Reza Arab

We, as humans, resort to and depend on the use of metaphors1 when it comes to verbalizing our experience: metaphors help us see what is invisible; to describe what otherwise would be indescribable. As an exception to this rule, it used to be claimed that scientific paradigm is the only system characterized by precision and absence of ambiguity. Nevertheless, it is now widely accepted that even in the discourse of science a great amount of metaphors are being applied to convey meaning and to cause understanding.

Hereupon the importance and domination of metaphors in our everyday life need to be taken into account as the bedrock of this note. Based on this cornerstone, this article intends to share a few suggestions on how to employ metaphors in teaching and classroom settings.

In the cognitive theory of metaphor, linguists such as George Lakoff have posed plenty of examples in order to justify the mentioned propositional belief; i.e. metaphors are constantly used to express our conceptual ideas and to make meaning through familiar frames and structures. Lakoff, for example, asserts that the concept of love is comprehended through a metaphor: LOVE IS A JOURNEY. These sentences are frequently being heard to talk about love: “Our relationship has hit a dead-end street”, “The relationship isn’t going anywhere”, “We’re spinning our wheels”, “Our relationship is off the track “,” Look how far we’ve come”, etc. He writes “when I speak of the “Love is a journey” metaphor, I am using a mnemonic for a set of ontological correspondences that characterize a map ping”.2

As a matter of fact, metaphors facilitate understanding. When one is introducing a new and never-heard concept, she, in fact, illustrates a domain. Hence, in order to make it graspable, she earnestly puts lots of efforts to parallel the new domain with a familiar, known, simple one. For the “Love is a journey” metaphor, it  is  the  ontological  mapping  across  conceptual  domains,  from  the  source domain  of  journeys  to  the  target  domain  of  love. “The metaphor is not just a matter of language, but of thought and reason. The language is secondary. The mapping is primary, in  that  it  sanctions  the use of  source  domain  language  and  inference  patterns  for  target domain concepts.” The mapping is conventional and obeys common sense; globally held rules and conventions. Accurately as Thomas Sticht puts it: “at the level of conception, examples, such as metaphor, simile, analogy, suggest that we are likely to be able to conceive only on a relative basis”. That is, we can only know something in relation to our knowledge of something else. Linguists like him suggest that “metaphors work by efficiently providing a meaningful, functional context for acquiring new knowledge by means of old knowledge”. Furthermore, the mnemonic function of metaphor also points to the value of metaphor as a tool for producing durable learning from unenduring speech.

On the other hand, another significant, common metaphor is TIME. Time is considered as linear entity on which where we stand is present, in front of us is future, and behind assumed past. Moreover, “the passing of time is motion” says Lakoff. The observer is fixed; times are entities moving with respect to the observer. Times are oriented with their fronts in their direction of motion. It has been put in these prevalently stated examples: “The time for action has arrived”. “That time is here”. “In the weeks following next Tuesday…” “On the preceding day …”  “I’m looking ahead to Christmas”. “Thanksgiving is coming up on us”. “Let’s put all that behind us”.  “I can’t face the future”. “Time is flying by”. “The time has passed when…”

In this regard Thornbury suggests: “Theories of learning are [highly] dependent on metaphors, because they are centrally concerned either with mental acts and conscious processes or with operations of mental mechanisms below the level of consciousness, all of which are describable only by metaphorical means.” On the other side, in his book in company with Johnson, Lakoff displays “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature”. Thus, not only do we use metaphors everywhere but these metaphors also shape our understanding. It happens here and there and it is up to a good teacher to employ its potentials and this opportunity to advance understanding as the main aim in the classroom.3

Application in Classroom

It is simple for teachers to utilize this shared imagery – with which we make sense of the world. It has always been in practical use unconsciously so you just need to raise it up to the conscious level. We have read in all teachers training books that the subject should be familiarized for the students. Familiarizing, as it is called in this field, is definitely necessary but it is indeed inadequate. A teacher, first of all, should seek the familiar domain to draw a frame. For instance, in teaching grammatical tenses we often employ timelines to make a better understanding. In fact, in this very moment we are activating the metaphor of time as a linear line.

An outline of metaphor application in a course can be drawn as follows: First, L2 teacher must introduce target concept as in teaching the word “courage” to beginner students or the word “constraint” to advanced students. Then she should review analog concept by stating “a lion” for the first and “the red-light at an intersection” for the later respectively.

 Now she identifies relevant features of target and analog; “Jack is courage like a lion, the king of jungle” and “You are really eager to drive like a jet! Though you’ve encountered a red-light; it’s a constraint. You have to stop.” Next step is mapping the similarities and the last part is usually to draw conclusion which is strengthened and reinforced with concept-checking questions.

Another metaphor which surprisingly ought to be eliminated than being exploited is regarding the teacher’s role: teacher as the source of knowledge; teacher as the trainer; teacher as kind and gracious as parents; teacher as the lecturer; etc. A teacher is not any of them and/but can be part of each.

Furthermore, the fourth important point to remember is never use a far-fetched and troublesome source domain. Beware that the domain needs to be senseful for the students unless there would lack understanding. A Christian adult may say “lord is my shepherd”. In this case, he intends the audience to recognize that the Lord is someone who will take care of them, protect them, love them, and so forth. If the student is not still aware of the semantic domain of the word “shepherd”, not only can the metaphor help her understand but it might make her confused.

In the end, I believe coping with metaphors and their capacity for meaning-making broadens vast ground in classroom setting. Teachers only need to grasp a meta-classroom outlook while they are teaching. By doing this, the domain and frames of metaphors appears conscious before the teacher’s eyes.


1. There are some assumptions made by philosophers of language in regards with the definition of metaphor. The most consentaneous one expresses “a metaphor is a matter of calculating or deriving the metaphorical [figurative] meaning from the literal meaning, by the application of a set of rules. The metaphor selects and emphasizes certain features of the primary subject, by applying to it statements that normally apply to the secondary subject.” What is more, Davidson comments on the traditional differences between metaphor and simile “whereas a simile explicitly asserts that there is a likeness and leaves it to us to pick out some common feature, a metaphor does not explicitly assert a likeness, but again leads us to seek common features, invites us to make comparisons, directs our attention to similarities, to unexpected or subtle parallels and analogies”.

2. I would rather not lengthen my article too much therefore this process of example-making here needs to be cut short. Although I have to say there are many examples of the application of metaphors in daily life even in this very piece of writing. Lots of priceless information can also be obtained in references provided at the footnotes.

3. Unless students understand the content, learning could not be undergone. Teacher has to be able to present the meaning. I suppose the best and most appropriate form is to activate the familiar domains of metaphors.


1. George Lakoff, The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor, in Andrew Ortony (ed.) Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge University Press 1993.

2. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago Press, 1980.

3. Scott Thonbury, Metaphors we wok by: EFL and its metaphors, ELT Journal Volume 45/3 July 1991, Oxford University Press.

4. Andrew Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge University Press 1993.

5. Gordon Lyon, Philosophical perspectives on metaphor, Language Sciences 22 (2000) 137-153