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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 3; Issue 2; March 2001

Major Article

Metaphoric intelligence and foreign language learning.

by Jeannette Littlemore

Page 1 of 1


In this article, it is argued that metaphoric intelligence is an important aspect of intelligence, and that it can contribute to language learning success. It is thought to play a role in communicative competence and communication strategy usage. A number of activities are suggested which are designed to exploit and promote metaphoric intelligence in the language classroom.

Metaphoric intelligence and foreign language learning

In recent years, there has been a substantial amount of interest in individual differences between foreign language learners. Although there are many ways in which learners can vary (for example, age, gender, learning style, and motivation), intelligence is often thought to be one of the most significant predictors of language learning success. According to Gardner’s (1983) theory of “multiple intelligences”, people vary in terms of eight types of intelligence, namely visual, verbal, mathematical, kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and rhythmic intelligence. It has been said that each of these types of intelligence may have a bearing, not only on a student’s ability to learn a foreign language, but also on the teacher’s tendency to favour a given teaching method. In this article, I argue that there is ninth kind of intelligence which is also likely to have an effect on language learning and teaching, namely “metaphoric intelligence”.

The use of metaphor pervades all language and communication. The “mouth” of a river, the “eye” of a needle, and the “heart” of the matter are commonplace expressions which represent metaphorical extensions of parts of the body. Metaphor is so pervasive in language that it would be impossible for a person to speak without using metaphor at some point, whether knowingly or not. Metaphors fall into two categories, “frozen” metaphors and “novel” metaphors. Frozen metaphors are those that are in common use in the language and which are often thought to be treated as single linguistic units by native speakers. Novel metaphors are ones in which ideas are combined in new or unusual ways. Effective communication in a second language involves the ability to use both novel and frozen metaphors. The main focus of this article is on novel metaphors as it is estimated that the average speaker of English uses over 3,000 novel metaphors per week (Hoffman 1983). Furthermore, what is a frozen metaphor to a native speaker is a novel metaphor to a language learner when he or she encounters it for the first time.

There is a great deal of variety in people’s ability to produce and comprehend novel metaphors. In 1977, Pollio et al observed that when one listens to the conversations of different individuals:

It soon becomes fairly obvious that certain people produce a great deal of figurative language while others scarcely produce any at all. Fortunately or unfortunately however, there has been almost no research into the personal characteristics of those people who use relatively more figurative expressions.

As language teachers, we all must have observed this phenomenon in our classrooms and, in many cases, appreciated the richness of the language produced by those students who are able to manipulate novel metaphor effectively. Since Pollio et al’s comments, a substantial amount of research has been carried out into variation between individuals in their ability to produce, understand and explain novel metaphors (see for example, Johnson & Pascual-Leone 1989, Kogan 1983). Researchers who see metaphoric intelligence as a specific skill include Paivio and Walsh (1993;307) who claim that “metaphor highlights the capacity of language users to create and understand novel linguistic combinations that may be literal nonsense”.

The most comprehensive survey of metaphoric intelligence was carried out by Kogan (1983), who, after completing a study of a number of tests of metaphoric intelligence that had been carried out on children (including tests of metaphor interpretation, production and appreciation), drew the conclusion that the ability to process metaphors functions as a relatively stable individual differences variable, and that those who are “less able” to process metaphors can be said to have a more “literal” thinking style.

Further research (Littlemore 1998) suggests that metaphoric intelligence depends on the psychological processes of “loose analogical reasoning” and “divergent thinking”. Analogical reasoning (using related knowledge to shed light on a new subject) is thought to be an important component of everyday problem-solving (Holyoak 1984). Holyoak makes a distinction between literal and metaphorical analogies. Literal analogies (for example, “a dragonfly is like a butterfly”) involve a close similarity between the characteristics of the analogous information and the new information which is to be understood. Metaphorical analogies (for example, “the Roman Catholic church is like a multinational company”) involve the comparison of disparate types of information and a large stretch of the imagination is required for the similarities to be recognized. Evidence has been found to show that individual differences exist between those who seek literal, “tightly mapped” and complete analogies and those who enjoy more unusual loose, incompletely mapped analogies (Pollio & Smith 1980). Those who enjoy loose analogies are more likely to display metaphoric intelligence.

Divergent (as opposed to “convergent”) thinking is a relatively old concept, proposed by Guilford (1967). He described the convergent thinker as a person who finds it easy to deal with problems requiring one conventional correct answer, clearly obtainable from the information provided. The divergent thinker, on the other hand, is better able to solve problems requiring the generation of several equally acceptable answers where the emphasis is on the quantity, variety and originality of responses. Those who engage more readily in divergent thinking are more likely to display metaphoric intelligence. Having briefly discussed the psychological processes that underlie metaphoric intelligence, we now ask, of what practical use is it in the language classroom? There are two key questions here: What benefits might metaphoric intelligence bring to the language learning process? and what can language teachers do to accommodate metaphorically intelligent students within their classrooms? These questions are addressed in the following two sections.

What benefits might metaphoric intelligence bring to the language learning process?

The main benefits that metaphoric intelligence is likely to bring to the language learning process are that it enriches language production and facilitates comprehension of metaphoric expressions, which, as we saw above, are ubiquitous. It is therefore likely to contribute positively to an overall level of communicative competence.

Metaphoric intelligence is also likely to affect a learner’s use of communication strategies. Communication strategies are defined by Tarone (1983;62) as “the speaker’s attempt to communicate meaningful content, in the face of some apparent lacks in the language system”. In trying to communicate, a learner may have to make up for a lack of knowledge of grammar or vocabulary by relying on communication strategies such as word coinage and paraphrase. It is argued below that both word coinage and paraphrase can often require metaphoric intelligence.

The strategy of word coinage often involves “metaphoric extension” processes. Metaphoric extension processes occur when speakers use the words that are available to them in original or innovative ways in order to express the concepts they want. This process is often metaphorical in nature as it involves the ability to stretch the conventional boundaries of word meaning. The use of metaphoric processes to fill lexical gaps created by new semantic fields has been central to change and development in language. For example, Dirven (1985) gives an interesting historical account of the metaphorical extension of the word cup: the first recording of the word cup to denote a drinking vessel dates back to 1000, its first recorded use to denote a part of an acorn is in 1545, its first recorded use to denote a hip-joint is in 1615, its first recorded use to denote a beverage is in 1773, its first recorded use to denote a hollow is in 1868, and its most recent recorded use is to denote a part of a bra (date unknown). This process of extension is not limited to nouns as Dirven demonstrates by means of a historical account of the various meanings of the adjective sweet: It is first recorded as meaning friendly in 825, it is first recorded as meaning melodious in 900, it is recorded as meaning not corrosive in 1577. Dirven contends that metaphorical processes account for the majority of meaning extensions of lexical items.

Furthermore the use of metaphoric processes by native speakers to use words which they know in order to describe concepts for which they do not know the words has been well documented (Clark 1981 and 1982). Clark (1981) maintains that lexical extension by means of metaphor is one of the main strategies used by young children to learn their native language. Clark cites cases where children have used words such as sleeper for bed, darking for colouring in and so on. Elbers (1988) claims that children tend to use two mechanisms for creating new words. These are combining morphemes and changing word meaning. It has already been established that the changing of word meaning is a metaphoric process, but Elbers argues that the process of combining morphemes is also metaphoric in nature. She cites as evidence expressions such as moon-nuts (for cashew nuts) and car-milk (for petrol).

In many ways, the lexical innovations that are made by children in their L1 are similar to the word coinage strategies, used by second language learners when faced with gaps in their knowledge of the L2. Tarone's (1978) example of an L2 word-coinage strategy where the word "airball" was used to approximate the word "balloon" is exactly the kind of utterance that one might expect of a child learning his/her L1. In Kumaravadivelu's words (1988;311), this strategy occurs “when learners stretch the semantic dimension of the vocabulary that they already possess.”

Many examples of lexical innovation can be found in the literature on communication strategies. An example of a student with a strong preference for such a strategy is given by Ridley and Singleton (1995). They describe an English speaking ab initio student of German who exhibited an unusually strong tendency to use word coinage and lexical innovation. For example, in order to translate the expression "a range of goods" into German she took the German adjective verschieden (meaning different) and from it she invented the new term Verschiedenes. Thus she took an already known adjective "different", extended its meaning and changed its word class so that it referred to "a situation where there are lots of different things". This can be described as a case of metaphorical extension and is not dissimilar to the strategies employed by children compensating for gaps in their native language. Another example, cited by Dornyei and Scott (1997;189), is of a student who used the word "unjunktion" for "street cleaning". This word was derived from the word "junk"; "to unjunk" was "to clean the street" and the "tion" was added to turn the word into a noun.

The second communication strategy, paraphrase, often involves the use of metaphorical analogies. Loose, metaphorical analogies can often result in particularly striking and effective images. For example, when trying to describe a seahorse in the target language, I overheard one of my students inform her conversation partner that it was an animal that lived in the sea that “has like a chicken on its head”. Another student, in another group, completing the same exercise, told his partner that “its head is like a punk”. Other examples of metaphorical analogies that I have heard my students produce include “a pipe for elves to smoke” (target item = acorn), “chewing gum” (target item = slug), “like a lit candle” (target item = squid), and “like a helicopter” (target item = dragonfly).

By using such strategies, metaphorically intelligent language learners are able to use their language resources in order to express a wider variety of concepts. They are therefore able to increase both their fluency and their overall communicative effectiveness. In the following, and final section, we look at some ways in which language teachers can adapt their teaching techniques to exploit the metaphoric intelligence of their students and possibly help foster metaphoric intelligence in their more “literal-minded” students.

Teaching techniques that involve and promote metaphoric intelligence

It is likely that metaphorically intelligent students will enjoy being in learning situations that allow them to use this aspect of their intelligence. Therefore, giving them tasks that involve the use of the strategies mentioned above might well be advantageous. One technique, which promotes both loose analogical reasoning and metaphorical extension, is to give them pictures of items for which they do not know the word in the target language, and to ask them to describe these pictures to a friend who will have to guess what is in them. In order to complete this task, both the speaker and the listener may well be obliged to use their “metaphoric” imagination.

Another technique (for more advanced students) involves drawing the students’ attention to the fact that argumentative texts are often based on one or two underlying “conceptual” metaphors, such as “a theory is a building” or “the economy is a sick patient”. They can then be given a number of short texts, asked to identify the underlying metaphors, and consider the limitations of these metaphors. An extension of this exercise involves asking the students to describe the same concept using alternative metaphors, and to consider the implications of these metaphors. As well as encouraging the learners to focus closely on the language, this technique can also help them to develop their critical thinking abilities. Metaphor can also be used for vocabulary building. Students can be presented with a central, underlying conceptual metaphor (such as “society is a body”) and asked to come up with as many possible manifestations of the metaphor as possible. They might then be asked to think of meanings for expressions such as “the bowels of society”, “the industrial heartland”, “the eyes and ears of society”, “the arms of the law”, and so on. Research has shown that raising metaphoric awareness in this way improves vocabulary retention (Boers 2000).

As for the analysis of multiple layering in metaphors, a good source of authentic material is advertising, where several messages often have to be conveyed as concisely as possible. Students could be asked to identify the different possible interpretations, and consider the different audiences at which they might be aimed. An advertisement which I have found to be particularly good for this type of teaching is “Boddingtons: The Cream of Manchester”. Here the students can discuss the many connotations of “cream” such as its texture, the fact that it usually refers to the best, it comes at the top, is pure and wholesome, and so on. They can then go on to discuss other ways in which the word can be used, thus developing their “metaphoric extension” abilities.

Finally, (with an imaginative and co-operative group), metaphor can be used to help students learn prepositions and phrasal verbs. Expressions such as “look up to someone”, “dress down for the evening”, and “look forward to something” can be traced to the original conceptual metaphors of “good is up”, “bad is down”, and “time is a journey”. According to Lakoff & Johnson (1980), these types of metaphors provide a framework for all abstract thought. Lakoff & Johnson’s ideas can serve as a good introduction to the basic meanings of prepositions and particles. If the phrasal verbs to be learned are then presented in context, then students can be encouraged to use the basic meanings of the prepositions and particles, to help them work out the meaning of phrasal verbs.


In this article, it has been argued that metaphoric intelligence is an aspect of intelligence that can contribute to language learning success. A few techniques have been suggested, which are intended to exploit and develop metaphoric intelligence in the language classroom. Most of these techniques concentrate on vocabulary building, however, it is possible that, in future, techniques will be developed that use metaphor to teach grammatical concepts such as the tense system, word class and modality. As more is discovered about metaphoric intelligence, it is likely to be employed more and more imaginatively in the language classroom.


Berman, M. (1998). A Multiple Intelligences Road to an ELT Classroom. Wales, UK: Crown House Publishing Ltd.

Boers, F. (2000). Enhancing metaphoric awareness in specialised reading. English for Specific Purposes, 19, 137-147.

Clark, E.V. (1981). Lexical innovations: How children learn to create new words. In W. Deutsch (Ed.) The Child’s Construction of Language 299-328. London: Academic Press.

Clark, E.V. (1982). The young word maker: A case study of innovation in the child’s lexicon. In E. Wanner & L.R. Gleitman (Eds.) Language Acquisition: State of the Art 390-428. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dirven, R. (1985). Metaphor as a basic means for extending the lexicon. In The Ubiquity of Metaphor 85-119. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Dornyei, Z. & Scott, M.L. (1997). Review article: Comunication strategies in a second language: definitions and taxonomies. Language Learning 47, 173-210.

Elbers, L. (1988). New names from old words: related aspects of childrens’ metaphors and word compounds. Journal of Child Language 15, 591-617.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books Inc.

Guilford, J.P. (1967). The Nature of Human Intelligence. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hoffman, R.R. (1983). Recent research on metaphor. Semiotic Inquiry 3, 35-62.

Holyoak, K. (1984). Analogical thinking and human intelligence. In R.P. Honeck & R.R. Hoffman (Eds.) Cognition and Figurative Language 393-423. Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Johnson, J. & Pascual-Leone, J. (1989). Developmental levels of processing in metaphor interpretation.. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 48, 1-31.

Kogan, N. (1983). Stylistic variation in childhood and adolescence: creativity, metaphor, and cognitive styles. In J.H. Flavell & E.M. Markman (Eds.) A Handbook of Child Psychology 3 (4) 695-706. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Kumaraavadivelu, B. (1988). Communication strategies and psychological processes underlying lexical simplification. International Review of Applied Linguistics 26 (4), 309-319.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Littlemore, J. (1998) Individual differences in second language learning: towards an identification of the strategy preferences and language learning strengths of L2 students with holistic and/or imager cognitive styles. Unpublished PhD dissertation. London: Thames Valley University.

Paivio, A. & Walsh, M. (1993). Psychological processes in metaphor comprehension and memory. In A. Ortony (Ed.) Metaphor and Thought. Second Edition. 307-328. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pollio, H.R., Barlow, J.M., Fine, H.J. & Pollio, M.R. (1977). Psychology and the Poetics of Growth. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Pollio, H.R. & Smith, M.K. (1980). Metaphoric competence and complex human problem solving. In R.P. Honeck & R.P. Burns (Eds.) Cognition and Figurative Language 365-392. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ridley, J. & Singleton, D. (1995). Strategic L2 lexical innovation: Case study of a university-level ab initio learner of German. Second Language Research 11 (2), 137-148.

Tarone, E. (1978). Conscious communication strategies in interlanguage: A progress report. In G. Brown, S. Yorio & D. Crymes (Eds.) On TESOL ’77: Teaching and Learning ESL. Washington D.C.: TESOL.

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About the author

Jeannette Littlemore has an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of East Anglia, and a PhD in English Language Teaching from Thames Valley University. She has worked as a teacher and a lecturer in English and applied linguistics in Spain, Japan and Belgium. She now lectures in English for Academic Purposes at the University of Birmingham. Her research interests include individual differences in second language acquisition, learner autonomy, and the use of metaphor in language learning and teaching. She can be contacted at the following address:

Dr. Jeannette Littlemore
English for International Students Unit
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

More information on the subject of multiple intelligences and its application to foreign language teaching can be found in Gardner (1983) and Berman (1998).

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