Cow Villages and Dead Trousers: Metaphors in Foreign Language Learning

Cow Villages and Dead Trousers: Metaphors in Foreign Language Learning

By: Heather Kretschmer

Some years ago, I was standing outside one day after work, shooting the breeze with some former colleagues and my boss. We all live in a rural area dotted with small towns and villages. A teasing twinkle in his eye, my former boss asked me, “In welchem Kuhkaff wohnst du?” (Which cow village do you live in?). Now, I already knew that a “Kaff” was a humorous, negative term referring to a tiny village, but “Kuhkaff” (cow village) was a new one for me. I learned a “Kuhkaff” is an even smaller village where the cows and other farm animals far outnumber the people. Nothing ever happens there; folks disappear into their homes early in the evening—this metaphor beautifully illustrates an unexciting, rinky-dink place to live.

Kuhkaff” reminds me of another metaphor I learned when I first came to Germany as a university student. Students were constantly using the expression “tote Hose” (dead trousers). If you were at a boring party, it was dead trousers. Any situation devoid of action or interesting people was deemed dead trousers. Unsurprisingly, students went to great lengths to avoid “tote Hose” events. So, for international students this was a useful metaphor to commit to memory.

Why did I find it easy to learn “Kuhkaff” and “tote Hose”? I suspect one reason is I encountered these metaphors in social situations. As Annie Murphy Paul points out in The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (2021): “Our brains evolved to think with people: to teach them, to argue with them, to exchange stories with them” (p. 189). She explains that we can recall social information with a higher accuracy than information that is non-social. I often associate language items with the context I learned them in, whether that context occurred in a long-ago German lesson or while chatting more recently over coffee.

But a second reason it was so easy to pick up “Kuhkaff” and “tote Hose” is that I can vividly imagine these metaphors and therefore am unlikely to forget them. How easy it is to call to mind an isolated village surrounded by gently rolling hills, the natural soundscape occasionally punctuated by mournful cows lowing. And when you’re hanging out somewhere feeling bored out of your mind, it’s a snap to picture a forlorn pair of worn old trousers, discarded in the corner and forgotten.

These two examples from my own language learning illustrate why it’s useful for learners to imagine the real-world experiences underlying metaphors. Whenever possible, teachers should encourage students to do more than just “see” new metaphors in their mind’s eye. Are there certain smells associated with the concrete part of a metaphor? Sounds? Tastes? Does it have a certain texture? The more senses we can draw on when calling to mind new metaphors, the better. Let’s dip into metaphors and embodied cognition.

Embodied cognition and metaphors

Our thoughts and language are based on what we have experienced though our senses. These experiences began very early, long before we learned our first language(s). This is directly related to embodied cognition,[1] the idea that the human mind is influenced by what goes on in the human body and the environment surrounding the human body. We learn through our senses, and our brains are not separate from our bodies, as we might often think they are. As Susan Hrach writes in Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning (2021): “Humans, especially academics, tend to ignore or dismiss our bodies as locations of cognitive processing. But we are not brains on sticks, and neither are our students” (p. xiv).

[1] For more on embodied cognition, check out the March 2020 and October 2022 Think Tank issues.

That’s all well and good, but what do metaphors have to do with embodied cognition? If we think about it, metaphors by their very nature are based on what we experience through our bodies. A metaphor connects an abstract idea with something concrete from the physical world, just like in the German language the abstract idea of a boring event is connected with something physical—dead trousers (even though trousers aren’t living beings). This is only one of the many metaphors embedded in our thoughts shaping how we view the world.

According to George Lakoff (article and video), we have tens of thousands of metaphors in our brains, many of which are small metaphors that fit together. Consider this seemingly simple sentence: My income rose. We probably don’t even realize it, but that sentence is actually a metaphor. It draws on two primitive concepts we learned at a very young age before we learned our first language(s): quantity (more is up, less is down) and motion (change is motion).[2] Metaphors are such important building blocks of language that it’s well worth spending class time raising awareness among students by using metaphor activities. Here’s one I’ve done with my students.

[2] I encourage you to read Curtis Kelly’s article in this issue for a superb explanation of the connections between metaphors and neuroscience.

Metaphor activity example

About five years ago, I had students listen to a U.S. news report on a tax cut the former U.S. administration was considering. Since the report teemed with metaphors, I decided to turn students’ attention to the rich language used by the speakers quoted in the report. After students completed a comprehension activity, I divided the class into pairs of students and gave each pair a sheet with a target metaphor and a few pictures, like this one:

I gave students the following instructions:

    1. Read a sentence from the news report you just listened to.
    2. Briefly discuss the meaning of the underlined metaphor in the context of the news report.
    3. Look at the images under the sentence. Decide together which image exemplifies the metaphor best and why.
    4. Write two examples using your metaphor.
    5. Briefly report back to the class.

As you can see from the “dangling new goodies” example, none of the pictures exactly captures the exact meaning behind the metaphor. Nor do they match the context: the “new goodies” refer to tax cuts that would benefit wealthy taxpayers. This mismatch was intentional, to encourage students to think about the connection between the metaphor and context and then negotiate which picture they found fit best.

It’s not a half-bad activity. But now that I’ve learned more about embodied cognition and the fundamental nature of metaphors in our thinking and language, I will make some changes when asking students to investigate metaphors in listening or reading texts. The following adjustments to the activity draw heavily on the ideas and information Harumi Kimura explains in her Think Tank articles on haptic activities and gestures. In both articles, Kimura makes a very convincing case for incorporating gestures in language learning.

Metaphor activity makeover

The following changes are for any listening or reading text in which I would like students focus on metaphors. First, I will separate the images from the sentences, and give students only the sentences for Steps 1 and 2. Here are the new instructions, with changes in red:

    1. Read a sentence from the news report you just listened to.
    2. Briefly discuss the meaning of the underlined metaphor in the context of the news report. Pause to visualize the metaphor in your minds. Share what you imagined with your partner, and then together create a gesture that demonstrates the metaphor. For example, you might separate the metaphor “grab some sleep,” into two gestures. In the first gesture, curl your fingers in a grabbing motion. In the second gesture, flatten your fingers out, place your hands together against one side of your face, tilt your head towards your hands, and close your eyes:

3. Ask your teacher for the images. Decide together which image exemplifies the metaphor best and why. As you discuss, gesture the metaphor.

4. Drawing on your own experience and ideas, brainstorm other concrete and abstract contexts for your metaphor. While brainstorming, gesture the metaphor. Jot down your favorite contexts.

5. Briefly report back to the class. Show us your gestures!

To wrap up the metaphor activity, I would ask students to reread the entire text (e.g., transcript, article, story) and ask them to find more metaphors, imagine them, and find gestures for them. This emphasizes the prevalence of metaphors in language.

The modified activity gives students tools for learning and remembering metaphors more easily. Movement in conjunction with thinking supports learning. We can “improve our memory not through working our brains ever harder, but by looping in the meaning-bearing movements of our limbs” (Paul, p. 53). When we connect a movement to what we’re trying to learn, we create a stronger “memory trace” in our brain (Paul, 2021, p. 54). In addition, after we’ve connected information to a certain movement, we can recall that information more easily when we make that same movement (Paul, 2021, p. 56). So, once students have connected certain gestures to target metaphors, we can remind our students to make those gestures again when reviewing the metaphors.

Finally, the modified activity also gives students space to create their own metaphors. In our native language(s), we naturally combine experiences, thoughts, and language creatively to form new metaphors. You might be the only person using your own idiosyncratic metaphors, but maybe, just maybe, your metaphors resonate with other people so deeply they use them themselves. I’d be willing to bet that was the way “cow village” and “dead trousers” originated and spread. So, in addition to encouraging our learners to use existing metaphors, why not have them experiment with creating their own metaphors? Let students be metaphor users and creators.


Heather Kretschmer has been teaching English for over 20 years, primarily in Germany. She earned degrees in German (BA & MA) and TESL (MA) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Currently she has the privilege of working with Business English students at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.

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