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Thursday, February 16, 2012


I like to use analogies when describing new or complex concepts to my students.  An analogy is a comparison between two items that share characteristics.  Often the items being compared do not obviously share qualities and the analogy needs further explanation.  One might express the notion that the brain is like a vessel or bucket.  Knowledge is poured into it until it is full and once it is full, it can no longer accept more information.  Others might analogize the brain as an engine which can continue to take in fuel (knowledge) and process that fuel to move the person through life.  Your has some more good examples of analogies.

I’d like to analogize the process of learning a language.  I feel it is like learning a sport, say tennis.  When you learn tennis, you can begin playing with just a basic knowledge of the rules and some experience with a racket.  Likewise, you can begin communicating in English with a few words and some knowledge of the language under your belt.  However, if you want to improve your skills and compete with more advanced players, you must develop your skills through observation, practice, repetition and automatizing.  Serious tennis players will watch other players for ideas about how to react in certain situations and how to use the racket to their best advantage.  Similarly, English learners should observe other English speakers for examples of effective communication and use of the language.   Learners should then practice the skills and strategies they noticed and repeat them multiple times in a variety of situations until they don’t have to think about how to do it.  The response becomes automatic. 

Another way to analogize tennis and English is to think about the back and forth of a tennis game like a conversation where the ball is the topic.  One player serves the ball (starts the conversation) and the other player responds.  The way the second player responds depends on the way the first player started, so one must pay attention to the other player, anticipate their moves and be prepared with a response.  You must also be prepared to match the level of seriousness of the other player.  If you are friends just hitting the ball around for fun (chatting informally) you will play with less seriousness (use less formal language).  If you are competitors playing in a serious match, you be play with more seriousness and use all the strategies as effectively as possible.  Likewise if you are having a high-stakes conversation with an important potential business partner, you will use all of your linguistic skills and a high degree of formality in your conversation. 

Analogies are often found in literature as well as in the lyrics of many classic and modern day songs.  A good exercise for noticing analogies is to listen carefully (or read the lyrics) to some songs that you like and try to identify comparisons.  Here are some examples.

In Pat Benatar’s Heartbreaker, she sings, Your love is like a tidal wave, spinning over my head Drownin' me in your promises, better left unsaid.”

In Elton John's Candle in the Wind, he sings, “And it seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind.  Never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in.”

I enjoy analogizing.  It involves creativity and it can be a great way to remember new vocabulary words. There is no real right or wrong analogy as things can be viewed in many different ways.  I would love to read some comments about other analogies for the brain and learning a language.  What other analogies do you use regularly?  How can the use of analogies impact your language learning process? 

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