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Bài Nghiên cứu khoa học 2024 đạt Giải ba Viện Ngôn ngữ nước ngoài FBU: Khó khăn và cách sử dụng thành ngữ tiếng Anh trong ngôn ngữ nói

Đề tài: Khó khăn và cách sử dụng thành ngữ tiếng Anh trong ngôn ngữ nói

Nhóm tác giả: Đào Thị Linh, Đào Thị Khánh Linh

Đơn vị: D10.20.01 – Viện Ngôn ngữ nước ngoài

Giáo viên hướng dẫn: ThS. Hoàng Mai Linh – SĐT: 0336618292

Abstract: Studying idioms is essential for language acquisition, especially in the context of English. Mastering these figurative expressions enables language learners to immerse themselves in the culture, enhance their language abilities, and boost their proficiency in English. Despite extensive research into idioms, the ones on challenges associated with learning idioms remain a crucial area. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to present insights into the difficulties faced by English-majored juniors at Hanoi Financial and Banking University (FBU) as well as the strategies employed to understand and grasp these expressions when it comes to learning idioms. Findings of this paper are expected to be of great significance to English-majored students, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers at FBU, and researchers alike.

Keywords: idioms, figurative meaning, learning challenges, learning strategies


First of all, we would like to express our gratitude to Ms. Hoang Mai Linh, the lecturer at Foreign Language Institue, Hanoi Financial and Banking University for her enthusiastic guidance, assistance and encouragement throughout this research. Her dedicated instructions were instrumental in the completion of our paper. We would also like to extend our sincere thanks to lecturers of Scientific Research Committee of Foreign Language Institue for their endless enthusiasm and valuable feedbacks on our research about “Challenges and strategies in learning English idioms among English-majored juniors at Hanoi Financial and Banking University”.

Furthermore, our thanks go to English-majored students of Hanoi Financial and Banking University who enthusiastically supported us to complete the survey questionnaires. Their involvement contributed significantly to the quality of our research.

Last but not least, we are grateful to our family and friends for theỉ emotional support. Their votes of confidence kept us going when our spirits dipped during the time this study was done.


1. Rationale

English is considered a global language and used in every field of our life. The aim of learners is to have good skills of communication in English. In order to achieve this goal, besides good knowledge of grammar, learners need to have a substantial source of vocabulary. Research found that idioms account for about 10% of all words used in everyday conversations (Schmitt, 2000). Therefore, it will be a big shortcoming when studying the language without taking notice of the treasure of idioms and proverbs. Studies show that using idioms fluently enhances communication clarity, boosts confidence, and fosters a deeper appreciation for the culture embedded within the language. In other words, English idioms are like linguistic power tools, supercharging our communication in several ways. They allow us to express complex emotions, attitudes, and opinions with remarkable conciseness and vivid imagery. Imagine saying “I’m feeling under the weather” instead of explaining you are a bit sick – the idiom paints a clearer picture with fewer words. Furthermore, idioms are steeped in cultural references, acting as bridges to a deeper understanding of the values and experiences that shaped the language. Nevertheless, English learners often struggle with comprehending figurative meanings and using idioms appropriately (Ellis & He, 2009), which explains why research on the challenges associated with learning and using idioms remains an important area of exploration. This study, therefore, will be a useful reference for all people who are intrigued by English idioms. Firstly, it is fruitful for English-majored juniors at Hanoi Financial and Banking University (FBU) who struggle with learning idioms to enhance their learning outcomes. Secondly, EFL teachers at FBU will gain insights into the challenges their students face when learning English idioms, enabling them to employ more effective teaching strategies to facilitate their students’ idiom acquisition. Finally, the study may spark further exploration by researchers seeking to establish an enriching and productive learning atmosphere.

2. Research objectives 

This research aims to identify the difficulties and tatics in learning English idioms at FBU and go further by proposing some practical strategies for overcoming the former. By delving deeper into the complexities of idioms learning, the study offers valuable insights for learners, educators, researchers and anyone seeking to navigate the nuanced world of English.

3. Scope of the study

Given the vast array of idioms, the authors’ limited time and knowledge, it is unfeasible for researchers to thoroughly examine every English idiom. Consequently, this study primarily focuses on FBU English-majored students’ difficulties in acquiring idiomatic expressions as well as their tatics for surmounting such hurdles.

4. Methodology

This study falls within the category of primary research. In terms of the study objectives, a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods was employed. The quantitative approach utilized an online survey, while the qualitative aspect involved conducting interviews.

5. Research questions

This study attempts to answer the following questions:

1/ What are the difficulties that FBU English-majored students face when learning English idioms?

2/ What are the strategies that they use to facilitate learning idiomatic expressions?

6. Organization of the study

This study consists of three following main parts:

Part A is the “Introduction that mentions the reasons, the aim, the scope, the method and the structure of the study.

Part B is entitled “Development” consisting of three chapters. Chapter 1 reviews the literature on definitions, common features of idioms and previous studies. Chapter II provides the research context, a description of participants as well as research instruments. In addition, the data collection procedure is also presented. Chapter III analyses and discusses the results of the questionnaire and interviews from the learner’s responses.

Part C is the “Conclusion”, which summarizes the research, showing implications, indicates some limitations, and proposes some suggestions for further studies.



1.1. Definitions 

The literature combines various definitions of idioms from different sources. Zoltán Kovecses and Péter Szabcó (1996) stated that “idioms are linguistic expressions whose overall meaning cannot be predicted from the meanings of the constituent parts“. Langlotz (2006) declared that an idiom is a standardized construction of two or more lexical elements with the composite structure of a phrase or semi-clause. According to Richards and Schmidt (2010), an idiom is a phrase or expression that functions as a whole and whose meaning cannot be deduced from its constituent parts. Moreover, the idiom was considered as a fixed term whose form is permanent and whose meaning is always the same, nonflexible, metaphorical, and indirect. Al-kadi (2015) defined that idioms are not comprehensible, as their meanings are unforeseeable from the conventional meaning of their constituent elements, particularly idioms of socio-cultural, historical, or political contexts. These definitions have the same viewpoint that the meaning of an idiom cannot be deduced from its constituent elements. In this study, an idiom is defined as an expression whose meaning cannot be figured out from its constituent parts. The above definitions show clearly that most idioms are unchangeable in the sense that they have fixed forms and meanings.

1.2.  Characteristics of idioms

There are two most obvious characteristics of idioms. One is semantic unity. The other is structural stability.

Semantic unity refers to the fact that the meaning of an idiom cannot be derived from the literal meanings of its individual words. For instance, the phrase “kick the bucket” does not involve actual kicking a bucket, but rather means “death”. This unified meaning goes beyond the literal interpretation, highlighting the significance of learning idioms as whole units rather than piecemeal.

Structural stability connotes that the arrangement and collocation of an idiom are fixed, which means the words cannot be rearranged or substituted without changing the entire message. For example, “tit for tat” cannot be turned into “tat for tit”. The slight change disrupts the familiar structure and potentially hinders comprehension. Further evidence comes from McEnery’s research (2005) on “idiomatic clusters” which demonstrates that idioms often appear in fixed groupings, reinforcing the concept of structural stability. Modifying this structure can distort the intended meaning, making it crucial to remember and use idioms in their established form.

1.3.  Previous studies 

Numerous research has explored the challenges that arise in learning English idioms. The majority of them focus on identifying common barriers faced by non-native speakers and assessing the effectiveness of various learning strategies in overcoming these obstacles.

Saleh and Zakaria (2013) explored difficulties faced by learners when learning idioms and strategies applied to understand them. The sample consisted of 40 Libyan students. The results revealed that the lack of cultural background and less exposure to English idioms were the main difficulties for learners. Furthermore, the findings asserted that guessing the meaning of idioms from the context was the most used strategy learners utilized to comprehend idiomatic expressions.

Alhaysony (2017) examined the strategies Saudi learners utilized to understand English idioms and explored their difficulties in learning and understanding these idioms. 85 students majoring in English language at Aljouf University participated in this study. The findings revealed that the learners had difficulty to comprehend idioms. They also showed that the most common used strategies were guessing, predicting, and identifying the meaning of idioms.

In a recent study conducted by Ali Ta’amned (2021), the strategies and difficulties of learning English idioms among university students were examined. This research was carried out at Taibah University and involved 129 students from various departments. The findings revealed that difficulties in learning English idioms can be attributed to factors such as unfamiliar vocabulary, cultural differences, and a lack of training in dealing with idiomatic expressions. Recognizing the structures of idioms and understanding their meanings can sometimes pose a challenge for EFL learners.

Previous studies have shed light on various aspects of learning idioms, including the challenges encountered by students as well as strategies for surmounting such hurdles. Based on these valuable knowledge, in the same vein, this research studied the difficulties faced by English-majored juniors at FBU and the tatics employed to understand and grasp these expressions when it comes to English idioms.


2.1. Research context

The study was conducted at Hanoi Financial and Banking University in Vietnam during the second semester of the academic year 2023-2024.

2.2. Research objects

The participants of this research consisted of 30 English-majored juniors at FBU. They were selected randomly to participate in the study. The surveyed participants had learned both general English and English-for-specific-purposes courses. Therefore, they have had many opportunities to be exposed to idioms. In order to obtain high dependability in survey results and qualitative data collection, participants are expected to provide basic information about themselves, such as full names, classes, cohorts and their learning background.

2.3. Research methodology and research methods

2.3.1. Research methodology

Regarding the research objectives, a mixed methodology integrating quantitative and qualitative techniques was utilized. The goal of the quantitative study is to examine the topic from the perspective of numerical data while qualitative research is used to address a research question in which the variables are not required but must be studied (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011). Besides, this study was classified as descriptive research since it focused on current challenges students have when learning and the techniques they employ to overcome those difficulties.

2.3.2. Research methods

The quantitative approach utilized a questionnaire online survey. The items in the questionnaire were also adapted from the appropriate questionnaire from recent studies. The first section of the questionnaire requested demographic information from participants. i.e., full name, class, and course. The second part consisted of nine statements related to the difficulty of learning idioms and strategies to be used in learning idioms. The participants will select multiple strategies they frequently use when learning idioms. The research group took responsibility for distributing the questionnaire online survey to the students. The questionnaire yielded Cronbach Alpha values of 0.72. The surveys were trustworthy since, in accordance with Newman et al (Newman et al., 2013), a Cronbach Alpha value of 0.7 is regarded as a threshold for acceptable and unacceptably unreliable dependability. Dependability will support the research study’s conclusions as being consistent and reproducible, which is crucial to trustworthiness. Therefore, it is supported for the present study’s conclusions the original data acquired.

The interview results were further explored based on similar question from the questionnaire. This procedure is a helpful first step in getting students to provide factual information regarding their difficulties learning idioms and comprehending idiom language. The conversation between the interviewer and the subject might yield further information. The supplementary questions in this qualitative study followed the same format as the questionnaire and asked respondents for further details regarding learning and understanding idioms. The responses to the open-ended questions were recorded by handwritten notes. Six interview questions were combined to get information. The students were required to give a basic description of their class and course. To achieve a thorough analysis of students’ problems, the study also applied extra information on their difficulties and approaches. This interview was based on the theory of Nunan and Trimble (1992) in which the interviewee is free to negotiate the topics covered, but the researcher has some control over the interview’s direction.

2.4. Procedures

A questionnaire online survey using Google forms was created to collect data from April 26th to May 2nd, 2024. Before students received emails attached the link of the questionnaire of the study, invitation emails and permission letters were sent to all of students majoring in English at FBU. Volunteering participants were asked to complete their personal information, including their name and student numbers, before answering the questionnaire. They were also made sure of the confidentiality of their responses. To ensure validity and comprehension of the questionnaire, the instructions were provided for each section of the questionnaire, and the participants were also provided the aims of the study so that the question items can measure what they are intended to.

2.5. Data analysis

To find the answers to the proposed research questions, the study’s plans for analyzing and interpreting the collected data were divided into two phases. The researchers analyzed the questionnaire data, which comprised data reduction, data presentation, and the formation of a conclusion then interview answers. More precisely, the numeric data acquired from the questionnaire was statistically analyzed using Google form statistics, while the qualitative data gathered through interviews was thematically examined. Quantitative data was analyzed using both descriptive and inferential statistics. Statistical measures such as percentages were used to summarize the data. Transcriptions of interviews and field notes were used to analyze the qualitative data. The qualitative data were utilized to validate the acquired quantitative data. Finally, the data were streamlined, sorted into distinct concepts and themes, and analyzed accordingly.


3.1. Findings

3.1.1. What are the difficulties that FBU English-majored students face when learning English idioms?

The information gathered in Table 1 indicates that the difficulties in learning English idioms are diverse and reflect the complexity of the language-learning process. A large portion of learners (54.5%) struggle with a lack of vocabulary, as they are faced with memorizing and applying a large number of new words in the diverse linguistic environment of English. At the same time, a small number (9.1%) lack knowledge about the culture, causing difficulties in understanding and using English idioms in real communication situations. In addition, 18.2% of learners often have problems forgetting the meaning of learned vocabulary, which can reduce learning performance and confidence in communicating in English. Another part (9.1%) feels they lack time to study, causing pressure and limiting their ability to progress in language learning. Furthermore, other difficulties such as lack of confidence, unfavorable learning environment, or inappropriate learning methods account for 9.1%. All of these challenges contribute to the complexity of the process of learning English idioms.

3.1.2. What are the strategies that they use to facilitate learning idiomatic expressions?

According to Table 1, participants tend to utilize diverse learning methods to learn English idioms-the highest proportion was 61,2%, and the lowest was 20,4%. The quantitative data results proved that different learners might employ various idiom- procedures. Most students used strategies for guessing the implication of idioms based on no clues, while guessing idioms through contexts was not applied by most of the students. The findings also indicate that the roles of guessing meaning from the contexts are critical in learning idioms and FBU students had a positive attitude regarding idioms, despite having difficulty acquiring them.

Strategies Percentage (%)
1. Guessing the implication of idioms 61.2
2. Focusing on animated or visualization 37.5
3. Memorizing idioms 45.3
4. Using keywords to learn 49.3
5. Retelling elaboration and paraphrasing 20.4
6. Just learning the familiar idioms 32.9
7. Learning from various media 34.2
8. Employing a variety of approaches 30.3

In a nutshell, English-majored students at FBU often face difficulties in linguistic repertoire, which causes them to struggle to grasp the figurative meanings of idioms, often misinterpreting them literally. Additionally, students may lack exposure to English idioms and that results in their forgetting of idioms’ meaning. The findings also indicate that the most frequently employed strategies are guessing the meaning of idioms and learning idioms through keywords.

3.2. Recommendations

With the aforementioned findings, the followings are some suggestions to help FBU English-majored students in their learning idioms.

Firstly, build a daily/weekly learning habit for idioms. Five to ten is probably a good number for each week. There are many people who learn this way and remember idioms for a long time. Students should not be impatient and overload themselves with too many idioms at a time as “Rome was not built in a day”. By this way, students can enrich their vocabulary repetoire over the time.

Secondly, visualize their learning for better memorization. One of the most effective ways to learn and remember English idioms is studying them through pictures. They will help illustrate the usage and convey the meaning of each idiom. Then the meaning never escapes from our mind.

For example:


Besides, in the studying process, students should do everything possible to create for themselves a language environment to strengthen the enthusiasm in order to be in a relaxed atmosphere to learn effectively: learning and updating new idioms through listening English songs, playing idiomatic games on the Internet and study from other sources such as books, newspapers, magazines, television shows, advertisements and film dialogues where many idioms are commonly used, stick the notes in locations where they will be seen often, think up conversations which allow to use an idiom and practice it with the classmates, etc. Finally, practicing to use idioms a number of times will help learners master them well.


1. Summary of the study

This study investigated the difficulties that learners face when learning idiomatic expressions as well as the strategies that they use to understand such expressions. The results revealed different reasons behind the difficulty of learning idioms. For example, lacking vocabulary, forgetting the meaning of figurative expressions or shortage of foreign cultural background, etc. The results also illustrated the most frequently used strategies among FBU English-majored students. For instance, guessing the meaning of idiomatic expressions from the context, learning idioms through keywords or utilizing visual aids. This indicates that the students use several strategies to improve their learning and overcome different difficulties.

Based on these findings, curriculum designers as well as teachers should pay more attention to the process of teaching and learning idioms and include them in English courses at FBU.

2. Limitations of the study

Owing to the small sample size and question-by-question variation in the survey, the overall findings of the study might be still imprecise. Researchers do hope that we can increase the size of the sample and conduct additional experimental studies to enhance the reliability of the findings in future studies. In addition, it would be interesting to do a second study on the difficulty of idioms and learning strategies using a broader sample of individuals from various educational institutions and cultures.

3. Suggestions for further studies

Due to the limitation of researchers’ knowledge and time, this paper could not go through all aspects of English idioms So in order to get more comprehensive understanding of this subject, it would be great to conduct further studies on this issue using more participants from different places and ideally different nationalities. Researchers also desire that in the future we can continue studying this subject with more focus on factors relating this theme such as history, society, etc. to have a different perspective in the study.


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