M is for Metaphor

20 11 2011

As part of the interview process for candidates wanting to do the CTEFLA (now CELTA) course at IH Barcelona, we used to ask them to discuss the following question:

In your opinion, which of the following jobs would best prepare a person for language teaching? (Choose one only).

  •         sports coach
  •         actor
  •         social worker
  •         tour group leader
  •         lecturer
  •         sales person
  •         nurse
  •         driving instructor

What's your metaphor?

The idea (fairly obviously) was to try and tap into their mental image of a teacher, on the grounds that the trainee teacher’s (often implicit) conceptualisation of teaching will impact on the extent to which they identify with the program’s goals. For example, the metaphor TEACHERS ARE LECTURERS clearly doesn’t sit comfortably with the more facilitative teacher role that the CELTA promotes. (Note that it is customary in metaphor studies to represent metaphors using the convention X IS Y).

This interest in teacher’s metaphorical representations dates from a task that was set on my MA at Reading: we were required to experience a series of foreign language lessons (in our case, Japanese) and then – both as a group and individually –  to draw some teaching implications.  Discussing the experience with my fellow ‘students’ , I was struck by the amount of metaphorical language we were using, such as:

“I don’t think the message got through there.”

“I got lost in the amount of information.”

“It was quite difficult to hold on to both structures.”

“You start to see how it falls into place.”

“I couldn’t process it.”                           ¦

“One should’ve focused on the bits of grammar.”

These metaphors became the focus of my assignment, which in turn evolved into an article (Thornbury 1991: you can read it here).  Put simply, I concluded that the metaphors that teachers use to construe learning offer a window into their belief systems, which, in turn, might impact on their teaching. If, for example, you employ the metaphor LEARNING A LANGUAGE IS CODE-BREAKING you may, as a teacher, focus more on the code than on communication, and, by extension, on the way that knowledge of the rules of grammar helps ‘crack the code’.  A recent talk of mine – 7 ways of looking at grammar – takes a similar approach to the history of methodology: the ‘big theories’ of grammar can be captured in different metaphors for the mind.

Other researchers have gone in pursuit of similar quarry.  In an article published in 2001, Rod Ellis used metaphor analysis to compare the way that language learners are construed by researchers and the way that language learners construe themselves. To do this he analysed a small corpus of academic articles on SLA, and found that two dominant metaphors were LEARNER IS A CONTAINER, and LEARNER IS A MACHINE, both of which ‘position learners as lacking control over what they do and how they learn’ (p. 73) . He then looked at learner’s metaphorical constructions of themselves (based on their diary accounts) and found that learners used metaphors of suffering, struggle and of journeying. These metaphors highlighted the affective nature of language learning that the somewhat de-humanised metaphors of the researchers seemed to overlook.

In another very small-scale study (Thornbury 1999) I used metaphors to access learners’ expectations of what a good lesson is like. Using the formula A good English lesson is like [a story, a symphony, a meal, etc)] because…. I found that A LESSON IS A FILM was a popular choice, one reason being that “in a good class there have to be changes of rhythm, it has to be agreeable, amusing, and it has to take place without you realising it. Another student opted for A LESSON IS A PLAY “because one moment you can be enjoying yourself and then at another you have to pay attention to how the play is developing.” I argued that these ‘performance genre’ analogies offer useful pointers to effective lesson planning.

Why is language learning is like ...ing?

All this suggests a useful classroom idea that might raise learners’ awareness about the language learning process: ask them to complete the sentence Learning English (or Japanese or Swahili etc) is like …… because…..  which they then discuss in small groups and in open class. Some picture prompts might help trigger their response.

Finally, as I argued in Thornbury 1991, metaphors offer a potent instrument for teacher development. By reconfiguring classroom practice in terms of novel metaphors, teachers might be assisted in re-imagining their craft.

Rather than, for example, asking “What would be the effect if I did this instead of that?” a more generative approach to problem-setting might be: “What would be the implications if I thought of learning as, say, empowering? Or mythologising? Or as the sonata form? Or as barter? Or as government? Or as dance?”

Dogme ELT represents just such an attempt. By construing learning as emergence, and teaching as scaffolding, teachers are encouraged to shift the focus from knowledge transmission to ‘assisted performance’ (Tharp and Gallimore 1988) with all the methodological implications that such a view entails.

References

Ellis, R. (2001). The metaphorical construction of second language learners. In Breen, M. (ed.) Learner Contributions to language Learning: New directions in Research. Harlow: Longman.

Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and schooling in social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thornbury, S. (1991) Metaphors we work by: EFL and its metaphors. English Language Teaching Journal 45/3: 193-200.

Thornbury, S.  (1999).  Lesson art and design. ELT Journal, 53, 4-11.

Illustrations from Granger, C., & Hicks, T. 1977. Contact English 1 Students’ Book. London: Heinemann Educational.