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From Metaphor to Metalanguage
by Suzanne Swales

All language-learning models can be regarded as metaphorical since no one knows for sure what the process involves. But metaphors should not just be left to the theorists. Pictorial metaphors can provide a useful vehicle for getting L2 learners at all stages to make explicit their own view of language learning. This is particularly helpful at the beginner or pre-intermediate stage when learners lack the metalanguage in the L2 to explain their own theories of language learning, and for the learners in this study their metaphors proved to be related to their experience as Third World women.

Before any learner-training programme can be activated, it is necessary to clarify what the language-learning process consists of for both the teachers and the students. The problem is that no one knows exactly, so elaborate metaphors have been constructed to explain the mysterious process. All applied linguistic theories, therefore, from the behaviorists to cognitive voyages of discovery can be seen as changing metaphors to suit the current climate. Currie (1973:73) comments that Chomsky's LAD or little black box presents us with:

a useful, imaginative, if highly abstract basis from which to rationalise our problems of mother-tongue acquisition andteaching. But we would do well to recall that, at this stage in our knowledge of both linguistics and psychology, we accept these proposals as an elaborate metaphor, rather than in any sense proof positive of the nature of language or the human mind.

Flower and Hayes's (1980) model of the writing process is another plausible example, and Wenden (1987:5) says that the invention of the computer has provided psychologists with a fruitful new metaphor with which to study the mind since computers can do many of the same things that humans do store, manipulate, and remember information as well as solve problems, reason, and use language.

If, in an academic/teaching context, such constructs are required to make explicit the current view of language learning, why should this device not also be used in an intuitive/learning context? Again, as Wenden (1987:3) says, all studies on universal language processing strategies and communication strategies focus on the cognitive aspect but they do not examine the learners perception of what they do to learn or manage their learning. They do not seek to present the process of L2 learning from the learners viewpoint.

We need to help students make explicit their covert beliefs about language learning because these beliefs may influence which strategies they use in their learning and how effectively they use them. The ultimate goal of autonomous learning cannot be reached if there is an inherent mismatch from the beginning between how students think they learn and how they are being asked to learn. Learners test out their hypotheses of what a language course should be and what they should attain in a given time span. When, as Horwitz (1987:119) says:

language classes fail to meet student expectations, studentscan lose confidence in the instructional approach and theirultimate achievement can be limited.

Pictorial metaphors such as the ones described in the study below are one way of gaining insight into students inherent beliefs. Unlike other techniques such as thinking aloud protocols or direct interviews, which claim to be windows into the mind (another metaphor!), student drawings are more like framed photographs of their current view of language learning. Horwitz says that when learners enter upon a course of instruction their assumptions are often based on limited knowledge usually reflecting their previous language-learning experience; therefore, teachers should challenge these beliefs as a way of raising awareness about the nature of learning (Horwitz 1987:160).

Metaphors in the classroom

Before any learner training can begin, the learners will have to define, at least provisionally, what language is for them. Metalanguage is the language needed to explain this concept in the classroom. However, talking and thinking about language and language learning is paradoxical because in so many language-learning classrooms, it is necessary to employ the language being learnt at a greater level of precision and complexity than the learner possesses. Faerch and Kasper (1983:55) ask:

Would it be feasible to have learners engage incommunicative situations in the classroom which require amore extensive knowledge of L2 than that which the learnerscan be expected to have? On the one hand, there is a risk offrustrating the learners by making too strong demands ontheir ability to communicate. On the other hand, there couldbe considerable gains in teaching learners how to compensatefor insufficient linguistic resources by using the totalityof their communicative resources creatively andappropriately.

One way out of this dilemma is the use of metaphor. For a great many people pictures and visualisation are the most accessible metaphoric representations of ideas. Both this problem and this solution are particularly applicable at the elementary stage of language learning where attempts to consider the process are frequently abandoned because learners lack the necessary vocabulary and technical framework.

The study

Twelve beginning-level adult female students at the British Council in Dubai took part in a study I conducted: three Iranians, one Qatari, two Somalis, two Sri Lankans, and four from the United Arab Emirates. They were asked to draw a set of cartoons which would illustrate the way they thought a language was learned and then to describe them. Before I saw the drawings, I had speculated about what insights they would provide. Would these possibly naive conceptions correspond to any professionally developed theory of language learning empirical or theoretical? Do learners see language learning primarily as something organic which grows (developmental) like Strevens's (1977:41) description of a child's progress in L1 acquisition:

a series of successively closer approximations towards adultcommand of the language, a series of stages of interlanguageor of provisional grammars of the language.

Or is it regarded as separate components which are assembled like lego bricks (incremental)? The answer, predictably, was both. Ten students chose to represent the process as developmental: Mathi (Sri Lanka) drew the Four Ages of Women in which quantity of language in the early stages becomes quality. The ultimate goal is operational command of the language.

Fatima (Somalia) chose the idea of a baby crawling slowly towards proficiency guided by the mother/teacher.

Elahah (Iran) also used this theme of dependence becoming independence and for her, language and education were undifferentiated ( Figure 1 ). She had left school early to get married and regretted not having continued her education as she had always wanted to be a doctor.

Kadria (Iran) likened the growth of language to that of civilisation whereby a near-naked caveman finally dons a western business-suit ( Figure 2 )!

Roya (Iran) depicted the gradual growth of a village.

Moodhy (U.A.E.) and Jazeera (Sri Lanka) both drew the growth of a strongly rooted fruit-bearing tree from a seed ( Figure 3). Halima (Somalia) and Adeeja (U.A.E.) used enlightenment metaphors of darkness (ignorance) giving way to sunlight (knowledge) ( Figure 4 ).

Marwa (U.A.E.) saw language learning as a form of irrigation whereby the desert changes to a lake as a result of rain. This water metaphor shows the limitless nature of learning and in her text she suggested that students should continue their language studies until they were 100!

Only two students opted for incremental representations of the process. Mona (U.A.E.) drew building blocks ( Figure 5 ) and her text stressed the step-by-step mode of learning.

Moza (Qatar) drew seven discrete steps (Figure 6) and emphasised the need to listen to advice to take the right direction; she viewed language learning as a tutored experience.


This study arose in the context of Third World women's classes and, although very limited in its scope, it perhaps underscores the validity of women's views of their education. There are noticeably no machines, no communication metaphors, and no pictures of the mind as a computer. All the drawings are firmly rooted in natural elements land, village life, and family. This obviously relates closely to their own political and social experience as women in Third World countries. Encouragement of students to elaborate such metaphors is one way of encouraging ownership of the language-learning process and empowering them as users of English for their own social needs.

Initially, I had expected the study to yield much more evidence about learner strategies, whereas the pictures and texts strongly pointed to the role that learning English played in personal education and development. Indeed, for some of the students, economic development and world citizenship are seen as coming about through the medium of English.

To sum up, I feel that this small-scale study goes beyond foreign-language-learning concerns. It also gives insight into students views of education in general and, as such, it supports Wenden's (1987:11) assertion that, before learning/ training can take place:

the network of ideals, values, and beliefs, the abstractsocial, political, and educational concepts that areconstituent elements of their cultural assumptions, need tobe critically examined and reinterpreted or re-created.


In order to increase its validity, this initial study needs to be extended to find out whether men and women in different cultural contexts would produce the same metaphors as my sample. This might have important implications in practice for, as Horwitz (1987:119) suggests:

In the typical ESL classroom where there is a native teacherand students of many cultural backgrounds, differing beliefsabout language learning may well be a significant source ofculture clash.

The cartoon metaphors can, of course, be used at higher levels where metalanguage is more sophisticated. Students can describe, discuss, and write about other students metaphors and match them against their own conception of the language-learning process. This could be the springboard for a full learner-training programme.

Use of metaphors is not limited only to language learners. Teachers use them extensively (whether consciously or not). Metaphors can give valuable insights into teachers own theories of language learning, which inevitably affect their classroom practices. I asked some colleagues about their personal metaphors. One visualised a postal system where language was thrown into a post-box brain and sorted out automatically according to structural and semantic post codes. Another conjured up the human body as a system of systems: bone structure, musculature, the digestive system, and so on. Each system can be analysed separately and yet the interaction of all parts is required to sustain life and human activity. This view is both analytical and holistic. Each system must be well formed with almost complete structural integrity for the body to work. Bones could be regarded as grammar, digestion as the acquisition of vocabulary, and the muscles as theory!

Developmental, incremental; field-dependent, field-independent. The interpretations and metaphors themselves are limitless. Both teachers and students should be encouraged to create their own in coming to terms with how a foreign language is learned.


  • Currie, W. B. 1973. New directions in teaching English language. London: Longman.
  • Faerch, C. and G. Kasper. 1983. Strategies in interlanguage communication. London: Longman.
  • Flower, L. S. and J. R. Hayes. 1980. In Cognitive processes in writing, ed. L. W. Gregg and E. R. Steinberg. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Horwitz, E. K. 1987. In Learner strategies in language learning, ed. A. Wenden and J. Rubin. Cambridge: Prentice-Hall International.
  • Strevens, P. 1977. New orientations in the teaching of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Wenden, A. L. 1987. In Learner strategies in language learning, ed. A. Wenden and J. Rubin. Cambridge: Prentice-Hall International.

Suzanne Swales has taught in several British Council D.T.O.'s and at the universities of Moscow and Jordan as well as having been a teacher trainer with the Ministry of Education in Qatar. Her main interests lie in the teaching of writing and learner-training.


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