Jeanette Littlemore (Universidad de Birmingham)
Figurative language is pervasive. It has been shown to be vital in situations ranging from informal conversations to news articles, advertisements, educational interchange, expert discourse, business correspondence, policy documents, doctor/patient interchanges, government communication, legal settings, and industry/client interaction. The reason for this is that figurative language is one of the primary tools for achieving economy of expression, clarity, persuasiveness, politeness, communication of evaluations and emotions. At the same time, the use of figurative language has been shown to dramatically increase the potential for misunderstanding in situations where participants lack shared background knowledge or have different views of the world.
In this talk, I outline three decades of research that I have conducted into the acquisition and use of figurative language by foreign language learners, the impact of multilingualism on figurative language comprehension, and cross-cultural variation in the use of, and responses to figurative language. The early years of my research were characterised by a focus on ‘metaphoric competence’, with studies focused on individual differences in language learners’ responses to decontextualised instances of figurative language. I then began to conduct more contextualised studies of figurative language comprehension and production by language learners from a range of linguistic backgrounds, and turned my attention to metonymy, which is a somewhat more nuanced and understudied phenomenon than metaphor. I then began to investigate the creative use of figurative language in advertising and the ways in which it is understood by people with different linguistic backgrounds. Sticking with this theme of creativity, I am currently exploring the role played by creative metaphor and metonymy in expressing emotion and evaluation, and the impact of multilingualism on people’s ability to find meaning in creative metaphor.