Exploring individual differences in recognizing idiomatic expressions in context

Tilmatine, M., Hubers, F., & Hintz, F. (2021). Exploring individual differences in recognizing idiomatic expressions in context. Journal of Cognition, 4(1): 37. doi:10.5334/joc.183.
Written language comprehension requires readers to integrate incoming information with stored mental knowledge to construct meaning. Literally plausible idiomatic expressions can activate both figurative and literal interpretations, which convey different meanings. Previous research has shown that contexts biasing the figurative or literal interpretation of an idiom can facilitate its processing. Moreover, there is evidence that processing of idiomatic expressions is subject to individual differences in linguistic knowledge and cognitive-linguistic skills. It is therefore conceivable that individuals vary in the extent to which they experience context-induced facilitation in processing idiomatic expressions. To explore the interplay between reader-related variables and contextual facilitation, we conducted a self-paced reading experiment. We recruited participants who had recently completed a battery of 33 behavioural tests measuring individual differences in linguistic knowledge, general cognitive skills and linguistic processing skills. In the present experiment, a subset of these participants read idiomatic expressions that were either presented in isolation or preceded by a figuratively or literally biasing context. We conducted analyses on the reading times of idiom-final nouns and the word thereafter (spill-over region) across the three conditions, including participants’ scores from the individual differences battery. Our results showed no main effect of the preceding context, but substantial variation in contextual facilitation between readers. We observed main effects of participants’ word reading ability and non-verbal intelligence on reading times as well as an interaction between condition and linguistic knowledge. We encourage interested researchers to exploit the present dataset for follow-up studies on individual differences in idiom processing.
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