Bird man

Metaphor matters

Remember what a metaphor is? A comparison made between two different things. All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Raining cats and dogs. Bull in a china shop. And, speaking of bulls, here’s Elon Musk’s recent, clever, nested tweet, written after the epic GameStop short squeeze, “I am become meme, destroyer of shorts.” Metaphors are everywhere and baked in to language arts curricula expectations.

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Metaphors are short-hand methods to evoke in non-literal or creative terms. Jane Hirshfield says they “think with the imagination and senses”. Teachers and writers warn others to avoid cliched metaphors, and to create their own instead, like the one in the comment below the picture.

Metaphors require the writer or speaker to understand their audience. Even though they’re art, and not science, they “can still feel right or wrong“. Metaphors cannot usually be translated literally and can often lead to hilarious moments when naively or inaccurately used. That green John Deere hat you like to wear would make you a laughing stock in China.

Speaking of green, our colours can be metaphors; white is traditionally associated with death in China, and red and gold have strong positive connotations here (there?). Our gestures can have metaphorical qualities, too. Canadians tend to point to their hearts when referring to themselves, whereas Chinese point towards their noses. Where are we?

Philosophers and mathematicians have been haggling about metaphor and symbol as it regards numbers. How do you define zero? What is one? They’ve also debated the validity of using analogical thinking, i.e., metaphor, in argument. Consciousness itself may only be as real as metaphor.

Feminists have challenged our assumptions about categories of language, from pronouns to science to childbirth.

Metaphors capture the dominant scientific models of the times. We’ve been described as spirits, clocks, machines, CPUs, and networks.

Metaphors shape discourse and can become badges of honour or weapons of ridicule. Soy boy. Red neck. Snowflake. White trash. They’re a staple of political cartoons where donkeys, elephants, dragons, eagles, and bears represent political parties and countries.

Political disfunction has gotten to the point where we cannot agree on a shared understanding of reality, and where even our language, ostensibly the same, has split.

George Lakoff, the metaphor master, has written extensively about the ways metaphors structure our realities and shape our lives. He’s also explored their hypothetical roots – up things tend to be good, and down things tend to be bad, for example. We look up to someone or look down on someone. Valuable things have raised prices and cheap things have lowered prices.

We must remember that all language – whether oral, written, or signed – is metaphor. Languages’ symbols exist because we exist and because we have come to accept them, for periods of time and for as long as they sustain our purposes or have been recordable.

Currencies, too. Neither the word nor the currency bitcoin were in existence twenty years ago, and now both are as real as dogs. Speaking of dogs, there’s even a cryptocurrency gaining some traction called dogecoin.

So what? What are the ramifications of all this metaphor talk for the classroom, for learning, for teachers, or for learners? If you’re still with me, it’s this:

Language is a metaphor, an approximation. A massive, huffed-up cooperative enterprise. An emergent coherence. And while it’s hard to say that it controls the categories and thinking processes we have set up in life, it clearly impacts. The models and metaphors in our minds influence the way we teach and relate to students and colleagues.

It’s said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. But the erosion of US and British political and linguistic hegemony and the rise of China and prevalence of bilingualism, mean that there is no longer an English, but Englishes. The borders of English have become fuzzy.

The term that captures this diversity of categories is heteroglossia. Heteroglossia is not just a hippy, liberal, pluralistic (well maybe a little pluralistic) view, but a description of the way that language has always been. It is a counter to the arbitrariness of monoglossic, singular, “fluent”, and written understandings of language. Heteroglossia recognises that there are varieties of language within a common language, equal expressers of human experience, even if those expressers and expressions are not equally valued. Heteroglossia is a concept (a kind of metaphor), but one that more accurately describes our multi-lingual classrooms and the plurilingual experiences of the majority of human beings.

And here’s the thing. As language teachers, and particularly as language teachers to students who are learning English as an additional language, we have a chance to observe the arbitrariness of the categories of language. (Take English’s stubborn insistence on subjects, for example. What is “it” when we say “It is raining?”) We are uniquely equipped to detect the meaning in the alphabet soup (a former colleague’s metaphor) of our ELL’s work. We are arbiters, or, currency brokers, tasked with identifying meaning and developing ways to increase the value of our students’ discourse. We cannot give free rein to our students’ grammars, but we can advocate for more rein.

We are members of the border guard, even if we don’t like borders.

We are members of the border guard, even if we don’t like borders.

We have to determine what’s good enough, such as acquiring literacy or getting a university admission, and assumed perfection, i.e., total fluency or literacy in English. Depending on where our students have entered their educational journeys in English, they will find themselves aspiring to land somewhere between these two poles. In practical terms, making it between these two boundaries would be considered success. But of course in private, international education, the better the university and/or the better the English, the better considered the achievement.

Now, I’ve squeezed this metaphor topic drier than it was at the start, and I’ll try to finish with something more concrete, here, at the end.

Metaphor matters. And it matters in these ways:

Metaphor, like language, works if the audience is aware of the referents.

Metaphors can trap us conceptually, but they can also free us.

Metaphors, like language, are bound, but also porous. We can metamorphize only within the tolerance and with the cooperation of the audience and/or speaking community. But we can expand the palettes and horizons of our audiences’ conceptual understandings because these boundaries can expand more than we might think. We can both/and. We can verb where there were no verbs. Advocate for our students drowning in their alphabet soups.

We don’t deny reality, biology, the laws of physics, or succumb to porridgy relativism. But we can value the sometimes awkward phrasings of our students or non-native English speaking colleagues and say, why not. We do not deny language categories, but neither do we reify them. We can be descriptivists within English and across languages.

Metaphor matters because language matters because people matter because…


  1. 4 notes on this most excellent blog:
    –I know that picture well
    –Lakoff is the man!
    –descriptivists thrive when languages die, prescriptivists….
    –thank you for teaching me the word reify

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