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How we use metaphors changes how we see the world
Good intentions may backfire when an oft-used metaphor doesn’t hit the mark. One researcher is set to illuminate cross-cultural understanding in an educational setting.
Metaphors are everywhere: we use them all the time, often without giving the matter a second thought. Nowadays, when people say 'literally', in the majority of cases they actually mean 'figuratively'.
Metaphors help us make our points, and they are an important tool in interpersonal communication because they simply make things click. They paint a picture of how what we’re actually talking about is similar to another known idea that should make a subject clearer.
Metaphors reflect the way we think and shape our thoughts in return. But how do we ensure we use them in a constructive way? Since metaphors are generally short phrases that stand in place of a longer, more elaborate idea, if they are misused, entire discussions can become people simply talking past each other.
How we use language matters
Thor-André Skrefsrud of the Faculty of Education at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences argues that how we use language matters, and requires reflection.
“I believe that words are not neutral; they create reality,” he says. Thus, a metaphor, such as bridge-building, “needs to be continually discussed, reformulated, and critically restructured in relation to the field it is meant to help us understand.”
Especially within the field of multicultural education, communication is key, and language is a big part of it—both in how people interact with one another, and when reflecting on these interactions.
For Skrefsrud, it is always important to address critically how we think and speak about others. The world nowadays is extremely dynamic and ever-changing due to processes of globalization and international migration that transform societies everywhere. Culture and cultural identities cross borders and are no longer bound to geographic and national communities.
“In education, as in the rest of society, we need to rethink our concepts, making sure that they help us to take differences seriously and respect the integrity of people,” says Skrefsrud.
Intercultural understanding and the metaphor of bridge-building
We often hear about how the world is growing more multicultural. We can see it for ourselves as students, in the workplace, and in the public sphere in general. But what does the meeting with other cultures mean for us in practice?
“Often, intercultural understanding is associated with the process of getting to know new cultures and practices—often exotic and strange ones—in order to understand them better. Thinking of intercultural understanding in this way, ‘bridge-building’ is primarily about establishing a direct, solid, and risk-free pathway to the other. The danger, however, is that cultural differences are reinforced in ways that lead to further biases and stereotyping,” says Skrefsrud.
In his paper, Skrefsrud offers an alternative way for thinking of the metaphor of 'bridge-building' in an educational environment—one that could hopefully facilitate understanding, communication, and the ability to relate to one another without putting restrictions on who the students are—and are able to be—in the community of learners.
One problematic take on the bride-building metaphor can thus be understood as overcoming an obstacle—linguistic, cultural—by constructing something straight and uncompromising to solve a problem. There could be an underling feeling of cultural superiority of one side, building a bridge over troubled water. Infusing the metaphor with a different perspective, one of a genuine wish of reaching the other side with the aim to explore, and facilitating it by building something secure and supportive, sheds a whole new light on it.
How we use metaphors affects how we act
Skrefsrud hopes that the reader will take away a personal insight about what the term should really stand for: “I hope that the reader may engage in a reflection on how we can see cultural differences not as barriers but as opportunities for better understanding. We need more research from the classroom on how teachers work with intercultural bridge-building in their daily practices. This would help us to understand how education may contribute [in the meeting of] culturally diverse students,” he says.
In doing so, we may avoid a narrative that “devaluates and distorts the languages, cultures and identities of these students—in school and in wider society,” adds Skrefsrud
By using the bridge-building metaphor reflectively, the idea that it represents would stand for intercultural understanding, enriching communication, and openness to new experiences, rather than for a daunting attempt to overcome strangeness and otherness.
Thor-André Skrefsrud: Teachers as intercultural bridge-builders: Rethinking the metaphor of bridge-building. Teach Theol Relig.,2020.
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