Do Metaphors Matter? Part 2 – Immigrants

For the second part of my investigation into the importance of metaphors, I did some research on whether or not immigrants or naturalized citizens understand metaphors.  If not, I then wondered if this lack of English proficiency would prevent them from participating in American politics.  Please let me know what you think!  Do you know any immigrants who like to read or watch TV about politics but do not understand the conversation because of the metaphors?


As for my second question, I wondered if non-native speakers of English can understand these metaphors. A considerable amount of research has shown that native speakers can understand metaphors as quickly and easily as literal statements (Gibbs, 1993; Gibbs, 1994; Glucksberg and Keysar, 1993; and Ortony, 1993b).  However, in my own experience teaching ESL for almost 30 years, idioms and metaphors are the most difficult English expressions for ESL students to learn.  Even immigrants who have lived in the United States for years have trouble understanding figurative language in everyday English.

For the final question, we consider how immigrants or naturalized citizens participate in the American political process.  According to the 2010 census 12.8% of the U.S. population is foreign-born ( qfd/states/00000.html) amounting to approximately 40 million people.  Moreover, 20.3% of the population has a language other than English spoken at home.  These statistics beg the question if these immigrants are registered voters, if they vote, or even if they watch television news broadcasts about local or national elections in English or their native languages.

S. Karthick Ramakrishnan completed a thorough study of these issues in his book, Democracy in Immigrant America: Changing Demographics and Political Participation (2005).  He found that immigrants who became naturalized citizens had higher levels of participation in politics because of their commitment to living in the United States and the education needed to pass the citizenship exam (p. 78). He found that the strongest predictors of participation are age, education, marital status, residential stability and English proficiency (p. 81).

Ramakrishnan found that language barriers prevented access to the political process in many different ways.  For example, only those with English proficiency would participate in “writing to elected officials, signing ballot petitions and contributing money to political causes” (p. 159).  Ramakrishnan (p. 8) concluded that political participation was “integral to the mission of securing an economic foothold in the United States” and “to secure a better life…for themselves and their children.”


Do you agree that the lack of understanding of metaphors can hinder immigrants from participating in politics in their local communities or at the national level?

Next time:  Back on track with metaphor analyses.