Weaving ropes of language

by on November 4, 2015

How do you visualise language learning? Perhaps you imagine building a tower, brick by brick. Or perhaps you see it more like furnishing an empty room. Or perhaps you swallow each word by the spoonful and let it become a part of you. Or perhaps you don’t think about what language learning is “like” much at all… but perhaps you should. Here’s a designer idea for how to start: think of a rope.

A few weeks ago, several hundred linguaphiles descended on a small theatre in New York City for the 2015 Polyglot Conference. Among the fascinating speakers at the conference was Michael Erard, journalist, author, and—this is the weird one—metaphor designer. Erard actually develops new metaphors as part of his career—he did it full time for five years at the FrameWorks Institute, and still does it for private sector clients and others.

Professionally designed metaphors like Erard’s are a little different from the poet’s or the writer’s. They’re not meant to be beautiful, he explains in Aeon Magazine. “They’re meant to make someone realise that they’ve only been looking at one side of a thing.” The creation process is quite rigorous. Erard reaches deep into linguistic and social theory and cognitive mapping, as well as spontaneous ingenuity, to come up with a number of possible metaphors for a concept. In detailed reports, he articulates at length the aptness and flexibility of the metaphor as well as its potential ramifications for public understanding. Finally, he tests the metaphors with members of the public by putting them through focus groups and posing them to people on the street. Only the ones that really work the way he wants them to make the cut.

Companies and organisations might pay for the development of a metaphor that helps to change the way people look or think about an issue. For example, one metaphor Erard helped design at the FrameWorks Institute proposed looking at children’s executive function as Air Traffic Control for Your Brain—organisation is important, and so is training and runway space to some extent, but ultimately there can only be so many planes in the air. This study was sponsored by The Center of the Developing Child at Harvard University as part of research on effective ways to communicate about the policy implications of science on early childhood development.

Erard even has a metaphor for metaphor, useful as he persuades potential clients of the usefulness of his work. For example, in “See Through Words”, he says he thinks of metaphors as a room whose windows and doors frame a certain view of the reality outside. The metaphor designer, then, is like the architect who places the windows and doors, guiding the viewer to share the perspective the architect intended.

Erard had come to the Polyglot Conference to share with us his metaphor for language learning, explaining that developing such a complex skill is like weaving a rope.

A good rope has many strands, which must be woven together tightly in order for the rope to be strong. The strands and the technique of weaving the rope can be compared with the skills learners begin with—their own special talents, their pre-existing related knowledge—as well as new skills they are developing and strengthening. But the rope won’t weave itself. Many strands or few, good technique or poor; what is perhaps most essential is the time and effort of weaving it all together. And once complete, the rope is a useable thing, a tool.

In a FrameWorks report written in March 2013, Erard explains and tests the idea of using rope weaving as a metaphor for learning in general. The Institute hoped it would be useful in explaining and arguing for educational policies.

“The metaphor,” Erard wrote, “enabled people to see that skills are dynamic, that learning is lifelong, and that the best way to create positive learning outcomes involves weaving social and emotional skill development into cognitive skill development.”

The metaphor also worked on an additional level—the purpose-oriented goal of the learning is also embedded in the comparison. After a rope is woven, it then functions as a useful tool—just as a new skill, once learned, can be used as a tool in life. Erard explains that the metaphor in fact works on three levels: the functional, the structural, and the processual:

“A rope is perhaps one of the few items that qualifies as a tool whose construction people can imagine, see, and perhaps even do. In other words, weaving ropes combines functional (what something does), structural (what something is made of) and processual (how something is made) entailments.”

Just like Erard says a good metaphor should do, as soon as I heard of the ropes metaphor, I felt that I intuitively grasped it and wanted to explore it further. It felt simple enough to offer a clear viewpoint, but flexible enough to incorporate many of the unique elements and variables of the learning process. It helped me see and talk about the landscape of learning in new ways.

I thought about the polyglots at the conference, and what the metaphor could mean for our language learning, which sometimes appears so exceptional to those less fascinated by foreign tongues. Perhaps polyglots come to the rope-weaving with a few more strands already at the ready (for some, perfect mimicry; for others, a good memory for vocabulary). And then, from the other languages we’ve woven, perhaps we already know some of the techniques and have prepared a few more strands (perhaps we’ve already figured out how to dominate tones, or can make the mental shift to a case-based language).

Certainly, we’re starting with more experience, more of a vision and more of a plan for our ropes than my elementary school Spanish students, who are still weaving their first conscious ropes and going about it a little blindly—albeit with a teacher guiding their hands. Budding linguaphiles working on their first foreign language-rope might find the process a bit frustrating at times, when more strands have to be spun from scratch and their developing technique makes progress sometimes slower than they would like. But if they stick with it, they’ll get better with time—this rope will be woven, and the next one will come easier.

But for brand new language learners, hyperpolyglots, and everyone else in between, one thing is certain: that rope isn’t going to weave itself. The time, the effort, the patience, the motivation, the basic action of weaving—and, for real fluency, the melding together of the cognitive with the social and emotional—still needs to happen.

Erard’s presentation was the first time I’d knowingly gazed through such a deliberately and professionally crafted metaphor window, and I was sold. The rope-weaving metaphor for language learning felt suggestive, helpful, and flexible—even, although I know it’s beside the point, beautiful.

Leave a Comment