My Teacher is an Old Cow - Teaching figurative language, should we or shouldn't we?

Looking at some old posts in the Notebook the other week, I found a collection of activities that could be used to teach figurative language, and it occurred to me that while there were a lot of posts  on the Notebook discussing how to teach figurative language (see below - Activities on the site), there was no discussion of why we might want to - or even whether we should teach it at all. When I asked myself the question, my immediate gut reaction was no. But on later reflection, I changed my mind - at least partially.

What is figurative language?

First of all though, what do we mean by "figurative language"? It's an umbrella term covering a number of different ways in which language may be used non-literally. These include :
  • Simile : Expressions which explicitly compare one thing to another which is not the same but has specific qualities which the speaker/writer wants to suggest are shared by the first thing, place, person etc. The explicit comparison is usually signalled by like or For example: It's as clear as daylight that they're wrong; They fight like cat and dog at every meeting.
  • Metaphor : An word or expression is used in a way that is not literally true but so that its literal meaning creates an image of a quality of the thing, person etc being described. For example: The gardens were covered by a blanket of snow; I'm drowning in work.
  • Personification : An object, place etc is described using a word that could only be applied literally to a person or animal. Eg: My computer just died; the storm raged for hours.
  • Hyperbole : An exaggerated expression, which is not literally true, is used to emphasise something. Eg: I've asked you a million times not to do that; She's got tons of money.
  • Idioms : An idiom is a fixed expression whose meaning can't be inferred by understanding of the individual words which make it up. Eg : He got cold feet and decided not to go; I won't beat around the bush...

I would argue that with many expressions, there's an overlap between the categories. Take for example They fight like cat and dog. Well, clearly it's a simile - the use of like shows that. But isn't fight being used metaphorically? It doesn't refer to a literal, physical fight, but just means argue. Similarly, my computer just died - personification, yes. But also metaphor. And what about The ball is in your court? Is it an idiom or is it metaphorical? I suspect that someone who didn't know the meaning would have a hard time working it out just from the original words, but once you do know what it means, it's clearly a metaphorical reference to tennis (or some other similar ball game). And, in fact, looking back at the posts published earlier I noticed that I'd not distinguished between the different categories at all, but had just lumped them all together as idioms. Other writers use other umbrella terms - eg Lazar (2005)refers to them all as "metaphors" but includes a simile sell like hot cakes. And couldn't we also argue that this is an idiom as, again,  the meaning is not immediately apparent from the literal meaning of the words?  

Is it useful to teach figurative language to our learners? Some informal research...

However, for EFL purposes I don't think the precise distinctions really matter. The question we need to answer is do we or don't we need to deal with figurative expressions as a whole?

I think the answer to that is going to depend very much on who the learners are, and also on whether we're talking about teaching the expressions for receptive purposes only or whether we also expect learners to be able to use them productively. Let's look at an example.

Imagine a group of business English learners, who are learning English as an international language - let's say that they're Italian employees of a German company whose main clients are in South America and the Middle East. Here you could argue that productive use of figurative language (especially idioms) by any of the interlocutors might well damage the clarity of the communication, as there would be a definite risk of the other participants not understanding them. And they don't need to communicate with native speakers who  use this sort of language, so do they need it even receptively? When I first asked that question, my gut reaction was no - but then I rethought. Even if they don't need to speak to native speakers, they might well want to read or listen to authentic material - eg the business press. So I picked a few articles at random from that day's press, and counted the number of expressions that would fall into one or other of the categories of figurative language listed above. Here's the result (46 expressions) from just one article from the Daily Mail (1) of 1002 words: 

the demise of (name of company); portend gloom; the health of a retail segment; to buck the blues; to slump into administration; a deadly cocktail of..; to wrack the industry; to grind to a halt; one of retail's bright spots; a passport for success; sales grew; no business is immune from...; to trigger a change; to feel the sting; the sunken value of the pound; margins have been squeezed; wipe out profits; profits plummeted; no room for manoeuvre; come unstuckthat's a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut; at the eleventh hour; bricks and mortar retailers; to make ends meet; to lag behind; to hit a brick wall; players are having to run much faster; is far from the last casualty; bust; inability to keep pace; to shut up shop; swathes of stores; reams of empty space; in droves; space hungry; tick all the boxes; another shining light on the otherwise dim retail landscape; to be hit by; to shoot up; to play across categories; to nibble away at..; to cut out the middle man; a true bellweather; room for error.

But was that just because I was looking at an article from the popular press, I wondered, one that my EIL learners would not be likely to read. So I checked the same story on the BBC website (2). It was  much shorter - only 238 words - but I found nine figurative expressions - disappear, collapse, struggle with, tough competition, to be hit by, casualty, squeezed, put pressure on, and  a string of

In other words, the ratio of figurative expressions to total text was about the same in both sources - which means that any learner who wants to read the British business news is going to have to be able to understand figurative language, even if their primary use of the language is for EIL.

What about other discourse types though? Next I looked at a crime novel (3), and the chapter I happened to be reading last night. In six pages of text I found eleven examples of language I would definitely class as figurative - and three others that were on the borderline. And what I noticed here was that six of them were definitely idioms - ie  items that learners wouldn't be able to understand if they hadn't met them before: to give someone the creeps, to ring a bell, to have a gut feeling, to put your finger on something, to grab the bull by the horns.

Finding examples of spoken English is more difficult. I looked at Crystal and Davy's analysis of conversational English (4), which contains about thirty four pages of transcripts of social conversation. Here I found thirty nine examples of what I would consider figurative language, divided between all the categories analysed above. That's more than one every minute of speech.

There are obviously far too many different discourse genres to check them all - you might like to try yourself with a few genres that your own learners are liable to want to understand : Facebook posts, Tripadvisor reviews, DIY instructions, weather forecasts, biographies, films and TV series, TED Talks - the list is endless.  But I tried one more, a more formal, technical text where I predicted I would be unlikely to find figurative language - a paper from a medical journal (5). There were some metaphorical expressions, but these were very few and far between - I only found four in over 5,300 words And they were mainly technical expressions with a precise meaning that even a non-specialist native speaker would not understand. They were:  to pool data, blind trials/blinding of patients, forest plots, funnel plot. 

Reasons for teaching figurative language receptively

So - whether we need to teach these expressions depends, as was predictable, largely on the learners needs. But probably only a minority of our learners are going to be eg doctors learning English only to speak to other non-native speakers and read medical journals. So for the majority the answer would seem to be yes - at least receptively. If they're going to be able to understand anything that they hear or read, these items are a must.

Another good reason for teaching them receptively is that they can provide a good way of recycling common lexical fields that learners have encountered with their literal meanings. Just going over those meanings again might be necessary, but might also be frustrating for learners who feel that they are just doing the same thing yet again. A quick review of the literal meanings, followed by extension to a figurative meaning, can fulfil the aim of consolidation of the lexis, while still convincing the learners that they are studying something "new" and "more advanced", thus increasing motivation. This is the approach taken in the activities teaching figurative language which were published on the site in the past - have a look now for example at this one on figurative expressions using the lexical fields of fruit and vegetables. Notice that all the activities focus on lexical fields which would be taught at low levels. Bringing the items back in later lessons is essential to ensure retention, but there's a limit to how many lessons we can dedicate "just" to recycling food items. Recycling them through figurative language (obviously items chosen because all the language they contain is within the grasp of the learners, such as to know your onions from the example activity above) is a way to recycle and provide distributed practice while at the same time teaching something new. Lower level learners often appreciate covering this type of simple figurative language too, as it gives them the idea that they are studying something more advanced than just the basic language usually included in elementary and lower intermediate coursebooks.

If you look at the activities on the site, you'll notice too that they often ask learners, once their understanding of the literal meaning of the words has been checked, to infer their figurative meaning from context. See this activity on expressions related to geographical features for example. Inference of meaning from context is an important subskill that needs to be taught in the classroom and using idioms and other figurative expressions is one way to do this. Lowery (2013) claims :  All languages rely heavily on metaphor because human beings use metaphor to make sense of abstract ideas. Some metaphors are universal—usually because they are based on experiences that are common to all humans. She uses the equation of anger with heat as an example  - in English, leading to expressions like get hot under the collar, at boiling point, to blow off steam  etc

But what about productively? Problems encountered by learners.

Obviously, if our learners can use these expressions fluently and accurately, it's going to make their spoken and written production far more impressive. But that's a big "if" and learners are liable to encounter a number of problems when trying to learn and use them:

1. The sheer quantity of items that exist. That was something that emerged very clearly from the informal research I described above. Learners may come across an expression and understand it - but it will be one of many, and with the best will in the world, the teacher may not be able to recycle all the expressions a sufficient number of times for them to be fully assimilated and transferred to productive use. 

2. Many figurative expressions are fixed lexical chunks - substitution of other items is not possible. Try it for example with the idiom kill two birds with one stone. The learner who wants to use it has to get it exactly right, or risks sounding humorous. You can't have two rabbits, three birds or one rock for instance.  This is something exploited in the US TV series NCIS where an Israeli character, Ziva, frequently muddles up figurative expressions, using eg If the glue sticks... when she means If the shoe fits...  However, Lowery (ibid) points out something that I've frequently noticed in my own learning of Italian : if a figurative expression has a conceptual equivalent in the L1, it's easier to remember than otherwise. So, for example, the Italian equivalent of to kill two birds with one stone is to catch two pigeons with one bean. It's not a translation, but is so conceptually similar that I have no difficulty remembering it. This suggests that, wherever possible, learners should be encouraged to parallel English idioms with equivalent expressions in their own language, as an aid to memory. In a monolingual classroom, where the teacher speaks the learners' L1, the items may even be selected for focus on this basis.

3. The lexis they include may not be particularly useful. I said above that a lot of figurative language contains common lexical items and is a useful way of reviewing and consolidating specific lexical fields. But the opposite is also true. Many idioms, for example, include linguistic items that would be rare in "everyday" English, and in some cases are more or less restricted to the specific idiom. Consider an axe to grind, a dead ringer, flog a dead horse, in cahoots with, off his rocker, take a rain check, up the creek without a paddle, bear the brunt. All of them contain lexical items which the learners are unlikely to know already, or need to use.  Just have a quick look back at those I quoted from the Daily Mail article above to see how often this is true.

4. The structures that they include may be problematic, particularly for lower level learners, even if the lexis is well within their grasp. Since I originally published this article, Rachel Tsateri, who was a participant on our Delta Module One course, has pointed out to me the ellipsis in an expression like Cat got your tongue? could cause problems for lower level learners, while an expression like as sure as eggs is eggs would inevitably cause confusion because of the lack of subject verb agreement. Even at higher levels, learners have to cope with "idiosyncratic" constructions such as leave it be. Normally, the rule would be that the verb leave plus object would be followed by to plus infinitive - eg leave the soup to cool, leave me to think about it. Yet here, leave seems to be being used as an equivalent of let, and uses the same bare infinitive structure as in let it be, let it cool, let me think about it.

5. Many figurative expressions are culturally based and/or language specific, and learners attempting to be creative with their use of language who insert figurative expressions into their use of language may be completely misunderstood. For example, consider the concept of long teeth - in English to be long in the tooth means to be getting old; in French to have long teeth means to be ambitious; and in Finnish to do something with long teeth means to do it unwillingly.  Cortazzi (2010) asks how you might respond if one of your students said "My teacher is an old cow". European teachers, he suggests, would probably see it as having a negative connotation, as a comment meaning that the teacher is stupid, unpleasant or ugly. But said by a Chinese learner it would be intended as a compliment and the connotations would be positive - my teacher is hardworking, tireless, productive and never complains.  Transfer of figurative expressions from one language/culture to another can therefore be dangerous.

6.. Regional cultures even within the English speaking world may also determine which expressions are and aren't used. If you come from Britain or Australia for example, you probably won't have any difficulty understanding The chances are about the same as England winning the Ashes next year. But if you're American, Russian, Italian or any other nationality whose culture does not play cricket - well the chance of you understanding the expression are about the same as England winning the Ashes. By now you may have inferred the meaning from the context, and could easily Google it to find the exact meaning. But even if you did, would you want to use it productively? I'd suggest that expressions based on specific cultural factors would sound strange used by someone not from that culture. As a British speaker, I understand a few figurative expressions taken from baseball - an American sport. But I'd be unlikely to use them productively.

7. Cultural variation extends to generational cultures too. The other week I had a hard time not bursting into laughter when a seventy-something B1 level learner in one of my groups replied to something I said with OK, that's cool, meaning That's fine. If he'd been in his twenties, I'd just have been impressed that he'd picked up a very natural figurative expression. But coming from someone in his age group, it just (as I suggested above)) sounded very funny, and I had to explain that while what he'd said was perfectly correct, it was not something that someone of his (or my) generation would be liable to say.

8.Variety of language : Even when not culturally determined, figurative expressions often differ from one variety of the language to another. If you look at the postscript to the suggestions I posted for teaching figurative language associated with colours, you'll see that one which I'd included (blue funk) had a quite different meaning in US English. And similarly, we've seen that in certain genres - eg  medical English papers -  they may be avoided almost entirely. Here's a chunk of the text  a) from the original and b) with some of the expressions replaced with figurative language. The end of the second version is clearly far too informal to be acceptable : 
a) No known structural or anatomical explanation accounts for the pathophysiology of irritable bowel syndrome, and the exact cause remains unknown. 
b) No known structural or anatomical explanation accounts for the pathophysiology of irritable bowel syndrome, and we haven't the foggiest idea what sparks off an attack.
Learners need to know, therefore, the types of discourse where they can and can't be used.

9. And finally - figurative expressions, particularly idioms, can quickly become outdated. The classic example that I've noticed is the idiom It's raining cats and dogs which my Italian learners always seem to know but which is now rarely used and sounds archaic, and - once again - even humorous when proudly trotted out by a lower-level learner. Another expression that comes to mind is fab. Short for fabulous, it was the sixties equivalent of cool, and I know we used it all the time back then. But who would say it now?

So in conclusion, yes - I would suggest that most learners can benefit from exposure to figurative language receptively, and if they can transfer expressions to productive use accurately and appropriately then great (cool even). But they need to be aware of the dangers - that  in some genres they will be inappropriate - for example, too informal; that if used with other non-native speakers (or even with native speakers of a different regional variety of English) they may not be understood; and that misused they can sound humorous or even offensive.

Oh - and by the way : you might like to look through this article again and see how many figurative expressions I used while I was writing it. I don't mean the ones I cited as examples, but those which are actually a part of the text. I hadn't intended to use them when I started writing, but found that as I was formulating ideas they just popped up of their own accord. In another article, I might have replaced them with a more literal expression, but given the topic, this time I decided to leave them be. So how many can you find?

Research Sources



(3) Lackberg, C. (2007) The Hidden Child, translated by Tina Nunnally, 2011 paperback edition pp.241-246. HarperCollins

(4) Crystal, D. and Davy, D. (1975) Advanced Conversational English, Longman

(5)  Ford et al
Effect of fibre, antispasmodics, and peppermint oil in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome: systematic review and meta-analysis

References and Further Web Articles

Activities on the site

Further Reading

Lewis, M. implementing the Lexical Approach, CENGAGE ELT