Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Meanings and Metaphors

It's hard to believe that one of my classes has already finished.  A Speaking and Listening class. With very good English speakers.  They are a class of nurses from all over China, more mature, outspoken, and motivated to improve English.  They are a part of the Lida Global Initiative, which serves students who are interested in international opportunities.

I had the class of 13 for 6 short weeks. It really did fly by because it was more of a 90-minute salon of conversation where I'd learn about their lives, help with pronunciation, clean up little preposition danglings and give safe space to speak in public.  My American skill, as absorbed from a verbose culture, came in handy for this class and proved entertaining for all.  It was all very organic, a kind of free association of speech, where new vocabulary and colloquial phrases would be generated and written on the board, kind of like how rap is free-styled first and then written down, instead of looking at words first and then reading them as dictated.

We studied from a book called Meanings and Metaphors, to springboard towards more advanced modes of expression.  It makes sense that when you learn a language, the brass tacks of grammar and the acquisition of vocabulary all stem from a more literal space.  As language progresses, the more comparative and poetic realms signal sophistication and a more playful and possibly profound way to communicate.  A very cool aspect of this endeavor is the feel one gets from a culture by how it expresses itself figuratively.

We spent the first couple of weeks figuring metaphors from similes from the Brit text:
My nephew is a real monkey!
The old woman had hair as white as snow.
He told her jokingly that she was the sunshine of his life!
The book sold like hot cakes.
This old house is a historic gem.
Just because you have an established career path...doesn't mean you have to stick with it.
Traditionally, the diet of language offered to our students has been grammar with a separate helping of vocabulary mixed into give the required flavour.
Madeira is a magnet to lovers of a warm climate.
I mean I just felt like a fish out of water at his party.
All written work should include an introduction, where you set the context and outline of the 'map' of what is to follow.  This map should include what you are going to cover, why you have decided on this particular approach, and how your argument will develop.

And the students--Shirley, Betty, Alice, Sandy, Fran, Christine, Lillian, Angela, Sophie, Chris, Kelly, Cindy, Lily--would bring in translations of Chinese metaphors, or the ones they had either come across in their English readings or made up:

A book is like a garden carried in the pocket.
With money you are a dragon, with none, a worm.
Better late than never.
The weather in June is like a child's face: it changes quickly.
The students are like the flowers (hello Mao!).
Silence is golden.
Let me fly like a bird.
A nest is to a bird what a house is to a man.
The baby crawls on the ground just like a snail.
My dad was boiling mad.
The inside of the car was a refrigerator.
His idea was hard to swallow.
Calling a deer a horse (making a mistake).
A naive calf is not afraid of a tiger.  

We also explored the parts of the body, both literal placements and figurative assignments:

head of the company, good head for business
a sharp eye for color, a keen eye for talent
an ear for music, an ear for dialect
mouth of a river, a loudmouth
heart of the city, don't break my heart
nose of the airplane, good nose for a story
lend me a hand, let's give him a big hand
foot of the stairs, foot in the mouth 

And finally, time and money.  This was a big topic for the final test, which was to speak for 3 minutes and then to answer questions from the class for 2 minutes.  Sophie talked about how once time is gone, it can never come back, and asked if time were more precious than money. She said it was because money cannot buy time or true friendship or lasting love or physical health.  Shirley had to disagree, because it is a commercial world now.  Money may not be useful for those who wish for a simple life, but money can improve the quality of life.  It can also provide opportunities to travel, as well as allow one to buy more clothes for beauty, and more books for enlightenment.  Angela had to agree that money is everything, that it is the most important for basic life and also a comfortable life.  But time is even more important.  For example, there was a Company A and a Company B.  Both were vying for a large contract from a foreign company.  Company A was late for its meeting and so Company B got the contract. Time costs money.  Time is life.  Just after the Sichuan earthquake, there was only a short time to save the people who were trapped under the rubble.  There is no money that could buy more time after the disaster.

It's true that metaphors can help us understand an idea more clearly, or be more persuasive, or colorful, or emotional, or memorable.  After 8 years of remedial English as spoken by the literal, frat boy mentality of the current U.S. president, no wonder the front runner candidate is able to win over a mass of the citizenry with his use of figurative language:

A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence, or a good piece of music.  Everybody can recognize it.  They say:  Huh.  It works.  It makes sense.

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.  We are the ones we've been seeking for.  We are the change that we seek.

I cannot swallow whole the view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.

We're not going to babysit a civil war.

Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition.  It asks so little of yourself.  Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize true potential.

If you're walking down the right path and you're willing to keep walking, eventually you'll make progress.

Words do inspire.

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