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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 3; September 04

Short Article

The Misinterpretation of Metaphors by International Students at a British University: Examples, Implications, and Possible Remedies


Jeanette Littlemore
University of Birmingham, UK

As a lecturer in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) at a British university, part of my job involves attending academic lectures alongside international students, identifying areas of potential difficulty for them and holding regular workshops with them to go over these difficulties.

A striking observation that I have made whilst conducting this work is the amount of metaphor use by lecturers, and the serious problems that this tends to cause for international students. The metaphors used in these lectures are not merely ornamental devices designed to liven up the delivery, but are often deeply embedded in the discourse and used for fundamental purposes such as problem framing, evaluation, and labelling new concepts (see Carter 1997; Clark 1981; Cameron and Low 1999). Misinterpretations of metaphors by international students have, in my experience led to serious misunderstandings of both the lecture content and the lecturer's attitudes towards that content. Later in this article I give a few examples of these types of misunderstandings. However, before doing that, I will demonstrate how such misunderstandings tend to arise.

A metaphor consists of a topic, a vehicle, and a ground. Take for example the metaphor Dennis Wise is a terrier in midfield. In this metaphor, the term terrier is used to show the author's opinion of Dennis Wise. Dennis Wise is the topic of the metaphor, terrier is the vehicle, and whatever they have in common is the ground (Richards 1936). Here, the conventional ground (or means of comparison) would be that both are small, tenacious, yappy, and aggressive. In order to grasp the meaning of the metaphor, as intended by the speaker, it is important that the listener knows which characteristics and connotations of the vehicle to transfer to the topic. In the above example, if the listener were to transfer other characteristics of the vehicle terrier, for example, that it wears a lead, eats dog meat, and is covered in fur, he/she would probably misunderstand the metaphor.

The appropriate ground of metaphorical expressions often follows cultural conventions (Carter 1997), which means that, when faced with a metaphorical expression (even a novel one), native speakers have an advantage over international students in that they have access to shared cultural knowledge and, to some extent, shared expectations with the speaker. In the absence of this cultural knowledge, international students are forced to use strategies involving imagery, literal interpretation, their own background knowledge, the overall context, and guesswork in order to interpret the metaphors. The use of these strategies often leads students to misinterpret metaphors. In the following section, I give a few examples of misinterpretations that have been made by international students at the university of Birmingham. All the examples given here are of students in the International Development, Development Finance, and Economics departments. However, research suggests that metaphor is equally prevalent in other departments around the university (Johns 1996).

The first example is of a student attending a lecture on British politics. In this lecture, the speaker remarked that the Government had channelled public funds. When asked to interpret this metaphor, immediately after the lecture, the student interpreted it as meaning to reduce public funds. He had transferred the connotation of narrowness, rather than direction. In order to reach this interpretation, he claimed to have used the context of the lecture which was partly about reducing the role of the State.

The second example is of a student attending a lecture on Local Government. In this lecture, the speaker used the expression It's a dead mens' shoes organisation, to imply that promotion was rare. The student understood from this that the organisation was full of people who don't really do very much (and might as well be dead). Thus he had transferred the connotation of uselessness, rather than emptiness. Again, this student claimed to have used the context of the lecture to reach this interpretation.

The third example is taken from the same lecture. The lecturer referred to the issue of Central Governmental versus Local Government control as a muddy issue. A student inferred from this that there were illegal goings-on. He had thus picked up on the connotation of dirty, rather than obscurity. The student claimed to have used his background knowledge of his own country's problems to reach this interpretation.

The fourth example is of a student attending a lecture on International Finance. In this lecture, the speaker talked of a patchwork of different financial systems across Europe. The student understood this to mean that all the systems were knitted together to form a cohesive whole. She had thus transferred the connotation of wholeness, rather than the lack of coherence. She claimed to have reached this conclusion by picturing a patchwork quilt in her mind.

The fifth example is of a student attending a lecture on economics in which the lecturer claimed that it was important to work at a grassroots level, in order to find out the wishes of ordinary people. The student understood this to mean that it was important to consider the wishes of the people who lived in the countryside. He had thus transferred the connotation of rurality rather than fundamentality. When asked how he had reached his conclusion, he claimed to have simply guessed.

Although the students used a range of strategies, post-lecture discussions with them revealed that, when faced with ambiguity, they had tended to seek meanings that confirmed their expectations, rather than challenged them. This is, in some ways, regrettable, as in many cases the students were being introduced to new and interesting ideas. The fact that these ideas were conveyed through metaphors prevented them from being understood as the students simply interpreted them as a continuation of what they already knew.

In the first three of the above examples, the students' misinterpretations led them to make factual misunderstandings of the lecture content. However, in the final two examples, it was the lecturer's stance towards the topic that they failed to grasp. In a way, this is more worrying. Unlike the factual misunderstandings, misunderstandings of the lecturer's views are not likely to be corrected through reading. Furthermore, the lecturer's stance is often the central point of the lecture. It is unlikely that international students will be able to demonstrate their critical thinking and argumentation skills in subsequent seminars if they have not understood the lecturer's position in the first place.

In order to address the problem of metaphor misunderstandings, I attempted to raise metaphor awareness amongst a group of international students, as this has been shown to enhance metaphor understanding and memorability (Boers 2000). By raising metaphor awareness, I mean that I attempted to alert students to the fact that metaphors are a ubiquitous aspect of language, and do not serve merely as ornamental poetic devices (Dirven 1985; Lakoff and Johnson 1980). I took two different approaches with a single group of Bangladeshi students studying in the International Development Department at Birmingham University. One of these approaches I felt was more successful than the other. I will begin by describing the less successful of the two approaches.

In this approach, I introduced the students to the idea of conceptual metaphors which are defined by Lakoff and Johnson (1980) as metaphors which determine the way we frame our thinking, and construct our worlds. An example of a conceptual metaphor is MORE IS UP. This is expressed through linguistic metaphors such as there has demand has shot up, prices have gone sky high, and discontent has grown. We then discussed some of the predominant conceptual metaphors in their discipline, looking, for example, at the fact that the government can be viewed as a machine, a company or a living organism. I then asked them to interpret a number of contextualised metaphors by thinking first abut the literal connotations of their vehicles, and then deciding which of these connotations could conceivably be transferred to the topic, taking account of the context in which they appeared. The students carried out this activity well with a great deal of enthusiasm.

Encouraged by this initial reaction, I then asked the students to listen out for metaphors over the next few days of lectures, and to report them to me in the following session. Although they reacted very enthusiastically to this task, and collected a number of metaphors, I found that they had focused predominantly on ornamental metaphors which, I suspected, had been used by the speakers as entertainment devices and had been signalled as such. I felt that very few of the metaphors collected had conveyed important factual or attitudinal information. I had a strong feeling that these more fundamental metaphors were still going undetected, and that they were continuing to be misunderstood. One of the reasons for the failure of this approach may have been the theoretical way in which I had delivered the information. The students found it very difficult to apply the theory to the everyday task of listening to lectures.

I therefore decided to adopt a second, much more practical approach. I attended one of the lectures with the students and recorded it. I immediately made short transcripts of key parts of the lecture, where I felt there were important metaphors, and prepared a worksheet based on the transcripts. Two hours after the lecture, I helped the students to work through the worksheet, in the presence of the lecturer. He was able to give his views on the material presented, and the students were able to identify his favourite metaphors, and gained more insight into his conceptions of Government. The students subsequently claimed that this session helped them reach a deeper understanding of lectures given by this lecturer. They felt more able to detect his not-so-hidden agendas, and were thus better able to debate issues with him.

The apparent success of this second approach suggests that it might be worth employing it more often with a range of lecturers. Although they would be somewhat time-consuming, team-teaching sessions like the one described above, held at the beginning of the academic year might provide an opportunity for the students to discuss other aspects of the lecturer's style of lecturing, and may lead to a deeper understanding of subsequent lectures.

It is difficult to say whether this approach would have been as successful if it had not been directly preceded by the more theoretical approach to raising metaphor awareness. In some ways, the two approaches complemented each other, the practical approach confirming the points that had been made in the theoretical one. In future studies, I will test the effectiveness of the practical approach without going too deeply into the theory with the students. I suspect, however, that I will find it necessary to give them a degree of theoretical underpinning in order to contextualise the more practical work.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate the fact that metaphor is an important source of misunderstanding for international students, and that metaphors are not simply ornamental devices used by lecturers to liven up their delivery. Key concepts and evaluations are often expressed through metaphors and it is important that these are not missed by the international students. I would advise lecturers to paraphrase components of their lectures that they feel to be of central importance. The fact that it is very difficult to be aware of one's own use of language suggests that approaches such as the one described in this article may serve as a powerful learning resource for subject lecturers, EAP lecturers, and students.


Boers, F. (2000), Enhancing metaphoric awareness in specialised reading. English for Specific Purposes 19, 137-147. Cameron, L. and Low, G. (1999), Metaphor. Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Carter, R. (1997), Investigating English Discourse. London: Routledge.
Clark, E. (1981). Lexical innovations: How children learn to create new words. In W. Deutsch (Ed.), The Child's Construction of Language. London: Academic Press.
Dirven, R. (1985). Metaphor as a basic means for extending the lexicon. In R. Paprotte and R. Dirven (Eds.) The Ubiquity of Metaphor. (Amsterdam: John Benjamins publishing Company)
Johns, T. (1996). The airy-fairy and the nitty-grity: colloquial language in lectures on science and technology. web.bham.ac.uk/johnstf/c_gloss.htm
Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980), Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Richards, I. A. (1936), The Philosophy of Rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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