In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Representation and Processing of Multi-Word Expressions in First and Second Language Speakers

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Special Journal Issues
  • Defining and Identifying MWEs
  • Production of MWEs in L1 and L2 Adults
  • Processing of MWEs in Children
  • Processing of MWEs in Individuals with Dyslexia

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Linguistics Representation and Processing of Multi-Word Expressions in First and Second Language Speakers
Anna Siyanova-Chanturia
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0308


Multi-word expressions (henceforth, MWEs) are familiar, conventional sequences of two or more words in length. Common examples of MWEs include collocations (e.g., provide service, helping hand), binomials (e.g., bride and groom, research and development), lexical bundles (e.g., in line with, contrary to), idioms (e.g., tie the knot, spill the beans), proverbs (e.g., better late than never, early bird catches the worm), and other phrasal elements. MWEs vary vastly in their properties, but what they have in common is that proficient language users recognize them as familiar, conventional sequences. Because MWEs are familiar, established, and predictable ways of expressing thoughts and ideas, they render our discourse natural, idiomatic, and easily comprehensible. As has been shown in the literature, it is easier and more efficient to acquire and use language in chunks rather than having to create word combinations anew. Chunking has been recognized as an important strategy in linguistic processing, necessary for smooth and efficient language comprehension and production. MWEs have been of interest to scholars from a range of related disciplines—theoretical and applied linguistics, computational and corpus linguistics, psycholinguistics and cognitive science, neurolinguistics, and clinical linguistics. As a result, MWEs have been studied from a variety of distinct yet complementary perspectives that probed their acquisition, on-line processing (comprehension and production), and use by first (L1) and second (L2) language speakers, adults and children, as well as individuals with language disorders. These complementary approaches have painted an extremely detailed picture of MWEs as a complex linguistic phenomenon. The perspective covered in the present article will largely center on the cognitive and psycholinguistic properties and realities of MWEs, with a particular focus on MWE representation and on-line processing (that is, processing happening in real time).

General Overviews

While there are no volumes dedicated solely to MWE representation and processing, the volumes listed below provide excellent overviews of MWEs as a linguistic, psychological, cognitive, corpus, and pedagogical phenomenon. Siyanova-Chanturia and Pellicer-Sanchez 2019 and Wood 2010a are edited collections, while Wray 2002, Wray 2008, Wood 2010b, and Wood 2015 are sole-authored monographs. It is important to note that the term preferred in publications with a more applied focus is formulaic language; it is also the term used in all of the volumes listed in this section. The term preferred in psycholinguistic literature, and one used in the present article, is multi-word expressions. The question of terminology is briefly addressed in Defining and Identifying MWEs.

  • Siyanova-Chanturia, A., and A. Pellicer-Sanchez, eds. 2019. Understanding formulaic language: A second language acquisition perspective. London and New York: Routledge.

    A state-of-the-art account of the acquisition, processing, and use of formulaic language. Presents three complementary perspectives on the study of formulaic language: (1) cognitive and psycholinguistic, (2) sociocultural and pragmatic, and (3) pedagogical. This interdisciplinary volume highlights new work and outlines directions for future research. It is the most recent comprehensive overview of formulaic language currently available.

  • Wood, D. 2010a. Formulaic language and second language speech fluency: Background, evidence, and classroom applications. London and New York: Continuum.

    Examines the phenomenon of formulaic language in second language production. In particular, it explores the prominent role formulaic language plays in L2 fluency development, possible strategies to foster fluency in second language learners’ speech, as well as implications for future research and language pedagogy.

  • Wood, D., ed. 2010b. Perspectives on formulaic language: Acquisition and communication. London and New York: Continuum.

    Brings together the diverse international work on formulaic language. Covers several key topics in formulaic language research: formulaic language acquisition and pedagogy, formulaic language identification and on-line processing, and formulaic language and its communicative functions.

  • Wood, D. 2015. Fundamentals of formulaic language: An introduction. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

    Provides a general background to formulaic language for graduates and early-career researchers. Offers a historical overview of formulaic language and covers a range of topics and perspectives, such as approaches to defining and categorizing formulaic language, mental processing of formulaic language, formulaic language acquisition and use in L1 and L2, as well as the place of formulaic language in language teaching.

  • Wray, A. 2002. Formulaic language and the lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511519772

    This classic is a must-read for anyone interested in formulaic language. An interdisciplinary volume, it explores the nature of formulaic language, identifying patterns across the research findings from the fields of discourse analysis, L1 and L2 acquisition, language pathology, and applied linguistics. The book offers a model of lexical storage, which accommodates the productions of L1 and L2 speakers, as well as individuals with aphasia. Wray defines formulaic language as units stored and retrieved in a holistic fashion—an influential idea widely drawn on and adopted, but also questioned and critiqued in subsequent research.

  • Wray, A. 2008. Formulaic language: Pushing the boundaries. Oxford Applied Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Another classic by Alison Wray, the volume examines how formulaic language is used in a variety of situations. The volume draws on and extends some of the ideas put forward in Wray 2002. For example, while Wray 2002 defines formulaic sequences as units “stored and retrieved whole from memory” (p. 9), Wray (2008) goes a step further presenting formulaic sequences as units “processed like a morpheme” (p. 12).

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