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Metaphors We Can Learn By:
How insights from cognitive linguistic research can improve the teaching/learning of figurative language.
by Diane Ponterotto

One of the many problems in the teaching/learning of a foreign language is the acquisition of competence in the area of figurative language. All aspects of figurativeness (metaphor, idiomaticity, and semantic extension) seem to present difficulty for learners. The ability to grasp expressions like "She cast a spell over me" is considered characteristic of advanced stages of language competence. Most textbooks skirt the issue of figurativeness and concentrate on the denotative aspects of language. Although some idiomatic phrases are usually included in first-level coursebooks, they are usually presented as exceptions to the rule, things to be learned very often as fixed expressions and to be used in specific contextual situations. In later phases, work on figurativeness is suggested through reading and vocabulary building exercises, and students are often referred to specialized learner dictionaries of idioms, phrasal verbs, etc. It is common that intensive work on the figurative use of language is left to courses on literature, and metaphor especially is tackled through the presentation of literary texts.

Literal vs. figurative

Underlying this common practice in L2 is the long-held philosophical and linguistic conviction of a strong distinction between the two levels of language: literal and figurative . In the tradition of classical rhetoric, the primary aim of language is considered to be the description of the world, the transparent representation of the facts of reality. Any other usage is a departure from the ordinary mode of language. Language which means (or intends to mean) what it says, and which uses words in their "standard sense," derived from the common practice of ordinary speakers of the language, is said to be literal. Figurative language is language which doesn't mean what it says. When Shelley writes in Love's Philosophy :

See the mountains kiss high heaven

And the waves clasp one another;

he manipulates language for poetic effects, since mountains do not kiss and waves do not embrace. He transfers the terms of one object to another, by attributing the qualities of human beings (kissing and embracing) to elements of nature (sea and mountains). Figurative language then is considered to be a principle of poetry, distinct from ordinary language, useful for the purpose of special, ornamental, aesthetic effects. In a certain sense figurative language is seen to deliberately interfere with the system of literal usage. (See Hawkes 1972.)

Rethinking the classical distinction

It is important for applied linguists, foreign-language teachers, materials writers, etc., to be aware of the fact that recent trends in contemporary linguistics have questioned this premise. Where do we draw the line between literalness and figurativeness in expressions like the following: (see Footnote 1 )

  1. Those are high stakes.
  2. He's bluffing.
  3. He's holding all the aces.
  4. The odds are against me.
  5. That's the luck of the draw.

Example 5 is obviously a very figurative way of speaking. Sentences 1 and 2 would probably be accepted as quasi-literal due to their simple syntactic structure and to their frequency in everyday usage. Sentences 3 and 4 could be judged somewhat in- between. Yet on closer look, all five sentences use idiomatic expressions.

The awareness of the necessity to rethink the classical distinction between the literal and figurative levels of meaning has come from various directions. Many experiments in psychology have demonstrated that the mind activates the same strategies in the processing of both literal and figurative meaning (Ortony 1979). Studies in linguistics, in psycholinguistics, in philosophy, in semiotics, and in literary semantics have all demonstrated that the understanding of what constitutes figurativeness is extremely complex, leading to the suggestion that the literal and figurative levels of language are far less distinguishable than previously thought.(See Ortony 1979)

The most convincing contribution to this question comes from the area of cognitive linguistics. One of its major theorists, Ronald Langacker, has argued that syntax is not autonomous, that grammar is symbolic in nature, that there is little distinction between grammar and lexicon, and that semantic structure is not universal but language specific. One of the questions that stimulated a cognitive approach to language description was the problem of figurativeness. Noting that figurative language is generally ignored in current linguistic theory, Langacker (1987:1) observed:

It would be hard to find anything more pervasive andfundamental in language, even (I maintain) in the domain ofgrammatical structure; if figurative language weresystematically eliminated from our data base, little if anydata would remain. We therefore need a way of conceiving anddescribing grammatical structure that accommodates figurativelanguage as a natural, expected phenomenon rather than aspecial, problematic one. An adequate conceptual framework forlinguistic analysis should view figurative language not as aproblem but as part of the solution.

If we accept this premise, that is, if we admit that figurativeness is a natural and common phenomenon in language, then all L2 programs must give ample space to aspects of idiomaticity, polysemy, semantic extension, and the metaphorical traditions and potentialities of the target language.


Now, although the theoretical aspects of cognitive grammar may be of little interest to classroom teachers, there is one area that I am sure they will find particularly stimulating. This is the work that the American linguist George Lakoff has done on metaphor. One of his most popular efforts was a collaboration with the philosopher Mark Johnson entitled Metaphors We Live By (1980). In this seminal study, Lakoff and Johnson undermine the very basis of the literal/figurative distinction in language. They demonstrate that metaphor is not a "special" use of language but pervades all interaction. They claim that metaphor in language is the result of the analogical nature of human conceptualization: "Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature." Metaphor is possible in language because it is present in the mind. To demonstrate this, Lakoff and Johnson take the concept ARGUMENT and note that it is often described in English in terms of WAR.


Your claims are indefensible .

He attacked every weak point in my argument.

His criticisms were right on target .

I demolished his argument.

I've never won an argument with him.

You disagree? Okay, shoot !

If you use that strategy , he'll wipe you out . He shot down all of my arguments.

The words in *italics* all refer to the semantic domain of war, not arguments. The war lexemes are transferred to the domain of argument. When confronted with this phenomenon, we often speak of figurative use, but this use is not necessarily "special" but pervades everyday language. Moreover, when an analogy is productive, i.e., when we have a multitude of expressions which derive from the same analogy, we can identify a cognitive metaphor in this case ARGUMENT IS WAR.

To return to the examples reported above "Those are high stakes, "He's bluffing, " "He's holding all the aces, " "The odds are against me, " and "That's the luck of the draw, " Lakoff and Johnson suggest that they are expressions which emerge from the same cognitive metaphor, i.e., LIFE IS A GAMBLING GAME. In other words, we talk about life in terms of games of cards, luck, and stakes though there is no reason why we should necessarily speak of life in this way. From the cognitive metaphor LIFE IS A GAMBLING GAME we can derive a variety of expressions as if there existed a continuum of figurativeness made possible because of the original conceptual metaphor.

Implications for language teaching

What kind of insight does this theory give us for language teaching?

First of all, if figurativeness is a natural, expected phenomenon of language, pervasive in everyday interaction, then it should be an important part of EFL curricula. Metaphor should not be excluded or postponed or relegated to special ad hoc exercises, but be integrated into the method and materials of the course from the very beginning.

Secondly, the awareness of cognitive metaphor would give us a more solid and comprehensive tool for the teaching/ learning of figurative expressions. I am sure that many teachers have grappled with various techniques (explanations, translations, parallels, paraphrases, references to context, etc.) to explain expressions as these:

Things are looking up .

We hit a peak last year, but it's been downhill ever since.

Things are at an all-time low .

He does high -quality work.

Would it not be easier to present the metaphor suggested by Lakoff and Johnson:


explaining to students that we think sometimes in terms of orientational metaphors? In Western culture, happiness, health, success, and normal daily activities are linguistically expressed in terms of UP, while negative aspects of life are expressed in terms of DOWN. Would that not be a faster way to help students understand expressions like "He fell ill," "He's feeling down ," "He's depressed ," "He's in top shape," "He's flying high ," or even a simple "He got up "? Expressions which are normally taught as fixed phrases ("get up "), whether by structural or communicative practice, could be inserted into sets of expressions coherently structured by an organic cognitive metaphor.

I have experimented using cognitive metaphors as a starting point for language practice with intermediate-level students. For example, I have tried the following exercise:

Underline all the expressions in the following sentences whichrefer to the conceptual metaphor.


I'll take my chances.

The odds are against me.

He's holding all the aces.

It's a toss-up.

If you play your cards right, you can do it.

He won big.

He's a real loser.

Where is he when the chips are down.

That's my ace in the hole.

He's bluffing.

Let's up the ante.

Maybe we need to sweeten the pot.

I think we should stand pat.

That's the luck of the draw.

Those are high stakes.

The students had no trouble identifying the relevant lexical items. Moreover, when given a reading passage with other expressions relating to the same metaphor, decoding seemed to be more rapid and comprehension more precise.

Thirdly, this approach is highly motivating. Imagine adolescents who are asked to work with the metaphors concerning the concept LOVE. For example, I have experimented successfully with exercises like the following:

Exercise I There are many ways of conceptualizing LOVE.


In the following examples, identify the metaphor that structuresthe expression:


I'm crazy about her. __d_


I was spellbound. ____


Their marriage is on its last legs. ____


I could feel the electricity between us. ____


He fled from her advances. ____

Exercise II: Look at the expressions in the English language often used todescribe love which stem from the metaphor LOVE IS WAR.

He is known for his many rapid conquests .

He fought for her, and in time they got married.

He fled from her advances .

She pursued him relentlessly .

He is slowly gaining ground with her.

He won her hand in marriage.

She overpowered him.

She is beseiged by suitors.

He enlisted the aid of her friends.

He made an ally of her mother.

Theirs is a misalliance if I've ever seen one.

Do you have the same expressions in your language? Does yourlanguage have many similar expressions? What are they? Do you thinkthat the metaphor LOVE IS WAR is universal? Do you think that themetaphor is more productive in your language or in the Englishlanguage? etc.

Teaching culture-specific differences

This strategy has a further advantage of introducing students to the culture-specific differences in language. Naturally all languages are rich in metaphor, but metaphors may be different across cultures. Since metaphoricity is deeply rooted in the culture of a people, it is representative of how a given community cognizes reality, how a way of thinking evolved into specific traditions and social practices.

An interesting study in this direction has come from the Japanese linguist Masako Hiraga (1991), who has provided a detailed analysis of some differences between the Japanese and American cultures within the framework of cognitive metaphor theory. She has demonstrated that there are four possible combinations when comparing the metaphors of two cultures. The two cultures can have:

  1. similar concepts, represented in similar expressions;
  2. similar concepts, represented in different expressions;
  3. similar expressions which do not however share the same metaphorical concept; or
  4. different metaphorical concepts and different metaphorical expressions.

Below are examples taken from Hiraga for all four types of comparison:

1. In both America and Japan TIME IS MONEY as in the shared expressions:

  1. You're wasting my time. Kimi-wa boku-no jikan-o roohishi-te i-ru .
  2. He's living on borrowed time. Jikan- o kari-te iki-te-i-ru yoona mono da.
  3. That flat tire cost me an hour. Sono panku-ni ichijikan kakat-ta .

2. The metaphor LIFE IS A GAME becomes LIFE IS A BASEBALL GAME in the United States, and LIFE IS A SUMO GAME in Japan.

In English we have the expressions:

  1. Right off the bat , he asked me my age.
  2. You are way off base in criticizing the boss.

Japanese provides the following examples:

  1. Ano seijika-wa nanigoto-ni tsuketemo nebari-goshi-garu. (Literally: That politician has a sticky back about everything. Figuratively: That politician has a lot of grit.)
  2. Shinya-ni hait-te, suto-no rooshi kooshoo-ni mizu-ga hait-ta. (Literally: After midnight, water was brought into the negotiations between labor and management. Figuratively: After midnight there was a breakdown in the negotiations between labor and management.)

3. In English, SWEET IS GOOD, SOUR IS BAD, but in Japanese, AMAI (sweet) IS BAD.

In English:

  1. You are sweet .
  2. What sweet music.
  3. The car turned out to be a real lemon .
  4. That's only sour grapes.

In Japanese:

  1. Aitsu-wa amai . (That guy [ pejorative ] is sweet, meaning, That guy is immature, spoiled, or a pushover.)
  2. Ano sensei-no saiten-wa amai . (That teacher is sweet in grading, meaning, That teacher is an easy grader.)

Hiraga warns us that careful attention should be paid to this type of comparison (same expression but different metaphorical meaning) since failure to recognize it may result in miscommunication.

4. In English IDEAS ARE IN THE MIND. In Japanese IDEAS ARE IN HARA (belly).

In English:

  1. I'll keep your opinion in mind .
  2. Do you have any idea in mind .
  3. He couldn't make up his mind .

In Japanese:

  1. Hayaku hara-o kime-nasai . (Decide your belly quickly, meaning, Make up your mind quickly.)
  2. Hara-o kukut-te irasshai . (Please come with your belly closed, meaning, Please come with your mind made up.)

Some of my students who were given Hiraga's typology produced

English: I'm crazy about you.
Italian: Sono pazzo di te.
French: Je suis fou de toi.

examples of cultural similarity:

and of cultural differences:


English: That is completely beside the point.
Italian: Quello come il cavolo a merenda. (That's like having cabbage at snacktime.)


English: To bring grist to one's mill.
German: Das Wasser auf seine M hle leiten. (To draw water to one's mill.)
Italian: Tirare l'acqua al proprio mulino. (To draw water to one's mill.)

This last example is interesting since it shows how a metaphorical concept can sometimes activate the same linguistic expressions as in the case of German and Italian ( water to the mill ), but sometimes activate only one term of the analogy ( grist to the mill ). (See Footnote 2 )

Searching for metaphor in texts

Once introduced to the idea of metaphor as a system, students can then be taught to search for coherent, structuring patterns in texts. Examples have been given for English literary texts by D. Freeman (1992), M. Freeman (1992), Deane (1992), and Barcellona (1992). (See Hiraga and Williams 1992.)

Barcellona has given us an analysis of cognitive metaphor in Romeo and Juliet . Beginning with an identification in this Shakespearean play of those metaphors which constitute a typical model of love, LOVE IS FOOD, LOVE IS WAR, LOVE IS A VALUABLE COMMODITY, etc., he goes on to demonstrate the relationship of metaphor variation to character delineation. Therefore, for Romeo, besides the classical universal love metaphors, we also find UNREQUITED LOVE IS WAR, whereas for Juliet, we find LOVE IS A DIVINE NEED. An expansion of the metaphorical range is determined by constructing novel metaphors on the basic analogical structure, so that we find extensions like LOVE IS A BIRD, or LOVE IS A PRISON. Students can capture here an insight into some aspects of the specificity of poetic metaphor, which emerges from the extension of the range of associations and the combination of unexpected analogies to create "something new." What is significant in this analysis is that the sets of metaphors conventional, character specific, or novel are not presented as casual occurrences but as part of a coherently structured metaphorical pattern.

Non-literary texts may be also approached through this technique. For example, let us take a look at the magazine advertisment on page 6, taken from New Woman , September 1992, p. 149.

Its significance rests on the so-called "birth metaphor" identified by Lakoff and Johnson (1980). For some reason we speak of nations in terms of birth. That is why the authors of the United States Constitution are called fathers, the "Founding Fathers." Fathers are supposed to support their children. Therefore, if many American children are undernourished, as claimed in (an) advertisement of the Children's Defense Fund, then the country is not "fathering," or doing its duty. That is why the text can be headlined: These Fathers Are Behind in Their Child Support. The birth metaphor functions as a kind of frame for the text. The message would be incomprehensible to any reader who is not able to activate the birth metaphor and to understand its connection with the history of the United States. This is a prime example of how necessary it is to understand metaphoricity and especially its culture-specific connotations in order to correctly interpret even simple everyday texts.


In its search to describe phenomena hitherto neglected in linguistic analysis, cognitive linguistics has provided some useful insights into the relationship between thought, language, and reality. It has also suggested some fruitful ways of searching for language data which can provide a clearer understanding of the nature of language structure and use, as this discussion has tried to demonstrate. More significantly, it has posed serious questions to linguists. It has made us aware that the essence of language is not form or structure as emphasized by both the structuralist or generative grammar schools. It lies closer to the heart of semantics. The cognitive turn in linguistics has shifted attention to problems of meaning, idiomaticity, and metaphoricity in language. For teachers of foreign languages, these insights may be useful for traditional hurdles in language teaching and learning, and may provide more efficient and creative ways of presenting English language data to learners from other cultures.


  • Barcellona, A. 1992. Romeo and Juliet's love. Paper presented to the XVth International Congress of Linguists, Universit de Laval, Qu bec, August 1992.
  • Deane, P. 1992. Metaphors of center and periphery in Yeats's The Second Coming. Paper presented to the XVth International Congress of Linguists, Universit de Laval, Qu bec, August 1992.
  • Freeman, D. 1992. Catching the nearest way: Path and container metaphors in Macbeth. Paper presented to the XVth International Congress of Linguists, Universit de Laval, Qu bec, August 1992.
  • Freeman, M. 1992. Metaphor making meaning: Dickinson's conceptual universe. Paper presented to the XVth International Congress of Linguists, Universit de Laval, Qu bec, August 1992.
  • Hawkes, T. 1972 Metaphor. London: Methuen.
  • Hiraga, Masako. 1991. Metaphor and comparative cultures. In Cross- cultural communication: East and west, vol. III., ed. P. Fendos. Taiwan: National Cheng-Kung University.
  • Hiraga, M. and J. Williams. 1992. Metaphor and the poetic text. Panel presented at the XVth International Congress of Linguists, Universit de Laval, Qu bec, August 1992.
  • Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. 1980. Metaphors we live by. New York and Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • Langacker, R. 1987. Foundations of cognitive linguistics. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Ortony, A., ed. 1979. Metaphor and thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.}

Diane Ponterotto teaches English at the University of Molise in Italy.


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Footnote 1

     1. Most of the examples in this article are taken directly from Lakoff and Johnson 1980.

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Footnote 2

     2. I would like to thank Prof. Gregorio Costa of the University of Molise, Italy, for directing my attention to this point.

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