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Vera Lucia Menezes Oliveira e Paiva*


The present article focuses on a series of metaphors found in texts on language and language learning, and discusses the criticisms of the acquisition metaphor and the addition of participation as a new concept to represent language learning. The main theoretical proposals for second language acquisition (SLA) have been selected in order to verify which theories use acquisition and which use participation. While scrutinizing those texts, I found that other metaphors have also been proposed; however, acquisition and participation are still the most prevalent. Participation has been used as a metaphor since Sfard (1998) and has been well accepted in Applied Linguistics. Therefore, I present the cognitive view of metaphor and metonymy and demonstrate that, according to the cognitive studies on metaphor, participation cannot be seen as a metaphor, but rather as a metonym. To prove this, I use the metonymic model proposed by Lakoff (1990) as support. I conclude, agreeing with Ortega (2009) that a metaphorical polyphony can help us understand the complex phenomenon of language and language learning. Nevertheless, metonyms must not be disregarded.

Keywords: second language acquisition; participation metaphor; metaphor, metonym.


Este artigo apresenta uma série de metáforas encontradas em textos que falam sobre linguagem e aprendizagem de línguas e discuto as críticas à metáfora da aquisição e a adição de participação como um novo conceito para representar a aprendizagem de línguas. Foram selecionadas as principais propostas teóricas para a aquisição de segunda língua para verificar quais teorias usam aquisição e quais usam participação. Ao examinar esses textos, foi possível observar que outras metáforas também têm sido propostas, mas que aquisição e participação ainda são as predominantes. Participação tem sido usada como uma metáfora desde Sfard (1998) e foi bem aceita na Linguística Aplicada. Em seguida, apresento a visão cognitiva da metáfora e da metonímia e demonstro que, de acordo com os estudos cognitivos sobre a metáfora, participação não pode ser vista como metáfora, mas como uma metonímia. Para provar isso, uso como suporte o modelo proposto para a metonímia por Lakoff (1990). Concluo, concordando com Ortega (2009) que uma polifonia metafórica pode nos ajudar a compreender o fenômeno complexo da linguagem e da aprendizagem de línguas, mas que metonímias não devem ser desconsideradas.

Palavras-chave: aquisição de segunda língua; a metáfora da participação; metáfora, metonímia.

UFMG, Belo Horizonte, Brasil. vlmop@veramenezes.com *

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“What’s in a name?” says Juliet to Romeo, trying to convince him to abandon his family name - Montague – because a name is simply a meaningless convention.

Juliet wants Romeo to deny his father, her family’s enemy, and become only her lover. As a counterpart she would “no longer be a Capulet”. Romeo accepts and says: “Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized”. But does he lose his identity by changing his name and “acquiring” a new identity? Can we use the same reasoning to abandon the acquisition metaphor? Does baptizing a concept with a new name change its essence? What are the metaphors for language, and learning?


The cognitive approach to metaphor has definitively buried the idea of metaphor as an ornament of language. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) have proven that we live by metaphors and that they are present in our thoughts as well as in ordinary, scientific, or literary language. Since then, metaphor has been seen as a conceptual tool for our thoughts and communication.

As acknowledged by Meskill (2003, p, 27): “in research of all traditions, metaphor is used as a conceptual tool to make concrete, and make sense of, complex phenomena.” Language is one of those complex phenomena, which have been explained by means of different metaphors.

Reddy (19931) was the first to discuss the means through which language is metaphorically conceptualized. He views language as an objectified entity. In his work on the conduit metaphor, Reddy explains that we talk about communication by means of a metaphorical model for communication. He claims that “[T] his model of communication objectifies meaning in a misleading and dehumanizing fashion. It influences us to talk and think thoughts as if they had the same kind of external, intersubjective lamps and tables” (p.186).

According to Reddy (1993, p.189), “human language functions like a conduit enabling the transfer of repertoire members from one individual to another.” In this view, ideas and thoughts are objects that are put into words (containers) and sent to one or more interlocutors through language, the conduit.

The conduit metaphor was present in Aristotle (Poetics, part XXV), when he says: “The vehicle of expression is language,–either current terms or, it may be, rare words or metaphors.” For Aristotle, language is a vehicle, a conduit, a transport, or 1 First published in 1979.

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a means of expression. Saussure and Chomsky, on the other hand, use the faculty metaphor.

Saussure and Chomsky see language as part of the human body, as a biological faculty, as well as a system made up of structures. For Saussure (1966, p.9), language (langue) “is both a social product of the faculty of speech and a collection of necessary conventions that have been adopted by a social body to permit individuals to exercise that faculty.” For Chomsky2 (2002), there is a language organ, a component of the human brain “that is responsible for these unique and indeed wondrous achievements” (p.47), “part of the human biological endowment” (p.85). System is also a metaphor which appears repeatedly in their reflections on language. Although the idea of structure can be found in Saussure, there is no occurrence of that metaphor per se. However, it is recursively employed by Chomsky.

As the editors of Chomsky (2002, p.1) remind us: “The idea of focusing on the Language Faculty was not new; it had its roots in the classical rationalist perspective of studying language as a “mirror of the mind,” as a domain offering a privileged access to the study of human cognition”. In fact, Plato, in Theaetetus, discusses

his theory of innate ideas through his character Socrates, who says:

Yes, my boy, for no one can suppose that in each of us, as in a sort of Trojan horse, there are perched a number of unconnected senses, which do not all meet in some one nature, the mind, or whatever we please to call it, of which they are the instruments, and with which through them we perceive objects of sense.

In this excerpt, the mind is also seen as a container (the Trojan horse) and concepts as instruments. On the same track, Aristotle (On the soul, part 5) defends that “what knowledge apprehends is universal, and these are in a sense within the soul”. The soul stands for the mind and is also conceptualized as a container.

The modern rationalist Descartes also believed that human being have innate ideas. He states that, among the ideas, “some appear to me to be innate, some adventitious, and others to be formed [or invented] by myself; for, as I have the power of understanding what is called a thing, or a truth, or a thought, it appears to me that I hold this power from no other source than my own nature” (DESCARTES, 2007, p.15). For the illuminist Humboldt (1999), language is also produced by inner mental powers.

2 I chose these specific excerpts from Chomsky (2002) but the same metaphors appear repeatedly throughout his works.

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There are other metaphors for language. A common one is language as family, which can be found in metaphorical expressions, such as the “Indo-European family of languages”, “our mother language”, “sister languages”, among others. As such, we can say that a language “descends” from another and that it pertains to a certain “family”. (SEARGENT, 2009, p. 384).

Another powerful metaphor is that of language as a possession. Seargent (2009, p. 384) suggests that language understood as a possession “is one of the fundamental metaphors for contemporary understandings of language”, among others, such as “language is a family.” He offers examples of linguistic manifestations of the possession metaphor in everyday discourse “taken from the British National

Corpus (BNC) and from mainstream media sources” (p.386). Two of these are:

“My Portuguese, of course, was as excellent as my English” (BNC, H9N 2654) and “The exiles who also lost their language” (The Independent, December 26, 2000).

Chomsky (2002, p. 47) also uses the possession metaphor when he affirms: “This language organ or ‘faculty of language’ as we may call it, is a common human possession, varying little across the species (…).” Language is a game is another productive metaphor. Wittgenstein (1958, p.5) states: “I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the ‘language-game’”. Both Wittgenstein and Saussure use the chess metaphor. Among the many references to chess to explain what language is and how it works, Wittgenstein (1958, p.15) claims: “The shape of the chessman corresponds here to the sound or shape of a word”, while Saussure (1966) explains the functioning of language by saying that “[T]he respective value of the pieces depends on their position on the chessboard just as each linguistic term derives its value from its opposition to all the other terms” (p.28).

In the next section, I will discuss the metaphors for language learning.


The prevalent metaphor of today is language acquisition, which is either used for the mother tongue or for additional languages. Second language acquisition points to a field of research, in which several books on the subject contain the noun “acquisition” in their titles. This term also appears in books dealing with specific aspects of language, such as “the acquisition of syntax”, “vocabulary acquisition”, or “the acquisition of prepositions”. The acquisition metaphor is present in a wide range of theories. Lado (1964, p.7), for instance, one of the supporters of the 148 Trab. Ling. Aplic., Campinas, n(53.1): 145-162, jan./jun. 2014 What’s in a name? The quest for new metaphors for second language acquisition behaviorist approach for language teaching, sees the acquisition of automatic skills as part of the process of language learning; Schumman (1978) studies the acquisition of negatives by Alberto, a 33-year old Porto Rican. Chomsky (2002) postulated the existence of a language acquisition device, and his followers in SLA research, such as White (1987) and Gregg (1996), also use the acquisition metaphor. One can find the acquisition metaphor even in the works whose focus is on the social aspect of learning, as in the interaction hypothesis (LONG and HATCH, 1978;

LONG, 1980) and in the output hypothesis (SWAIN, 1993; 2000), although Swain seems to prefer to use learning rather than acquisition. The output metaphor was criticized because it was seen as part of the conduit metaphor. Swain (2006) acknowledged the criticism and replaced output with languaging. It is interesting to observe that the acquisition metaphor does not appear in Swain (2006). Instead, she uses “second language proficiency” and “language learning”.

Krashen (1978) proposed to distinguish acquisition from learning. For him, acquisition is an unconscious process and learning a conscious one. By so doing, he denies that they represent two sides of the same coin and does not accept that learning and acquisition are both parts of the same process. For him, the function of learning is simply monitoring. Although other SLA researchers continued to use both acquisition and learning interchangeably, this dualism has met its doom in the realm of SLA research, and today, when an author refuses to acknowledge the proposed difference, it is always necessary to make it clear that they understand the distinction but will use the terms alternatively. Swain (1993, p.159), for instance, used both with a slash, when she says: “[T]he output hypothesis proposes that through producing language, either spoken or written, language acquisition/learning may occur (Swain, 1985)”.

However, our problem here is not only about the distinction between learning and acquisition, but also about the inadequacy of the acquisition metaphor.

When a metaphor undergoes criticism, it disturbs the academic community whose members either admit that they will not take a position or make an effort to offer a better one to substitute or complement the metaphor under attack.

Even when a metaphor is not explicitly mentioned, it might be inferred in expressions pertaining to the same frame. The metaphor “language as a possession”, for instance, underlies the metaphorical expression “language acquisition”. Language is understood as a commodity, something the learner (a recipient) acquires from those who possess it. This metaphor presupposes that language is a collection of objects acquired along the learning process and then becomes the possessor of this treasure.

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