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February 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Teaching Metaphors in Indian English Classroom

Baburam Upadhaya is a research scholar at Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. His research interest is studying metaphor and developing teaching-learning materials for second language learners of English. He has a 2 year experience of teaching English language and linguistics to college and university students in India. Email:



Given the prominence that English occupies in all walks of professional and academic life in India, the current English education system in India puts a lot of emphasis on developing the four English skills, viz. listening, speaking, reading and writing. Despite this emphasis, many students leaving secondary schools and colleges find it difficult to communicate effectively in English. One possible reason could be their inability to understand and use metaphors appropriately. This is because students in India hardly receive any implicit or explicit instructions on metaphors in their English classes. This can be said by looking at the current English textbooks used in many Indian schools and colleges where there is hardly any language activity on metaphor or any instruction per se on teaching metaphors to students.


What is metaphor?

Metaphor has traditionally been understood as a figure of speech used only by writers and poets. It has been considered a flowery language as opposed to plain, simple language. But Lakoff & Johnson (1980) in their seminal Metaphors We Live By argue that metaphors are very much part of our everyday language; we think and talk in terms of metaphors. They define metaphor as understanding one thing in terms of another. According to them, we understand a less clearly delineated domain of knowledge (e.g. time) in terms of a more clearly delineated one (e.g. money). The former domain is termed as the target domain and the latter as the source domain. Since metaphor is a fundamental part of human cognitive ability, Lakoff & Johnson (1980) call it “conceptual metaphor”.

An example of a conceptual metaphor in English is POLITICS IS WAR. This metaphor is manifested in linguistic expressions, such as “fight/contest an election”, “election battleground”, “winning/losing elections”, “election strategies”, “rival/opponent parties”. Here, the italicized expressions have been taken from the concrete domain of war to understand or to talk about the abstract domain of politics.

Apart from understanding the domain of politics, we also use the source domain of war to understand other abstract domains, such as sports (e.g. defend a ball), business (e.g. win contracts), disease (e.g. battle with cancer), love (e.g. fight for one’s love), and argument (e.g. destroy one’s argument). Normally, this does not happen in a conscious way, but is largely shaped by our linguistic and cultural socialization (Kövecses, 2010). Similarly, the source domain of fire is used in understanding the abstract domain of various human emotions, such as enthusiasm (e.g. burn with enthusiasm), anger (e.g. flare up), curiosity (e.g. ignite one’s curiosity), imagination (e.g. set fire to one’s imagination), and love (e.g. re-kindle one’s love). However, it should be noted that one particular abstract domain may be understood by several source domains. For example, love, which is such a rich concept, is understood and talked about by the above-mentioned source domains of both war and fire as these two domains represent different aspects of love. Apart from these two domains, love is also understood in terms of journey (e.g. dead-end street relationship), magic (e.g. entranced by somebody), force (e.g. drawn towards somebody), etc. 

Metaphors also play an important role to understand how different senses of a particular preposition are linked systematically (e.g. Dirven, 1993). For example, the preposition on is used to conceptualize the relation between two objects where one thing is being supported by the other: e.g. ‘The ball is on the table, ‘The clock is on the wall’, and ‘The fan is on the ceiling’. This conceptualization of support has been extended to understand sentences like, ‘The man is on a bus’ or ‘The man is on medication’.


Implications for second language teaching and learning

Researchers have found that metaphoric competence has an important role to play in enhancing language learners’ communicative competence (Littlemore & Low, 2006). As the name suggests, metaphoric competence is the ability of a language learner to understand and produce metaphors (Littlemore & Low, 2006a). Littlemore & Low, (2006) hold that language learners’ communicative competence can be enhanced if learners are taught how to understand and use metaphors. In other words, teaching metaphors to students can actually enable them to comprehend and use the language they are learning more proficiently and effectively. What it essentially means for the learners of English is that metaphoric competence should not be restricted to literary work, but to all kinds of events that involve communication in English.

A number of studies show that using conceptual metaphor as a pedagogical tool not only facilitates vocabulary learning (Littlemore & Low, 2006) and grammar (Tyler & Evans, 2001) but also helps in developing metaphorical competence (Littlemore & Low, 2006a). Researchers hold that if learners are presented with the motivation behind vocabulary items, it would facilitate learning and longer memory retention of these items. Moreover, second language learners, who are often accused of lacking “naturalness” in the target language due to their tendency to stick to words having literal uses than words having metaphorical meaning (Danesi & Mollica, 1998), need help to use metaphors appropriately in the target language. It is to be noted here that the literal usage of words lacks the preciseness of metaphor. Therefore, the possible solution to resolve this conflict could be to make metaphorical competence one of the central foci of second language curriculum (e.g. Littlemore & Low, 2006; Littlemore, 2009).


The way forward

One way to consider metaphor teaching in Indian English classrooms is to make it an objective of second language curriculum. Moreover, English textbooks should contain as many metaphors as possible and there should be “notes for teachers” on how to teach these vocabulary items. Textbooks should also design language activities on metaphors based on the theme/s of the lesson or chapter. This organization of metaphors along a particular theme lends more systematicity to the teaching and learning of these vocabulary items, eventually resulting in better comprehension and retention (Boers, 2000). For example, when the theme of the lesson is love, students should be made aware of the conceptual metaphors associated with love. In other words, students should be made aware of how the concept of love is conceptualized in English through different conceptual metaphors. This would help students to avoid direct translation from their first language (L1) and not make errors related to it.

Moreover, idiomatic phrases, which have metaphorical basis, should not be treated like any other words; say for example, give students the figurative meaning of idioms directly as they occur in the text. This is because many idiomatic phrases are not arbitrary, but are semantically motivated by either conceptual metaphors or their original literal usage (Boers, 2001). For example, the idiom phrase plain sailing, which means smooth progress of an activity, has its original literal meaning in the domain of SAILING. When students are made aware of the semantic motivation behind these idiomatic phrases, learning becomes insightful (Littlemore & Low, 2006); and insightful learning is considered superior to rote learning.

Furthermore, while teaching prepositions, students’ awareness of the conceptual basis of prepositions should be raised. In other words, students should be made aware of how prepositions are conceptualized in English and how the different senses of a preposition are not random but are semantically linked. This could be done by providing different example sentences of a particular preposition and showing the meaning connection of that particular preposition between these sentences. 

Finally, instead of teaching metaphors as isolated vocabulary items, efforts are to be made to teach them in meaningful contexts in the form of form-focused tasks. In such tasks, students are actively engaged with the target language feature but in a meaningful context. This way, the tasks resemble, if not create, a real communicative situation for students to interact in the target language (see Ellis, 2003 for more details on form-focused tasks).  



Metaphors, as we discussed above, play a key role in strengthening students’ communicative ability in English. Therefore, Indian English education should focus on explicit instructions on metaphors, thus, alerting learners to the presence and effects of conceptual metaphor through the study and teaching materials that are designed to teach and learn English. This is because metaphors not only make one’s English sound “natural” but also help in knowledge construction and exchange pertaining to day to day affairs of human life, society, politics, economics, etc. In a way, ability to use metaphors appropriately is considered a skill which proficient speakers of English are expected to display in their language use, and learners of English need to master them in order to be competent enough in the language. And this could only happen when English language teachers and curriculum designers focus on the explicit instruction in this conceptual basis of language. 



Boers, F. (2000b) Metaphor awareness and vocabulary retention, Applied Linguistics, 21(4), 553–571

Boers, F. (2001) Remembering figurative idioms by hypothesising about their origin, Prospect: An Australian Journal of TESOL, 16(3), 35-43

Danesi, M. & Mollica, A. (1998) Conceptual fluency theory and second language teaching, Mosaic, 5(2), 3-12

Dirven , R. (1993) Dividing up physical and mental space into conceptual categories by means of English prepositions, Zelinsky-Wibbelt, C. (Ed), The Semantics of Prepositions, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 73-98

Ellis, R. (2003) Task-based Language Learning and Teaching, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Kövecses, Z. (2010) Metaphor: A Practical Introduction (2nd ed.), Oxford University Press, New York

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

Littlemore, J. (2009) Applying Cognitive Linguistics to Second Language Learning and Teaching, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke

Littlemore, J. & Low, G. (2006) Figurative Thinking and Foreign Language Learning, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke, U.K

Littlemore, J. & Low, G. (2006) Metaphoric competence, second language learning, and communicative language ability, Applied Linguistics, 27(2), 268–294

Tyler, A. & Vyvyan, E. (2001) The relation between experience, conceptual structure and meaning: Non-temporal uses of tense and language teaching, Niemeier, P & Dirven, R. (Eds), Applied Cognitive Linguistics II: Language Pedagogy, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 63–105


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