Lisa Prejean: Figurative language is a literal concept

September 03, 2010|By LISA PREJEAN

We have several exchange students at our school this year.

It has been wonderful getting to know them over the past two weeks.

I have to admit, though, that the whole concept of a teenager leaving home for nine months, living in a foreign country, within a different culture, all without the aid of their native tongue, baffles me.

How can a 15-year-old do that?

Or I should ask, how could their parents let them go?

That would be extremely difficult for me as a mom. It's one thing if my kids want to study abroad during a semester in college. I probably could accept the separation if my child were 20, but the early teen years?

Oh, that would be difficult.

Of course, I'm aware of the benefits of culture and language immersion. The best way to study a language is to be forced to speak it.


And because I don't speak Korean or Chinese, my new students don't have a choice. (It's surprising, really, that they can understand my Western Maryland accent at all.)

I keep thinking about how I would feel in a similar situation. That has made me become protective of these kids. I want them to succeed, to understand, to learn, so I'm willing to spend the extra time that is necessary for them to do that.

In doing so, I am learning so much.

These kids are bright, or they wouldn't be in the foreign exchange programs.

Yet there are some concepts that are difficult to explain across the language/culture barrier.

This week in English class, we were discussing the difference between literal and figurative language. If a word is being used in its literal sense, it is being used in a matter-of-fact or dictionary definition sort of way.

For example, take the word "float."

A literal use of the word could involve "logs floating down the stream."

However, if "float" is being used in a figurative way, its use is symbolic.

"The princess floated into the room," is an example of float being used in a figurative way.

The princess isn't really floating. She's just being really graceful, similar to a stick freely floating across the surface of a stream.

Once the concept of literal and figurative language is explained, most students see the difference. But if a student's native language doesn't include a figurative sense, this usage can seem rather foreign, so to speak.

Hopefully, after a few months in America, our figures of speech will be easier for the exchange students to understand.

Now I just need to learn some of their language, literally.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

The Herald-Mail Articles