Figure out or understand? The processing of figurative phrasal verbs by native and nonnative speakers of English
Formulaic language, such as phrasal verbs, can be defined as a prefabricated sequence of words. Phrasal verbs comprise a particle and a verb which present literal and figurative meanings. They can be divided into two types: those with compositional meanings and those with non-compositional meanings. In phrasal verbs with compositional meanings, the verb combines with a particle and the whole construction is transparent from the meaning of its constituents; moreover, the particle can introduce the concept of a goal or an endpoint to durative situations (e.g., finish up). In phrasal verbs with non-compositional meanings, it is not possible to infer the meaning of the construction from the meaning of their separate elements, that is their meaning is non-transparent (e.g., figure out). Evidence suggests that nonnative and native speakers of English process phrasal verbs differently. Given the scarcity of phrasal verbs studies in the bilingual literature, in the present study we seek to investigate how nonnative speakers and native speakers of English process figurative phrasal verbs and lexical verbs (one-word verb)
during the reading of sentences. In an eye-tracking experiment, 24 participants (12 native speakers of English and 12 nonnative speakers of English) were required to read 96 sentences in English: 16 sentences contained figurative phrasal verbs, 16 sentences contained lexical verbs, and 64 sentences consisted of filler sentences. A Repeated Measures ANOVA revealed that nonnative speakers read all the conditions (figurative phrasal verbs and lexical verbs) slower than native speakers of English did on total reading time (p<.05). A linear mixed effects model was fitted with 12 nonnative speakers of English and condition type (figurative phrasal verb vs. control) as fixed effects. There was significant effect of condition type (p< .05) on total reading time. As predicted, our results show that the participants of the nonnative group reread and reanalyzed more figurative phrasal verbs than lexical verbs. A possible explanation for these results is that nonnative speakers of English engender greater cognitive effort in processing figurative phrasal verbs. This might be evidence that figurative phrasal verbs are not processed as a whole chunk by nonnative speakers of English. Our study provides additional support to the view that figurative meaning causes processing difficulty after the recognition point has been reached.