Young People, Criticality and Figurative Language

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Education


This project will contribute to knowledge about figurative language understanding and use among 9-13 year olds, termed 'tweens'. Tweens are at a vulnerable stage of life as they turn outwards from their immediate caregivers, and become subject to a range of external influences. This is also a critical time for social and educational development. The processing and production of figurative language have been researched in adults, and to a lesser extent, younger children (e.g. Carriedo et al., 2016), but the tween years have received little attention. Figurative language, largely but not solely metaphor, has been shown to be central in framing ideas and knowledge (Lakoff 1993). This means that we have limited knowledge about to what extent tweens are able to understand and use a major tool for thought and communication.

The project will investigate tweens' understanding and use of the framing function of figurative language in two related areas: ideological arguments and new concepts. The first is important because through digital technology and social media, tweens almost everywhere have unprecedented unsupervised access to content from sources that may seek to distort and falsify reality. Wodak & Krzyzànowski (2017) argue that digital and social media are factors in the recent surge in right-wing populism and racism. Iyengar & Massey (2019) claim that misinformation, facilitated by the proliferation of internet news platforms, undermines faith in scientific findings. Musolff (2023) exemplifies the role of metaphor in misinformation, showing how Trump harnessed the widespread framing of the Covid-19 pandemic as a war to develop a metaphorical 'wartime president fighting against the China virus' scenario (2023: 263). This alluded to World War 2, cast China as a national enemy and was used to justify the US defunding of the World Health Organisation. The second function we research is the framing of new, especially abstract and non-immediate concepts. It is widely agreed that metaphors underlie many of the ways in which we think and talk about the abstract. They are often used as pedagogical tools in the classroom (e.g. Cameron, 2002), but there is relatively little research into how students understand them (Littlemore, 2017).

The project will produce fine-grained descriptions of:

the forms and functions of figurative language used in written texts and spoken discourse that tweens are likely to access in social and educational settings;
tween readers' and listeners' reports of their understandings of such figurative language;
the forms and functions of figurative language used by tweens in social and educational settings;
tweens' reflections on their use of figurative language.
We will thus develop a detailed description of figurative language used with and by tweens, and of their awareness of its potential framing functions. The project will make important contributions to metaphor theory within cognitive linguistics. The findings will have significance outside academia, for instance, in critical literacy education, which seeks to enable young people to engage thoughtfully with news and social media, with awareness of possibly distorted and false narratives (McDougall, 2019), and in science education, where pedagogical uses of metaphor are frequent.


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