Language Learning is Weaving a Rope

Attempts by educators and policy makers to increase foreign language enrollments and change attitudes about foreign language learning in the US haven’t been very effective because they don’t know how to reframe the conversation, asserts Michael Erard in this Blog post. Meanwhile, language teachers are overly eager to dismiss the role that language aptitude plays in language learning outcomes because they don’t have a way to talk about how aptitude, motivation, and resources have to work together. One way to start resolving these impasses in the public conversation is through the use of one of FrameWorks’ powerful educational metaphors: that of learning a language as weaving a rope. Michael Erard, previously a Senior Researcher with FrameWorks, wrote this editorial for Schwa Fire, a new digital publication featuring long-form journalism about language and life.

Reframing the Ordinary with Metaphors

There are some ordinary things in life that you think don’t need a metaphor. But once you hear the metaphor, it helps you see the ordinary in a whole new way. I found two cases that recently floated across my social media radar that are not only presented well, but are also immediately evident in their necessity.

The first is a video by Canadian sex educator K.B. Chan, based on an essay, “Toward a Performance Model of Sex,” by a feminist writer with the pseudonym Thomas MacAulay Millar. It compares sex to a jam (“not as in a fruit spread, but as in a musical jam”) – in other words, sex is something fun that people do consensually together, which is a sex-positive metaphor if there ever was one.

By referencing sex as a social activity, this particular metaphor produces many useful entailments. In FrameWorks-speak, “entailments” are the statements that mark the boundaries of the category that’s created when you put two or more domains (or items from domains) together. (And more specifically, often the entailments look like matches between the two domains. Sometimes people interpret the entailments automatically and tacitly; sometimes you present them explicitly.) In the case of “sex as a jam,” its power lies mainly in its entailments, and it’s worth working explicitly through them, which the video does. For example, if sex is a jam, then the participants need to be willing and ready to play, which opens up an interesting way to define what sexual consent looks like, among other things. The metaphor becomes a prescriptive model for social behavior.

So does the second metaphor, which came from a Los Angeles Times opinion piece by psychologist Susan Silk and mediator Barry Goldman, providing instructions about what people should say to whom when there’s a tragedy, an illness, or some other trauma. They call it the “ring theory,” and they begin with an anecdote about a woman named Katie, who had been hospitalized with a brain aneurysm.

The “ring theory” works like this:

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order.The rules of kvetching

Once this easily generated social map is in place, now you can use it to make rules of behavior  concrete:

The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

The whole “ring theory” or “kvetching order” can all be operationalized in terms of a very simple rule: Comfort IN, dump OUT.

Of course, before FrameWorks would recommend these metaphors, we would want to see how they performed in research settings, but there are still a few things are worth noting for the commnity of framers. One is the way these metaphors are presented in a dynamic, fetching and highly visual way. Another is the confident deployment of metaphors for the reframing of two very seemingly ordinary and obvious processes. At FrameWorks, we deploy metaphors to explain complex or abstract processes, but sometimes, even the ordinary and obvious needs to be re-categorized, especially when these realms – like empathy and sex – involve social subtleties that people can’t afford to screw up in real life.

Have you seen any instances recently where a metaphor re-frames an ordinary phenomenon?

(Ring illustration by Wes Bausmith for the Los Angeles Times)

The Wedginess of Communicating Statistics

You may have noticed that scientists – as well as other professionals – frequently point to, write, talk, think about, and argue in terms of graphs, charts, and other visualizations of data. Sometimes, these visualizations are complex enough that they need to be explained, and in some cases, those explanations themselves give shape to the debate.

Take, for instance, the climate change “wedge.”

The wedge was introduced by Princeton University physicist Robert Socolow and ecologist Stephen Pacala in a 2004 Science article as a way to communicate about approaches to reduce the effects of climate change. Originally they proposed fifteen “wedges” – specific ways to reduce global CO2 emission output using existing technologies that would take a wedge-shaped chunk out of the ever-rising line marking carbon emissions. Such wedges represent the carbon emissions that would have to be halted in order to stop temperature increases and “stabilize” climate change. Pictured here is a graph from the National Resource Defense Council that show six of these “stabilization wedges.”


As a way to communicate about carbon emissions and interventions to reduce them, how successful has the “stabilization wedge” been? Using Google hits as one measure, we might say not very; that exact phrase and related ones (such as “climate wedge”) barely get 100,000 hits combined. Neither is “wedge” a very frequent word in English, and it’s most often used in golfing contexts (for example, “sand wedge”) or in cooking (“lemon wedge”). We might also say that carbon emissions have not, in fact, decreased, nor has public or international will to reduce carbon emissions shown much progress. Using these sorts of hard measures, “stabilization wedge” hasn’t done very much.

On the other hand, Socolow himself has suggested that “stabilization wedge” has been very successful – maybe too much so, because it made carbon emission reductions so easy to think about that people assumed it was easy to do. In a 2011 talk, he said that he regrets the term:

 “With some help from wedges, the world decided that dealing with global warming wasn’t impossible, so it must be easy,” Socolow says.  “There was a whole lot of simplification, that this is no big deal.”

He said his theory was intended to show the progress that could be made if people took steps such as halving our automobile travel, burying carbon emissions, or installing a million windmills. But instead of providing motivation, the wedges theory let people relax in the face of enormous challenges, he now says.

(This reporting on Socolow’s disavowal created a micro-controversy, because Socolow responded immediately after his remarks were quoted to say that he stands by the 2004 paper’s call to action. Later, he published another commentary in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that affirmed the 2004 paper as well as the concept of wedges.)

Rather than focus on the carbon emissions debate itself – or what Socolow thinks about wedges – I want to make some observations about the wedge as a communications device.

What is a wedge?  From a FrameWorks perspective, the wedge is something between a metaphor and social math. It’s a metaphor because it describes the phenomenon of emissions stabilization using another domain (here, a very simple geometric figure). It’s also a kind of social math because it’s transforming numbers (or a mapping of numbers) into something concrete that people will more find more usable.

You could say that that “stabilization wedge” is a tool for making the emissions reduction graph sticky – as well as achieving some other effects.

Are wedges good? The “stabilization wedge” seems to defuse crisis types of thinking about climate change issues, and from FrameWorks perspective, that’s a good thing.  Our communications tools work because they change people’s posture, from being frozen in crisis to leaning into action. Clearly, “wedges” have that effect.

Is wedginess good? “Wedginess” is my neologism for the way that “stabilization wedge” works – that is, it’s a word or phrase that describes a geometic or spatial quality of a line on a graph as a stand-in for the phenomenon. The wedgy is also a stand-in for metaphors that are directly related to that phenomenon. Maybe it seems odd to have to explain a graph. But you give people a powerful communications lever when you enable them to grasp a graph automatically, point to it, talk about it, and use it to generate other ideas.

There are other wedgy phrases out there. It turns out that scientists aren’t the only wedgy communicators:

Peak oil. Here the “peak” refers to the fall-off in petroleum extraction, not increases in petroleum depletion. The fall-off occurs because the price of extraction has risen too high. As a term, this is highly sticky, despite the fact that it’s easily misinterpreted as oil depletion.

Headstart fadeout. Here the “fadeout” refers to the apparent decline in cognitive, affective, and social benefits of Head Start programs for poor children.

Fiscal cliff. Contrary to the way “fiscal cliff” was wielded in recent US Congressional debates, the “cliff” originally described a line on a graph: a drastic drop in government revenue. “Fiscal cliff” was used this way by Henry Waxman in 1991 to describe a voter initiative in Oregon that limited property tax increases.

Does your organization have a single chart or graph that captures the dilemma or problem that you’re working on, and how do you talk about that graph? Do you have wedgy ways of communicating about it? 

The Defenseless Metaphor: Pyramid of Life

If Metaphor Man were a real superhero, surely one of his tasks would be to deliver justice on behalf of misused metaphors. One such metaphor, the “pyramid of life,” was unfairly maligned in a New York Times editorial on Tuesday about predator-prey relationships in the animal world.

“Like most simple metaphors, this one has a perceptual flaw,” the editorialist wrote. “It creates the illusion that large predators have an effect only on the prey species immediately below them.” However, recent observations by biologists show that species lower on the food chain are also dependent on healthy populations of predators above them, which the metaphor doesn’t communicate.

First, Metaphor Man has to check the identity of the misused metaphor. Ah, yes, here’s an undated version the National Park Service put together for 6th graders:

How common is the “pyramid of life” metaphor? Surely the metaphor comes from a time when people saw grasses and eagles as unrelated. This was a time when the understanding of ecological systems was young, if non-existent, in the public mind. Indeed, a quick Web search reveals that the pyramid has long been replaced by “food web” (which supplanted the “food chain” of Metaphor Man’s own biology education). The “pyramid of life” isn’t as common a metaphor as the editorial writer thinks.

Metaphor Man knows that when deadline time looms, it may be too much to expect editorial writers to know which science metaphors are state-of-the-art and which ones are obsolete. This is especially true when an article with no obvious news hook needs a snappy lede. That doesn’t mean he has to like metaphor-stomping as a go-to literary device. And metaphors, he might add, do not possess “perceptual flaws,” as metaphors do not perceive; the flaws of perception, alas, are thoroughly human.

On the other hand, these editorial follies provide an excellent example of why FrameWorks tests its simplifying models. Had an ecologist come to us asking to for a way to capture dynamic, non-hierarchical links of dependencies among species of plants, animals, and microbes, we would have quickly ruled out “pyramid” as a candidate. It’s familiar, that’s true. But it’s also too top-down; it doesn’t capture change over time. Yet these aren’t “flaws” in the metaphor. We might say instead that the conceptual domain of pyramids doesn’t match up to enough of the science to be very useful (though we can imagine a state of the science in which a pyramid was more than enough, as I noted above).

Metaphor Man likes the direction that scientists have gone with “food web” — though he’d love to test it, all the same.

Metaphor Man: Comments on David Brooks' metaphor column

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently promoted the importance of metaphor in his April 11th column. “Metaphors are not rhetorical frills at the edge of how we think,” Brooks wrote, “They are at the very heart of it.”

To anyone who has learned and uses Strategic Frame Analysis and who has come to share our enthusiasm for metaphors and simplifying models, Brooks’ praise for metaphors should sound familiar. We believe that metaphors aren’t mere icing on the communications cake; they help shape everything about the cake.

“Metaphors help compensate for our natural weaknesses,” Brooks wrote. “Most of us are not very good at thinking about abstractions or spiritual states, so we rely on concrete or spatial metaphors to (imperfectly) do the job. A lifetime is pictured as a journey across a landscape. A person who is sad is down in the dumps, while a happy fellow is riding high.”

He continued: “Most of us are not good at understanding new things, so we grasp them imperfectly by relating them metaphorically to things that already exist. That’s a ‘desktop’ on your computer screen.”

Experienced framers could add this: Much of the public thinks and reasons about social issues using metaphors that make the best solutions to those problems invisible, unthinkable. So we develop new metaphors to give people new tools to reason with, new pieces of meaning they can add to cultural understandings that they already possess, all of which will eventually help them to perceive themselves as political actors in it in new ways.

How does FrameWorks go about developing the metaphors at the heart of the simplifying models that we write so much about? You could compare our work to ethnobotanists, people who scour the wilds of the earth for potent but undiscovered pharmaceutical compounds, then bring those compounds back to the laboratory to see how effective and safe they’d be fighting certain diseases and conditions. Likewise, we scour interviews with dozens of people (experts, members of the lay public, advocates, and others) for metaphors “in the wild,” then put these bits of meaning through rigorous tests that speed up their evolution and give us a clear picture of what will (and won’t) work in communications venues. We don’t want to release a metaphor into public discourse without knowing exactly how people use it and how it works.

In some coming posts, I’ll sketch some of the issues that we’re currently dealing with in this development process.

Metaphor Man: "A Wall Between Church and State"

The debates in this most recent election cycle about the separation of church and state, and its presence or lack thereof in the Constitution, caused Metaphor Man to notice this comment on the Talking Points Memo blog. It traces the history of the metaphor of the wall separating church and state. This metaphor is attributed to Thomas Jefferson and extended by Justice Hugo Black in a Supreme Court decision in 1947. He wrote:

The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state.That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.

We note that Black’s presentation matches how FrameWorks’ simplifying models frequently unfold. That is, he begins with a comparison, then extends the comparison with a few of what we call “entailments,” which you can think of as conceptual offspring of the metaphor, or its ramifications. There are three entailments: that the wall is high, that the wall’s job is to keep two domains separated, and that the wall must do its job absolutely.

If you’ve seen FrameWorks’ recent simplifying models, they’re structured in a similar way. We lay out a few of the entailments for one very good reason: there are often many entailments to a metaphor, so we provide the ones we’re most interested in having the public start to think about. When we test the simplifying models, one of the things we’re doing is to make sure that there aren’t unarticulated entailments that might ambush the meaning.

Yet as Metaphor Man has noted before, people often dig up an obscure entailment and wield it against the metaphor. For instance, there’s a Heritage Foundation essay about this metaphor  that declares it “misused” and “mythical,” mostly on the basis of one assumption they make about walls: that “the very nature of a wall…is a bilateral barrier” that “inhibits the activities” on both sides of the wall. The  writer goes on to contend that the wall between church and state affects churches and religious expression disproportionately, and no wall can be unilateral.

Metaphor Man wonders what sort of wall the author had in mind — an infield wall in the baseball stadium, perhaps, which keeps the players in and the fans out? Because Metaphor Man’s grandmother’s prized roses were very interested in the unilateral walls that protected them from the sheep.

In other words, the HF author’s contention isn’t with a very salient part of the metaphor. He may not like the metaphor’s life in American jurisprudence, but launching a battle over one (non-)entailment makes for a meager battlefield indeed.

Metaphor Man: Mixing Metaphors

Colin Powell’s name recently crossed Metaphor Man’s email inbox, after his appearance on “Meet the Press” in which he was accused by Politico of “mixing his metaphors.”  What Powell said, verbatim, is this:

“[T]he President … has to, I think, shift the way in which he has been doing things. I think the American people feel that too many programs have come down. There are so many rocks in our knapsack now that we’re having trouble carrying it. I think the president has to, like a razor blade, just go right after the single issue that is uppermost in the minds of the American people, and that’s employment. And he’s done a lot with health care, with cap-and-trade, with education. And I understand the importance of all of that. But as far as the American People are concerned, the main attack is employment. … I think he has lost some of the ability to connect that he had during the campaign. And it is not just me picking on the President. It’s reflected in the polling.”

Two specific things make this sound odd. One is that “rocks in the knapsack” and “having trouble carrying it” occur so close to the “razor blade” image; your brain is still parsing the knapsack image, then it’s jolted with the razor blade. Another is that the “razor blade” really isn’t the prototypical object you’d associate with single-minded purpose; it should be “laser beam.” (Which suggests that he might have inadvertently said “razor” even though he intended to say “laser.” ) Globally, the sentences are odd because they violate at least three of Grice’s four conversational maxims; Metaphor Man suggests you argue about which ones in the comments.

Of course, Powell is speaking off the cuff — maybe he has talking points, but he’s not reading from prepared remarks, so doesn’t enjoy the brilliance of forethought.  And let’s the note the other metaphorical language he swings more successfully (which have been put in bold).

“[T]he President … has to, I think, shift the way in which he has been doing things. I think the American people feel that too many programs have come down. There are so many rocks in our knapsack now that we’re having trouble carrying it. I think the president has to, like a razor blade, just go right after the single issue that is uppermost in the minds of the American people, and that’s employment. And he’s done a lot with health care, with cap-and-trade, with education. And I understand the importance of all of that. But as far as the American People are concerned, the main attack is employment. … I think he has lost some of the ability to connect that he had during the campaign. And it is not just me picking on the President. It’s reflected in the polling.”