Gardening - a metaphor for language learning?

Linda Fisher

Many people will have heard the metaphor coined by the late, great language educator Eric Hawkins, that teaching a foreign language in school, is like ‘gardening in a gale’. The idea that English gusts around, unsettling any young roots that may have taken tentative hold during the (very few) language lessons available each week, is a perceptive, if depressingly vivid image. Why should it be that Hawkins’s aphorism is so memorable, though, and so often quoted?

Perhaps it is precisely because Hawkins uses a metaphor. It is fairly well understood that people use metaphor as a way of making connections between ideas, and that once these are made they become part of our mental mapping and influence how we make sense of the world. In short, we use metaphor to see something more clearly by comparing it with something else. The very fact that we are juxtaposing two things that wouldn’t normally sit together, here language teaching and gardening, means we have to puzzle out the meaning, and going through this process makes the metaphor memorable.

Of course the other reason that Hawkins’s phrase is striking and often quoted is because, for many teachers and students, it rings true: how can linguistic proficiency and cultural curiosity in a foreign language be cultivated in a couple of hours a week, when the rest of the time in the UK we are, in the main, awash with English?

New metaphors: growing cress and greenhouse classrooms

So, in practical terms, as well as lobbying for more time in language lessons, we can focus on generating as much motivation for and enjoyment of languages as possible, so that learners spend more time outside of lessons on their studies. Given that Creative Multilingualism focuses on metaphor as one of its key themes, perhaps we could begin by generating new metaphors to help students and teachers conceptualise language learning differently: realistically yes, but more positively. If we were to stick with the gardening theme for now, here are two simple metaphors to start things off:

For learning languages: ‘Learning languages is (like) growing cress’.

For teaching languages: ‘The languages classroom is a greenhouse’.

Before you read on, take a minute to think. Why might language learning be like growing cress, or the classroom be a greenhouse? My reasoning is below.

‘Learning languages is (like) growing cress’

It takes a while to see results. You have to be committed to watering (learning) a little every day, but soon you see something happen (you make progress) and the results are tasty and good for you (it’s fun and beneficial).  You can, especially when you get the gardening bug and have been successful, soon go on to grow bigger and better things (progress in the language, learn others).

‘The languages classroom is a greenhouse’

We must sow the seeds of language learning in a protective environment (developing confidence in learners’ first steps/self-efficacy/a sense of enjoyment), develop the seedlings paying attention to each (differentiate the work and the ways we encourage) and to the climate we’re creating (ambience of the classroom), expose them to nutrients (good basics in terms of vocabulary and grammar, but also to interesting, uplifting input (stories poems culture). When they are strong (motivated, with a little proficiency), plant them out, but supported by canes and only when they are ready remove the canes that support them (develop more independent learning/different teaching methods e.g. task-based learning). Then when the harsh winds (GCSE revision time, the slog of irregular verbs, or a poor result) come along, the resilience/hardiness is inbuilt.

If you’ve read this far you might agree that the metaphor has at this point been a little overworked! But is it memorable? Has it engaged your thinking? Can you come up with better metaphors for language learning?