Metaphor activity: what do you think of Modern Languages

Metaphor activity table
Marianna Bolognesi

Being humans, we often imagine and describe complex subjects by means of concrete and simple things that we can see, touch, and use on a daily basis. This is how metaphors are born. We talk about ‘ideas’ as if they were objects, that can be given and stolen, and even digested.

Metaphor tiles

How we see and describe the identity of Modern Languages, compared to the Humanities and the Sciences, was the topic of our stand at the Being Human festival in November 2017 at Oxford's Museum of Natural History, organised by TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities). We selected three colours, three animals and three fruits that could possibly describe the three subjects, and asked visitors to associate a fruit, a colour and an animal to each of the three subjects (Languages, Sciences, Humanities).

Our goal for this activity was that of exploring how Modern Languages are perceived and to discover what their status and identity is, compared to that of the Humanities and Sciences. Once we have a clearer idea about the status of Modern Languages in the public eye, we can start working on how this can be changed and improved, first of all by framing the discussion in different terms.

Here are the results of our survey:

Languages = yellow pineapple monkey

yellow pineapple monkey

The Humanities = red strawberry lion

red strawberry lion

The Sciences = blue apple bee

blue apple bee

We had over 1,200 cards submitted over the course of the Being Human event. The results suggest that, of the three subjects, Languages has the least clearly defined identity. While there is a clear winner for each category for the Humanities and the Sciences, there is more variation across the cards chosen for Languages.

For example, you can see in the below graphs that the preferred colour for Languages is yellow, but this adds up to only 35% (just over one third) of the total number of colour cards for that subject. Conversely, for the Sciences, the preferred colour was blue with 50% of the total number of colour cards for that subject – a much clearer winner. Similarly, the Humanities had a clear winner for each category, especially in the animal category, where 52% of animal cards selected for the Humanities were the lion card.


Colours by subject

Colours graph

Fruits by subject

Graph fruits by subject

Animals by subject

animal graph

The most creative participants also contributed by adding their personal metaphors to the following prompts: “Studying Languages is like …”, “Studying the Humanities is like …” and “Studying the Sciences is like…”. The metaphors, and the discussions with participants that ensued, gave a great insight into different views of the three subjects. Below are some examples of metaphors submitted.

languages metaphor walking

studying languages is like going to the gym

Studying humanities is like catching bubble

Studying the humanities is like being an explorer

Studying sciences is like being in a relationship

Studying sciences is like struggling through tar

It's important to note that this is not a statistically valid experiment but rather a qualitative survey that allows us to explore how the identity of Modern Languages is perceived in the public eye compared to the Humanities and the Sciences. We will use the results collected on the night to plan further research activities, and will also discuss the outcomes in a meeting with experts in the field of Modern Languages and metaphor at a lunchtime discussion event in February 2018. The event is open to the public – register now for your free ticket.

We'd love to hear your metaphors about studying Languages, the Sciences and the Humanities - email usshare them on our Facebook page or tweet us!

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Where next?

New British Academy report highlights importance of language skills

Oxford Lieder Festival: languages as performance

Inspiring pupils: multilingual creative writing