking centre stage, playing to the gallery, behind the scenes and the curtain is down all have their origin in the theatre, and the inclusion of these expressions in the English idiom repertoire is not surprising given the cultural significance of this domain. Raising learners’ awareness of metaphors may benefit their engagement with phrasal and prepositional verbs as well. For instance, the use of out in phrases such as find out and figure out may reflect the general metaphor ‘knowing is seeing’ (also manifested in a expressions such as I see what you mean and being in the dark about something); if something is taken out of a container it becomes visible and thus “knowable”.

Words of a feather flock together

The majority of the empirical investigations into the merits of applying CL to second language vocabulary  and  phraseology  teaching  have  been  concerned  with  the  aforementioned motivated connections between the literal meanings of words and expressions and their extended, figurative uses (Boers, 2013, for a review of these investigations). However, interest in other types of motivation, including motivation of form is picking up. One recent trend is to explore potential reasons for the precise lexical makeup of standardised phrases where substitutions with synonyms would convey the same message but would sound unnatural. Time will tell sounds right whereas *time will say does not. Statistical evidence has emerged that phonological (and orthographic) similarity very often plays a part, such that a large proportion of the English phrasal repertoire displays catchy sound patterns, especially alliteration (e.g., bunk bed, fast food, slippery slope, peer pressure) but also (near-) rhyme (e.g., hot spot, high five, small talk, brain drain; Boers & Lindstromberg, 2009: pp. 106–125). Some types of phrases, most notably binomial phrases (e.g., part and parcel, wear and tear, spick and span) and similes (e.g., good as gold, right as rain, thick as thieves) are particularly prone to this ‘words-of-a-feather-flock-together’ phenomenon (33% and 54%, respectively). Of interest for teaching practice is the finding that simply drawing learners’ attention to the presence of alliteration or (near-) rhyme in the lexical phrases they encounter strongly enhances the mnemonic effect of these sound patterns (e.g.,  Boers,  Eyckmans,  &  Lindstromberg,  2014;  Eyckmans,  Boers,  &  Lindstromberg, 2016). This is good return for minimal investment.


Iconicity refers to instances where the form of a word or expression reflects the characteristics of the concept being denoted. Iconicity is the most obvious in onomatopoeia (as in hiss and splash), but it extends beyond that. Evidence for this was furnished by experiments where participants were presented, for example, with the pseudo-words bouba and kiki and were asked to match these with drawings of shapes (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001). Regardless  of  language  background,  participants  tended  to  match  bouba  with  round shapes and kiki with jagged shapes. While “sound symbolism” is far from abundant in language, where it does occur, it can facilitate learning (e.g., Kantartzis, Kita, & Imai, 2011). In fact, simply asking learners to evaluate whether the form of a word somehow matches its meaning fosters retention of both form and meaning of the word (Deconinck, Boers, & Eyckmans, 2010).

General implication and further reading

Inquisitive students will occasionally ask their teachers the “why question”:  “why do we say it like that in English?” The answer to this may often be, “That’s is just the way it is.” However, once we recognize that not everything in language is arbitrary, and that, instead, plausible explanations may be available, a more attractive option is to embrace (instead of dread) the why question, as an opportunity for engagement. The proposal to make the best of such opportunities when they present themselves also aligns with practices informed by socio-cultural theory (Lantolf, 2011).

Of necessity, we have in this short article considered just one facet of cognitive linguistics and have confined our examples of its pedagogic applicability to the realm of vocabulary. More comprehensive accounts of applied cognitive linguistics include Littlemore (2009) and Tyler (2012).

1 The idea of an arbitrary relationship between signs and meaning was put forward by Ferdinand de Saussure over 100 years ago and underpins much linguistic theory.


Boers, F. (2000a). Enhancing metaphoric awareness in specialised reading. English for Specific Purposes, 19, 137–147.

Boers, F. (2000b). Metaphor awareness and vocabulary retention. Applied Linguistics, 21, 553–571. Boers, F. (2013). Cognitive Linguistic approaches to second language vocabulary: Assessment and integration. Language Teaching: Surveys and Studies, 46, 208−224.

Boers, F. & Lindstromberg, S. (2009). Optimizing a Lexical Approach to Instructed Second Language Acquisition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Boers, F., Eyckmans, J., & Stengers, H. (2007). Presenting figurative idioms with a touch of etymology: More than mere mnemonics? Language Teaching Research, 11, 43−62.

Boers, F., Lindstromberg, S., & Eyckmans, J. (2014). Is alliteration mnemonic without awareness- raising? Language Awareness, 23, 291–303.

Deconinck, J., Boers, F., & Eyckmans, J. (2010). Helping learners engage with L2 words: the form- meaning fit. AILA Review, 23, 95–114.

Eyckmans, J., Boers, F., & Lindstromberg, S. (2016). The impact of imposing processing strategies on L2 learners’ deliberate study of lexical phrases. System, 56, 127–139.

Kantartzis, K., Kita, S., & Imai, M. (2011). Japanese sound symbolism facilitates word learning in English speaking children. Cognitive Science, 35, 626–630.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, fire and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Langacker, R. W. (1987). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, Volume 1: Theoretical prerequisites. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Lantolf, J. P. (2011). Integrating Sociocultural Theory and Cognitive Linguistics in the second language classroom. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning, Vol. 2 (pp. 303–318). New York: Routledge.

Lindstromberg, S. (2010). English prepositions explained (revised ed.). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Littlemore, J. (2009). Applying Cognitive Linguistics to second language learning and teaching. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Littlemore J. & Taylor, J. (Eds.). (2014). The Bloomsbury companion to Cognitive Linguistics. London: Bloomsbury.

Littlemore, J., Chen, P. T., Koester, A., & Barnden, J. (2011). Difficulties in metaphor comprehension faced by international students whose first language is not English. Applied Linguistics, 32, 408–429.

O’Keeffe, A. M., McCarthy, M., & Carter, R. (2007). From Corpus to Classroom: Language Use and Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Paivio, A. (1986). Mental representations: A Dual Coding Approach. New York: Oxford University Press.

Radden, G. & Panther, K-U. (Eds.). (2004). Studies in linguistic motivation. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Ramachandran, V.S. & Hubbard, E.M. (2001). Synaesthesia: A window in to perception, thought and language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, 3–34.

Schmitt, N. (2008). Instructed second language vocabulary learning. Language Teaching Research, 12, 329–363.

Tyler, A. (2012). Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Learning: Theoretical Basics and Experimental Evidence. New York: Routledge

Verspoor, M. & Lowie, W. (2003). Making sense of polysemous words. Language Learning, 53, 547–586.

Author Bio

Frank Boers’ initial research interests were in the fields of lexicology and semantics. Most of his more recent research interests, however, were sparked by his long experience as a language teacher and teacher trainer. He now publishes and teaches mostly on matters of second or foreign language teaching, often with a focus on phraseology. Frank is co-editor of the journal Language Teaching Research.


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