What comes to your mind first when you read/hear the expression ‘it’s raining cats and dogs ‘? Well, sensibly so, one does not imagine cats and dogs falling from the sky. We ignore the literal meaning of ‘cats’ and ‘dogs’ and look at the expression as a whole, and conclude that we better not step out without an umbrella!
Source: GrammarSongs by Melissa Copyright © 2015 
This article is about figurative language comprehension in general, with examples of idioms, metaphors, and similes. It must be noted that figurative or non-literal language use encompasses many different phenomena, including irony, simile, metaphor, hyperbole, idioms, humour and so forth. It is important to identify the differences and commonalities between the various types of figurative language comprehension.
Figurative language cannot be understood from the meaning of the separate words but must be understood as a whole. This means that the words used cannot be taken literally or exactly. The individual components’ meanings are different from the whole meaning. In non-literal or figurative language processing, an expression must be extended beyond the standard connotation. But this does not mean that literal meaning is not important at all. Research shows that when exposed to something new, the figurative meaning is created via the structural alignment of the components of the literal meaning, but in the course of repeated usage, the figurative meaning itself gets stored in the memory. When introduced to the utterance ‘it’s raining cats and dogs ‘, one would first comprehend it literally, only to realise that it does not really make sense, hence identifying the figurative meaning by mentally searching for other interpretations. Eventually, due to repeated exposure, we skip the first step as the figurative meaning itself gets stored in memory.
Metaphor (e.g., These dancers are butterflies) is the linguistic phenomenon that allows the greatest width of possible interpretations. Even in the simple form ‘X is Y,’ such as ‘These dancers are butterflies’ one can imagine a reading in which the dancers are colourful, fluttering, light-footed, and so forth. The understanding of metaphors has often been defined as transferring the properties of one thing (called the ‘vehicle’, here, butterflies), to an event, person, or object (called the ‘target’, here, dancers), where these elements may not be directly connected.2
John Searle suggested that metaphors are processed in three steps: First, the utterance is identified as not being interpretable, i.e., what is said is not what is meant. The second step is looking for possible alternative interpretations of the utterance by comparison of properties. In the last step, the identified properties are checked for their sensibility.3
The speed and ease of figurative language comprehension can be attributed to factors such as familiarity and conventionality. Familiarity refers to the frequency of occurrence of the whole expression in the language. Conventionality, on the other hand, refers to the degree of associative strength between the metaphoric vehicle and its figurative interpretation. A highly conventional metaphor would be one in which the vehicle term has often been used with a specific figurative meaning.4 For example, in Hindi, the moon is associated with beauty (चन्द्रमुख – चंद्र के समान मुख है जिसका). A study by Bowdle and Gentner (2005) found that novel figurative statements are preferred as simile statements, wherein the participants could make the comparisons, while familiarity with conventional statements is preferred as metaphors.5
There is another aspect – aptness. Figurative language expressions in general, and metaphors in specific, are better (easier and faster) understood when they are apt. The literal to figurative transition is easier to make when the expressions are apt. Aptness can also be affected by context. Context affects not just the aptness of the figurative expression (an expression could be apt in one context and not in another) but also makes it easier for children and adolescents to arrive at the meaning. Moreover, context and origin stories can help children remember the n number of idioms that they are expected to memorize for school examinations.
At Educational Initiatives, the focus of assessments is more on understanding, than rote learning. For assessing the meaning of figurative expressions, we situate these expressions in context and expect the students to deduce the meaning from the context given. However, our assessment data shows that students often go for literal interpretations. Here is a question asked to Grade 8 students.
Source: EI Misconception Question Data, 2011
Reading comprehension involves various complex processes. However, after the first and foremost step of decoding the words, the process of making meaning starts. Young learners move from making meaning of the individual words to phrases, to sentences, and finally, to interpreting the complete text as a whole. This example (and various such examples) show that students can recognize the individual words and their meaning. However, since most of the cognitive process is going into reading and comprehending the literal meaning of words, they are not able to comprehend the underlying figurative meaning in the given context. Our data shows that students often get stuck at the word or phrase level, and may not be able to comprehend the text altogether, in its entirety. In this case, students have interpreted ‘चुल्लू भर भी चलता है’ literally, and think that it means ‘मनुष्य चुल्लू भर पानी में भी अपना काम चला सकता है।‘
So, what can we do to improve figurative language comprehension amongst our learners? An obvious way is to increase exposure to figurative language. We see hefty grammar textbooks, part of student’s grammar and language syllabi, often leading to rote learning and reproducing in examinations. This may not help with figurative language comprehension on the whole. If one goes about learning all such idioms and phrases it would take years. The English language itself has more than 25000 idioms. Now consider the several other kinds of figures of speech that students need to be exposed to, it would be a lot to memorize! Context would help. Exposure and then engagement with the figurative expressions will help them develop the skill altogether because practice makes it permanent.
Additionally, enabling children to generate their figurative expressions is an important learning tool. For instance, simile can be considered the simplest form of figurative language. Students should be made familiar with the concept of proportionality, which is important for comprehending and creating their own similes. For example, ‘The rain is like tears’ can be taken to be of the form ‘rain: tears’ once the point of similarity is identified.6
To conclude, understanding figurative language can make students better readers, speakers, listeners, and writers. It opens them to a world of literature and arms them with the ability to comprehend it.
- Melissa, GrammarSongs by Melissa (2019), Idioms | Award Winning Teaching Video | What Is An Idiom? | Figurative Language,YouTube, https://youtu.be/jUT_WSavAC8
- Weiland Hanna, Bambini Valentina, Schumacher Petra B. (2014), The role of literal meaning in figurative language comprehension: evidence from masked priming ERP, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience Volume 8, https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00583
- Searle, J. R. (1978). Literal meaning. Erkenntnis13, 207–224. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00160894
- Damerall, A., & Kellogg, R. (2016). Familiarity and Aptness in Metaphor Comprehension. The American Journal of Psychology,129(1), 49-64. https://doi.org/10.5406/amerjpsyc.129.1.0049
- Bowdle, B., & Gentner, D. (2005), The career of metaphor, Psychological Review 112(1):193-216. https://doi.org/1037/0033-295X.112.1.193
- Malgady, R. (1977). Children’s Interpretation and Appreciation of Similes. Child Development,48(4), 1734-1738. https://doi.org/10.2307/1128547