Abstract concepts are frequently expressed in natural language by means of metaphors, metonymies and other types of figurative language. Knowledge and appropriate use of these conceptual instances of actual language use by university graduates are related to L2 mastery, and therefore conceptual instruction is expected to facilitate L2 acquisition. The aim of this paper is to study ESP higher-education students’ conceptual competence and its relationship to their overall L2 competence. An empirical study measures the students’ ability to recognize metaphors and metonymies, including demographic, sociological and individual factors (including the effect of the informal learning of English language by means of extra-curricular activities) as interpretive data on such reflective figurative language recognition. Results indicate a significant difference in learners’ figurative language interpretation across academic disciplines. In addition, English language proficiency and age, together with two sociological factors (regular English-related leisure activities and speaking English on the phone) are significant factors in figurative language recognition in a specialised University context. Age and leisure choices also turned out to be significant factors in figurative language identification and literal meaning choice. The findings of the present study have important implications for the ESP practitioners regarding the teaching of metaphors and metonymies to their students, as well as learners when practising extracurricular English-related activities. It seems of relevance to insert figurative language recognition and use into ESP programs for L2/FL learners at all levels of English proficiency.
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