“Metaphors are much more tenacious than facts.”
~ Paul de Man
Believe it or not, despite our varying degrees of poetic ability, we all try our hand with the poet’s most time honored literary device, metaphor. Metaphor is a technique used to transfer the qualities of one word to another. It seems complicated, but really it’s not. For example, does the following sound familiar? “She has a heart of gold.” Or, “her eyes were shining stars.” Of course, the woman’s heart isn’t really made of gold; nor are her eyes actual celestial bodies. But you get the idea that she’s a kind person with bright and alluring eyes. “Eyes” are, in fact, one of our most favorite ‘metaphorical’ words. Here are a few global perspectives (get the pun?):
“When soldiers have been baptized in the fire of a battle-field, they have all one rank in my eyes.” Leopold Bonaparte (French)
“The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.” Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (German)
“When I look into the future, it’s so bright it burns my eyes.” Oprah Winfrey (English)
A surprising amount of the English language is rooted in metaphorical associations. Anger is linked to fire, as in “inflammatory remarks” or “consumed by rage.” Love is linked to war, as in “love is a battlefield” or “she fled from his advances“. Another common contrast is “up” versus “down,” where “up” is “good” and “down” is “bad.” It’s usually good when we “grow up”, “stand up”, “rise up”, “team up”, “show up”, and “1-up”, but not so good when we “stand down”, “throw down”, “show down”, “burn down”, or “fall down”. We throw our hands in the air when profits “go up”, but our faces drop when profits “go down”.
One way English speakers can help smooth out communication in multicultural contexts is by using literal ways of talking rather than metaphorical, or non-literal, ways. For non native English speakers, phrasal verbs are often the most difficult to understand. A phrasal verb is when we take a word like “make” and add an adjective like “up”. This creates the phrase “to make up”. The reason verb phrases are confusing is because they often have more than one meaning. In this case, “to make up” can mean to fabricate, to re-do, or to reconcile. How about the phrase “to make out”? Can you think of at least three meanings?
Mastering a second language can be a challenge. There’s a lot that goes into it: grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, and pronunciation. Here’s a tip English speakers can use to make the process easier for others: use as much direct, literal speech as possible. This can take some mindfulness and practice. Americans, including me, love indirect speech. In fact, we use non-literal phrases around the clock, night and day, and 24/7! But if we can get into the habit of using words like “arrive” instead of “show up”, and “give” instead of “hand out”, it’s more likely our message will be understood with ease and confidence. How do we know it’s time to use more poetic license? Listen for when the other person starts using idiomatic expressions and non-literal phrases. When you recognize them… follow their lead!
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
~ Albert Einstein
As it turns out, speaking a language isn’t just about using our ears and mouth. Our eyes play an integral role during conversation – and I don’t mean in terms of interpreting body language or unspoken messages. I’m talking about pronunciation. In some cases, your eyes are even more important than your ears.
Take, for example, the McGurk Effect. This phenomenon is a perfect example of the role vision plays when processing the sounds of a language. Here’s how it works:
Imagine closing your eyes and hearing a recording of someone saying the sound, “da”. However, when you open your eyes, and hear the recording again, you’re shown a video of someone making the “ba” sound. You know what often happens in this case? When watching the video of “ba” while hearing the sound “da”, people say they hear “ba” rather than “da”. It’s an aural illusion! Even when you know what’s going on, it’s hard to make your brain hear “da” while your eyes see “ba.” (This is the stuff psycholinguists live for!)
Here’s another way our eyes can fool us… it’s called the Stroop Effect. Most of us reading this would have no trouble saying the following aloud: red blue green orange.
Nor would we stumble over: red blue green orange. But a good many of us will pause a moment before saying: red blue green orange!
Why? Because speaking, with correct pronunciation, involves using every major area of brain functionality. Neurons from the regions responsible for each of our five senses–hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, and seeing–need to communicate with one another. This is a whole brain, and difficult, process. And one, by the way, that may be well worth the effort.
It appears that learning a language may be an exceptionally effective tool for delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s. As Meredith Melnick reported for TIME Healthland:
“The key may be something called cognitive reserve. Learning and speaking two languages requires the brain to work harder, which helps keep it nimble… the idea is to help the brain create and maintain more neural connections. Brains with more cognitive reserve – and therefore more flexibility and executive control – are thought to be better able to compensate for the loss of neurons associated with Alzheimer’s.”
In fact, Ms. Melnick notes that with each language learned, the longer the adult is likely to delay the onset of significant memory loss. She notes that trilinguals were three times less likely to have cognitive problems than bilinguals; quadrilinguals and other polyglots were five times less likely to develop cognitive problems.
This strikes me as a pretty good reason to learn a foreign language. And just like each of the five senses are critical to the process, so too are each of the five areas to creating true fluency: grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, and… don’t forget, pronunciation!
“Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”
~ Winston Churchill
In the United States, children in English class are taught a slew of rules about their language. Innumerable rules. Our English teachers tell us we’re not allowed to split our infinitives, dangle our prepositions, or ever take our eyes off those inscrutable gerunds, transitives, primary auxiliaries, modal auxiliaries, participles… you name it!
They tell us that “ain’t” ain’t a word and that the plural of “fish” is “fish” while the plural of “ox” is “oxen”. The value begins to break down, however, when grammarians insist that the rules of English are rigid and unchanging. In fact, strict grammarians claim that most of our language rules change little from generation to generation. English teachers of this camp are what linguistics call “prescriptivists,” a term for people who prescribe what the rules of language are and should continue to be.
On the other side of the spectrum is what linguists call “descriptivists,” people who describe the rules of language as they are spoken by the majority of its users. Descriptivists believe that language is a living thing. It evolves as people use it. (Psssst! We’re descriptivists.) Taking a descriptive view of language lets us talk about what people actually say instead of what we think they ought to be saying.
If we listened to prescriptivists, Elvis would have been hanged (or is it “hung”?) for singing “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” We couldn’t say that crews of sunken ships are “sleeping with the fishes.” The millions of native English speakers who say “I had drank some juice” would have to be sent back to 5th grade. We wouldn’t be able to warn someone that we’re about to “pass out”, “give up”, or “fall down”. And worst of all, we would never have been able “to boldly go where no one has gone before”.
While it may seem otherwise, we’re not actually in favor of linguistic anarchy. Heavens no! Rather, what we’d love to see is a slightly less rigid approach to linguistic rules. Unlike the laws of nature, language is man-made. Over the course of millennia, we created our family of languages to solve a universal problem: how to communicate essential information in order to navigate, together, the myriad challenges our environment posed. And still poses. Because our environments (and needs) change… so too must our language, rules and all.
In this regard, we can look at pronunciation rules much like grammar rules. They’re important; in fact, they’re vital. But they’re also fluid. One generation of American English speakers pronounce the ‘t’ in “water”, the next generation (or two) doesn’t. One generation pronounces the ‘al’ in specifically, the next generation (or two) doesn’t. So when do we know which pronunciation patterns are “right” and which are “wrong”? We think it all goes back to the question of why they’re rules in the first place. Is it because that’s the way Shakespeare spoke? (By the way, I reread Hamlet a little while back. It’s a far cry from positive, grammatical role modeling!) Is an accent right because of certain intrinsic, universally agreed upon values? Maybe not. We believe that when the vast majority of people use the same pronunciation patterns, this becomes, defacto, the “correct” accent. Why? Because chances are we’ll all have a better chance of getting our point across… of being understood. That’s why we teach Standard American Pronunciation. It’s not because it’s inherently correct. “Correct” changes over time. It’s because it works!
Many of us have spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to learn a second language. Maybe it was to fulfill a language requirement, maybe it was in preparation for a relocation, maybe it was simply to make a vacation that much more fun. Somewhere on the path to fluency I would wager that most of us stopped and wondered, “Is it really worth it? This takes so much time. And it’s hard. Maybe I can just get by with a dictionary.”
The US Department of Defense seems to think it’s very worth it. In fact, sizable amounts of training budgets are now allocated to teaching our servicemen and women deploying to Afghanistan the languages of the region: Dari and Pashto. Of course there are strategic advantages to speaking the language of the populace. Imagine all the unpleasant scenarios that can be avoided by being conversant with local residents. But there are other reasons as well. Key military figures, from General Petraeus to General Mattis, see this as a key piece of counterinsurgency strategy, a necessary requisite for creating a collaborative relationship with the Afghan people.
It’s said that learning to speak another person’s language is the single most important part of creating a personal connection. In essence, speaking someone’s language is a relationship builder. Is that really true?
In order to answer this, I turned to idioms. Idiomatic phrases tend to give that added ‘umph’ to literal meanings. They get at the underlying feeling of what’s being said. With that in mind, look
at the following examples and determine which is the more powerful phrase, (A) or (B):
- We’re on the same wavelength.
- We speak the same language.
- We see eye to eye.
- We speak the same language.
- We’re on the same side of the fence.
- We speak the same language.
- We’re cut from the same cloth.
- We speak the same language.
My suggestion to language learners, myself included, is to stick with it. For those of us who work in private industry, there’s nothing better than clear communication with individuals on every rung of the corporate ladder. Because while it’s good to be on the same page, it’s better to speak the same language!