The acquisition of Hebrew idioms: Stages, internal composition, and implications for storage

Julie Fadlon, Julia Horvath, Tal Siloni, Kenneth Wexler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The study investigates the potential effects of the internal structure of idioms on their acquisition. It tested school-children (1st to 3rd graders) acquiring Hebrew. Comprehension and production experiments examined the effect of two structural factors on the acquisition of verb phrase idioms: (i) whether the idiom was a full lexically fixed constituent or involved an open slot, namely a free, lexically unspecified obligatory constituent; (ii) whether or not the idiom was decomposable. While neither (i) nor (ii) influenced idiom comprehension in these age groups, idiom production was affected by both. In the production experiment, performance with nondecomposable idioms was significantly better than performance with decomposable idioms across age groups. Further, an analysis by age group showed significant interactions of factors (i) and (ii) for second and third graders. We propose that the main effect of (non)decomposability is due to two distinct techniques (available in grammar) that children utilize for the storage of idioms, and to children's facility with retrieval of units vs. retrieval by composition. Children, unlike adults, store nondecomposable phrasal idioms as independent entries, rather than as subentries of their lexical head. The reason for this misanalysis, we propose, is that children have difficulty reconciling the constituent structure of nondecomposable idioms with their lack of semantic composition. The effect of an open slot differs in accordance with the storage technique: It facilitates retrieval of units because there are fewer lexically fixed constituents to recover, but makes retrieval of subentries harder due to the nonuniform lexical representation of the idiom.

Original languageEnglish
Article number99
Issue number1
StatePublished - 11 Sep 2018


  • Comprehension
  • Hebrew
  • Idiom acquisition
  • Idiom representation
  • Language acquisition
  • Production


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