Teaching english idioms of happiness and sadness through conceptual metaphors in Vietnamese context

Idioms are usually defined as groups of

words whose meaning cannot be inferred from

the meanings of their individual words

(Kövecses, 2002). They include metaphors,

metonymies, similes, phrasal verbs, and

others. These expressions have been

extensively used in all spoken and written

genres of discourse (O’Dell and McCarthy,

2010); it was estimated that an English native

speaker may use approximately 20 million

idioms throughout his or her lifetime of 60

years (Cooper, 1998). Due to the substantial

number of idioms and their pervasive use,

lack of idiomatic knowledge can be a great

hindrance to EFL learners’ communication

with native speakers.

However, learning English idioms is not

an easy task. As Liu (2003) stated, idioms are

“notoriously difficult” to the learners of

English due to their “rather rigid structure,

quite unpredictable meaning and fairly

extensive use” (p.671). Moreover, idioms are

not only cross-linguistic but also crosscultural phenomena

According to Cooper (1998), even students

with profound knowledge of grammar and

vocabulary still feel difficult to understand

and use idiomatic language if they are not

aware of the cultural diversity underlying

idioms.

Despite the importance of learning

English idioms and learners’ increasing

difficulties in comprehending and using them,

this area of language teaching is often ignored

in EFL classrooms and textbooks. Among

contemporary English textbooks used in

Vietnamese high schools, there are only 24

idioms presented in three textbooks, i.e.

English 10, English 11 and English 12

without any further practice or consolidation

(Tran, 2013). Many Vietnamese teachers even

tend to avoid using or teaching idioms in

classrooms because they believe that idioms

are too difficult for learners, which leads to

Vietnamese students’ poor idiomatic

competence (Tran, 2012)

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94 Pham Thai Bao Ngoc. Journal of Science Ho Chi Minh City Open University, 7(4), 94-102 
TEACHING ENGLISH IDIOMS OF HAPPINESS AND 
SADNESS THROUGH CONCEPTUAL METAPHORS 
IN VIETNAMESE CONTEXT 
PHAM THAI BAO NGOC 
University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University HCMC 
ngocpham1799@gmail.com 
 (Received: February 06, 2017; Revised: February 21, 2017; Accepted: March 15, 2017) 
ABSTRACT 
Idioms have long been regarded as a big challenge for EFL learners. With recent developments in cognitive 
linguistics, the method of teaching idioms has shifted from rote learning to raising the learner’s awareness of 
conceptual metaphors (CM). This paper provides support for the adoption of CM in teaching idioms thanks to its 
effectiveness in enhancing the comprehension and retention of idioms. Because specific techniques of this approach 
have not been thoroughly explored, the paper attempts to provide and analyze CM-related activities for teaching idioms 
in EFL classrooms, more specifically teaching English idioms of happiness and sadness in Vietnamese context. 
Keywords: Conceptual metaphors; Idioms; Mapping. 
1. Introduction 
Idioms are usually defined as groups of 
words whose meaning cannot be inferred from 
the meanings of their individual words 
(Kövecses, 2002). They include metaphors, 
metonymies, similes, phrasal verbs, and 
others. These expressions have been 
extensively used in all spoken and written 
genres of discourse (O’Dell and McCarthy, 
2010); it was estimated that an English native 
speaker may use approximately 20 million 
idioms throughout his or her lifetime of 60 
years (Cooper, 1998). Due to the substantial 
number of idioms and their pervasive use, 
lack of idiomatic knowledge can be a great 
hindrance to EFL learners’ communication 
with native speakers. 
However, learning English idioms is not 
an easy task. As Liu (2003) stated, idioms are 
“notoriously difficult” to the learners of 
English due to their “rather rigid structure, 
quite unpredictable meaning and fairly 
extensive use” (p.671). Moreover, idioms are 
not only cross-linguistic but also cross-
cultural phenomena (Kövecses, 2002). 
According to Cooper (1998), even students 
with profound knowledge of grammar and 
vocabulary still feel difficult to understand 
and use idiomatic language if they are not 
aware of the cultural diversity underlying 
idioms. 
Despite the importance of learning 
English idioms and learners’ increasing 
difficulties in comprehending and using them, 
this area of language teaching is often ignored 
in EFL classrooms and textbooks. Among 
contemporary English textbooks used in 
Vietnamese high schools, there are only 24 
idioms presented in three textbooks, i.e. 
English 10, English 11 and English 12 
without any further practice or consolidation 
(Tran, 2013). Many Vietnamese teachers even 
tend to avoid using or teaching idioms in 
classrooms because they believe that idioms 
are too difficult for learners, which leads to 
Vietnamese students’ poor idiomatic 
competence (Tran, 2012). 
Due to the alleged arbitrary nature of 
idioms and their fixed structures, it was 
believed that rote memorization is the only 
way for learners to acquire these expressions 
(Kövecses, 2002). However, this learning 
 Pham Thai Bao Ngoc. Journal of Science Ho Chi Minh City Open University, 7(4), 94-102 95 
method seems too time-and effort-consuming 
for the students as the have to acquire a great 
number of idioms by learning them separately 
and passively. Thus, adopting an effective 
method for idiom teaching has attracted great 
concerns among researchers and teachers. In 
recent years, with the significant development 
of cognitive linguistics, educators have shifted 
from traditional methods of idiom teaching to 
raising learner’s awareness of conceptual 
metaphor, the underlying motivation behind 
idioms (Boers and Lindstromberg, 2008). This 
article supports the cognitive-oriented method 
for teaching idiomatic language and also 
attempts to demonstrate how to teach idioms, 
specifically idioms of happiness and sadness, 
comprehensively via conceptual metaphors in 
Vietnamese context. 
2. Traditional and Cognitive Views of 
Idioms and Idiom Teaching 
2.1. Traditional view of idioms and 
idiom teaching 
Idioms are traditionally considered as 
linguistic expressions that are “isolated from 
each other” and “independent of any conceptual 
system” (Kövecses, 2002, p.200). In other 
words, they are simply a matter of language 
that has arbitrary nature with certain syntactic 
properties and meanings. In this view, teaching 
idioms is simply providing a list of idioms 
without systematic arrangements, with their 
meanings and examples. As a result, learners 
learn the targeted expressions by attempting to 
memorize these discrete and isolated entities. 
This type of rote learning may result in short 
retention of the target idiomatic expressions 
(Chen and Lai, 2013; Vasiljevic, 2011). 
2.2. Cognitive view of idioms and idiom 
teaching 
Contrary to the traditional view of 
idioms, cognitive linguists argue that the 
nature of figurative language, including 
idiomatic expressions, is not arbitrary; it is, in 
fact, systematized by the underlying principles 
of human language, thought, and perception, 
which are called conceptual metaphors 
(Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). Specifically, 
conceptual metaphors (CM) refer to the 
understanding of one concept in terms of 
another, typically a more abstract concept (i.e. 
the target domain) in terms of a more concrete 
or physical concept (i.e. the source domain) 
(Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Kövecses, 2002). 
According to the cognitive view, the 
occurrence of particular words in an idiomatic 
expression is to some extent semantically 
motivated (Kövecses, 2002; Boers and 
Lindstromberg, 2008). In fact, a considerable 
number of idioms can be traced back to a 
limited number of conceptual metaphors, 
forming a coherent system of metaphorical 
concepts. For instance, expressions such as to 
brim over with joy, to overflow with joy, and 
to burst with happiness, all relate to one single 
conceptual metaphor HAPPINESS IS A 
FLUID IN A CONTAINER, in which the 
intensity of happiness is understood in terms 
of the intensity of the fluid. 
When cognitive linguists talk about 
metaphors, they do not refer to the linguistic 
expressions as traditional views do, but to the 
cognitive mappings they represent. In other 
words, conceptual metaphors are mental 
categories and thus do not necessarily occur in 
a language, but conceptually underlie all their 
metaphorical expressions. According to the 
Conceptual Metaphor Theory, a conceptual 
metaphor is a cross-domain mapping, i.e. “a 
fixed set of ontological correspondences 
between entities in a source domain and 
entities in a target domain” and is expressed as 
TARGET-DOMAIN IS SOURCE-DOMAIN 
or alternatively, TARGET-DOMAIN AS 
SOURCE-DOMAIN, in which capital letters 
is used as mnemonics to name mappings 
(Lakoff, 1993, p.245). These cognitive 
mappings of metaphors are tightly structured 
and asymmetric. The following table shows an 
example of the mapping of HAPPINESS AS 
A FLUID IN A CONTAINER. 
96 Pham Thai Bao Ngoc. Journal of Science Ho Chi Minh City Open University, 7(4), 94-102 
Table 1 
Ontological correspondences of HAPPINESS AS A FLUID IN A CONTAINER 
Conceptual metaphor 
Metaphorical expressions 
HAPPINESS IS A FLUID IN A CONTAINER 
Source: A FLUID IN A 
CONTAINER 
Target: HAPPINESS 
The container The body a. I was full of joy at the prospect of 
meeting Agnes the next day. 
b. Joy welled up inside her. 
c. I brimmed over with joy when I 
saw her. 
d. He was overflowing with joy. 
e. The sight filled them with joy. 
f. Then, forgetting her 
disappointment, she too burst into 
laughter. 
g. The good news made him want to 
burst with joy. 
The fluid The happiness 
The intensity of the fluid 
The intensity of 
happiness 
The inability to control a 
large quantity of the fluid 
The inability to control 
great happiness 
Here, the mapping is tightly structured. It 
includes ontological correspondences, 
according to which constituent elements in the 
domain of a fluid in a container (e.g. the 
container, the fluid, the quantity of the fluid, 
etc.) correspond systematically to constituent 
elements in the domain of happiness (the 
body, the happiness, the level of happiness, 
etc.). Such correspondences permit native 
speakers to reason about happiness by using 
the knowledge they use to reason about a fluid 
in a container. This process usually takes 
place unconsciously and the speaker and the 
listener produce and understand the 
metaphorical expressions without any effort. 
However, EFL learners are generally unaware 
of these underlying principles, resulting in 
their incomprehension or misunderstanding of 
English metaphors in general and idioms in 
particular. 
The discovery of conceptual metaphors 
has great significance to idiom teaching and 
learning. Several studies have proved that the 
awareness of these underlying metaphors can 
greatly facilitate the learner’s comprehension, 
retention and use of idioms in oral and written 
contexts (Boers and Lindstromberg, 2008; 
Vasiljevic, 2011; Chen and Lai, 2013). There 
are two possible reasons for the success of this 
approach. First, thanks to the teaching of 
conceptual metaphors, learners are aware of 
the semantic motivation behind the target 
expressions and they view these expressions 
as meaningful parts of certain structured 
networks rather than rigid and isolated pieces 
of language (ibid.). Second, the CM-oriented 
approach in teaching idioms could assist 
learners in creating mental images and, as a 
result, allowing dual coding of information – 
“the processing of imagery and linguistic 
information” (Clark and Paivio, 1991, p. 150). 
Since conceptual metaphors are grounded in 
bodily experience and in cultural and social 
practices (Kövecses, 2002), the explicit 
instruction of these metaphors could possibly 
stimulate learners’ visualization of the input 
and improve their comprehension and 
memory. 
 Pham Thai Bao Ngoc. Journal of Science Ho Chi Minh City Open University, 7(4), 94-102 97 
 In the light of cognitive view and its 
achievement in idiom acquisition, this article 
was written as a further support for this 
cognitive approach to the teaching and 
learning of idiomatic language. 
3. Teaching English Idioms of 
Happiness and Sadness through Conceptual 
Metaphors in Vietnam 
In recent years, there has been growing 
interest in contrastive analysis of conceptual 
metaphors in English and Vietnamese 
idiomatic expressions (Nguyen, 2012; Huynh, 
2013; Nguyen, 2016; Pham, 2016); however, 
far too little attention has been paid to the 
employment of conceptual metaphors in 
teaching English idioms to Vietnamese 
students. According to Tran (2012), none of 
the teachers and students in Vietnam showed 
any evidence in using conceptual metaphors 
in idiom teaching and learning activities. 
Considering this situation, this article attempts 
to fill in the literature gap in idiom teaching 
and learning in Vietnam. 
 In the following sections, a series of 
CM-related activities are presented to help 
Vietnamese learners understand and 
remember a large number of English idioms. 
Prior to the elaboration of these activities, it is 
worthwhile to highlight the essential 
principles of employing conceptual metaphors 
to teaching idioms and the selection of the 
English idioms used in the activities. 
3.1. Key principles for applying CM to 
teaching idioms 
There are at least six essential principles 
to remember when preparing activities to 
teach idioms through the cognitive-oriented 
method. Firstly, since idioms are multi-word 
and, in most cases, non-literal fixed 
expressions, these idiom-focused activities 
require students to have a good command of 
English, i.e. at intermediate level or above, to 
interpret their figurative meanings (Liu, 2003; 
Boers and Lindstromberg, 2008). Secondly, 
the idioms presented to learners should be 
systematically categorized with conceptual 
metaphors to enhance their retention and 
recollection. Thirdly, the teacher needs to 
provide learners with various examples where 
the underlying metaphors can be observed so 
that the learners can discover the mappings 
and apply this knowledge to guess the 
meaning of other idioms with the same 
conceptual metaphors. Fourthly, after students 
have understood idiom meaning, form-
focused activities are a prerequisite for them 
to develop a productive knowledge of 
idiomatic language. Then, the cross-linguistic 
and cross-cultural comparison of conceptual 
metaphors should be highlighted as it can 
contribute to the learner’s appropriate 
production of idioms in different contexts. 
Finally, the dual coding of information should 
be further stimulated through the use of 
images, pictorial elucidation and mime to 
commit the target idiomatic expressions to 
their long-term memory. These six principles 
underline the content as well as the order of 
the five activities presented in this article. 
3.2. A selection of idiomatic expressions 
and examples 
Since happiness and sadness comprise a 
large proportion of idioms of feelings (Huynh, 
2013), they were selected as the topics of the 
idioms taught in the five following activities. 
The English idioms, examples and their 
conceptual metaphors were collected from a 
variety of sources by established authors and 
publishers such as Metaphor we live by 
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphor: 
A practical introduction by Zoltán Kövecses, 
Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary (8th 
edition) published by Oxford University 
Press, and British National Corpus at 
www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk. Likewise, the 
Vietnamese idiomatic expressions and their 
examples could be found in published and 
literary sources such as poems, folk songs, 
articles in newspapers, many of which can be 
found in Huynh (2013). 
98 Pham Thai Bao Ngoc. Journal of Science Ho Chi Minh City Open University, 7(4), 94-102 
3.3. Classroom activities 
The following activities are designed 
using inductive approach, in which students 
are guided by the teacher to discover the 
target language. Since conceptual metaphor is 
a new and complex concept to the learners, it 
would be difficult for them to acquire the 
knowledge without the teacher’s careful 
guidance and instruction. However, the 
teacher only gives hints and tells the students 
what to focus on. It is the students who 
actively make use of their background 
knowledge and available sources to learn new 
things by themselves. In other words, this 
method focuses on learners’ autonomy, 
critical thinking and problem-solving skills. 
Their active involvement in these activities 
makes the target language more meaningful, 
memorable, and serviceable. In these CM-
related activities, the teacher plays the roles of 
an organizer, a monitor, and a resource. 
Activity one: “Warm-up” 
The teacher sticks nine pictures, including 
five pictures of happiness and four pictures of 
sadness on the board. These pictures illustrate 
nine idioms of happiness and sadness that will 
be taught in other activities; in this activity, 
they are used only to arouse students’ interest 
in the topic. They are asked to look at the 
pictures, guess the topic of the lesson, i.e. 
happiness and sadness, and share some 
expressions describing these feelings that they 
know. Then, the teacher asks them to work in 
pairs and share with their partner about an 
extremely happy or unhappy experience. They 
are encouraged to use all their language 
resource and are free to express their ideas. 
This activity aims to attract students’ interest, 
energize them and make them feel the need to 
explore the target language that will be taught 
later. 
Activity two: “Grouping” 
Handouts are administered to the students 
who are then instructed to do the first task. 
Twenty idioms are provided in clear contexts 
and categorized into three themes, namely 
UP/DOWN, A FLUID IN A CONTAINER, A 
(NATURAL/PHYSICAL) FORCE. The 
students read the contexts in which the idioms 
are used, guess the meanings, discuss with 
their partners and write the idioms down in 
the right categories. After ten minutes, the 
teacher elicits the answers from the students 
and provides correction and explanation when 
necessary. The teacher can also ask the 
students to find out suitable idioms for nine 
pictures on the board to facilitate their dual 
coding of information and enhance their 
retention. 
These tasks aim to develop students’ 
guessing skill and enhance their retention of 
idioms. Categorizing idioms based on 
metaphor themes or source domain and 
recalling them via pictures are seen as 
beneficial learning techniques because they 
seem congruent to learners’ preferred 
vocabulary learning style (Vasiljevic, 2011; 
Boers and Lindstromberg, 2008). These tasks 
also encourage students to guess the meanings 
of idioms from context, which involves 
deeper processing and can therefore lead to 
better comprehension and retention. 
The teacher uses “Grouping” activity to 
introduce the concept of conceptual metaphor 
to the students. The idiomatic expressions 
categorized according to their themes are the 
surface realization of a particular conceptual 
metaphor. For example, “Her heart was 
brimming over with happiness”, and “Joy 
welled up inside her” are both motivated by 
the conceptual metaphor HAPPINESS IS A 
FLUID IN A CONTAINER. The definition of 
conceptual metaphor is provided. To motivate 
students to learn the new concept, the teacher 
should explain briefly why students’ 
comprehension of conceptual metaphors can 
facilitate their learning of idioms and 
vocabulary in general. 
Activity three: “CM Motivation Discovery” 
To familiarize students with conceptual 
 Pham Thai Bao Ngoc. Journal of Science Ho Chi Minh City Open University, 7(4), 94-102 99 
metaphors, the teacher can clarify that these 
metaphors are, in fact, grounded, or motivated 
by, human experience (Kövecses, 2002). Take 
the pair of HAPPY IS UP and SAD IS 
DOWN as an example, students are asked to 
look at nine pictures on the board again, 
examine differences between postures and 
facial expressions of happy and sad people, 
and discover how it is related to the 
conceptual metaphors. They can find some 
clues to this question by examining the 
pictures on the board and doing the gap-filling 
exercise. These metaphors arise from the fact 
that as humans we have upright bodies. Thus, 
the erect posture typically goes with positive 
physical states which may lead to positive 
emotional states, whereas the opposite is true 
with a drooping posture (Lakoff and Johnson, 
1980). Likewise, smiles in most cultures 
involve an upward turning of the lips, while 
frowning causes the edges of the mouth to 
descend. 
Activity four: “Mapping Discovery” 
In an EFL context, students tend to fail to 
perceive the conceptual metaphors and the 
underlying structures between a source 
domain and a target one. An insufficient 
knowledge of metaphoric mappings also 
prevents learners from guessing the meaning 
of unfamiliar idioms correctly though these 
idioms share the same conceptual metaphor 
with those they have already learned. Hence, 
teaching students about metaphoric mappings 
and how to associate a more concrete or 
physical concept with a more abstract and 
un

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