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Developing Metaphor Interpretation Strategies for Students of Economics: A Case Study

Comment aider des étudiants en Économie à acquérir des stratégies d’interprétation de métaphores ? Une étude de cas
Jeannette Littlemore
p. 40-60


Le langage économique se base fortement sur l’utilisation de métaphores. Cet article tente d’apporter des réponses à deux questions potentiellement intéressantes pour des professeurs enseignant l’anglais à des étudiants en Economie: les expressions métaphoriques posent-elles des problèmes particuliers à ces étudiants? Le cas échéant, peut-on les aider à développer des stratégies pour résoudre ces problèmes? Une recherche qualitative en profondeur a été effectuée avec une étudiante de niveau intermédiaire poursuivant un cours intensif de compréhension écrite en anglais pour les sciences économiques. L’article décrit la technique qui a été mise en œuvre pour aider l’étudiante à acquérir des stratégies d’interprétation de métaphores afin de mieux comprendre le sens figuré des mots.

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1It has been shown that a large amount of the language used in economic writing is of a figurative kind (Arleo 2000; Morgan 1997). One reason for this is that, when writing about new or abstract concepts, writers resort to using everyday words in original or innovative ways. This process is often metaphorical, as the words’ meanings are extended on the basis of similarity. For example, in the expression “the green shoots of recovery” the word “shoots” is extended to the economic context to refer to “signs of new life”. This type of ‘metaphoric extension’ is particularly prevalent in the types of journalism (for example, The Financial Times, The Economist, Time, and Newsweek) that are used as reading material in English language classes for students of economics. It has recently been suggested that, by enhancing metaphoric awareness, teachers can help their students to learn and remember this type of vocabulary better (Boers 2000; Cameron & Low 1999; Charteris-Black 2000). Both authors suggest ways in which teachers can draw students’ attention to the source domain or to the origin of unfamiliar figurative expressions in order to enhance their understanding, and their ability to remember these expressions.

2In response to the above claims, this article attempts to answer two research questions that may be of interest to teachers of English to students of economics: Do students of economics actually find such metaphors problematic? And if so, can they be helped to develop strategies to overcome these problems?

The study

3In order to answer the above questions, an in-depth, qualitative study was carried out with an intermediate Spanish student following a twelve-week intensive course in English for Economics, at the University of Birmingham. As part of this course, the student had weekly one-to-one ninety-minute classes in reading and vocabulary development. These classes were organised around a series of 3,000-word articles from The Financial Times, covering a range of economic issues. A different article was studied each week. The aims of the classes were to expand the student’s knowledge of economic vocabulary through presentation in context, and to help her reading skills.

4During these sessions, I, the teacher, read through the articles carefully with the student and asked her to indicate any vocabulary items that she did not understand. I made careful note of any problematic items, and helped the student to understand them, as she went along. Examples of the items that were found to be problematic by the student are presented in Appendix 1. Of the 175 items found to be problematic, 125 were judged, by two independent native speakers of English, to reflect clear metaphoric extension processes. Of these 125 metaphorical expressions, the student was familiar with the literal meaning the word in 79 cases. In the remaining 46 cases, I had to explain the literal meaning. These findings support the aforementioned claims that metaphorical language can be a serious stumbling block for language students, and that it is worthwhile trying to equip such students with appropriate strategies for dealing with this type of language.

5The next part of the study consisted in trying to help the student to use ‘metaphor interpretation’ strategies to help her understand this metaphorical vocabulary. Language learning strategies are defined by O’Malley et al. (1985: 23) as ‘operations or steps used by a learner that will facilitate the acquisition, storage, retrieval or use of information’. It has been argued that the use of such strategies can make a significant contribution to the development learner autonomy (Wenden 1991). In Oxford’s (1989) terms, metaphor interpretation strategies would probably be described as both cognitive (in that they involve the direct application of mental processes to the task at hand) and compensatory (in that they are a way of dealing with missing knowledge). The strategies themselves are described below. It is also argued below that the ability to use such strategies contributes to a student’s ‘metaphoric competence’.

Theoretical background: the notion of ‘metaphoric competence’

6I use the term ‘metaphoric competence’ to describe the fluid aspects of metaphor interpretation and production. Fluid intelligence refers to one’s ability to process new information and acquire new skills, whereas crystallized intelligence refers to information already acquired and skills already learned (Horn 1982). ‘Fluid’ metaphoric competence therefore refers to a person’s ability to understand and produce metaphors that are novel. It does not incorporate the ability to simply recall the meanings and usages of metaphors that are already known. As such, in the context of second language learning, it can be considered to be an aspect of what Bachman (1990) refers to as ‘strategic competence’.

7Much of the metaphorical language used in written economic discourse consists not of novel metaphors, but of conventionalised or ‘dead’ metaphors. Native speakers are therefore able to rely on crystallised knowledge when interpreting them. However, when these same metaphors are presented to learners of the language, they will, in many cases, be novel for these learners. The interpretation of these metaphors by such learners is more likely to require strategies involving fluid intelligence, as mentioned above. I argue below that the strategies involved in novel metaphor interpretation depend heavily on the psychological processes of associative thinking and analogical reasoning. I also argue that these psychological processes can be activated through image formation.

Strategies involved in novel metaphor interpretation

8There are currently a large number of models of figurative language interpretation, most of which fall somewhere between two general views. The first, more traditional, view of metaphor interpretation assumes that, in order to interpret figurative language, listeners and readers first need to analyse and reject their literal meanings. The second, more recent view is the ‘direct access view’, whose adherents maintain that listeners and readers do not necessarily need to access the complete literal meaning of figurative expressions in order to interpret their meaning in a given context (Gibbs 2001: 318). Peleg et al. (2001) argue that, in metaphor interpretation, two mechanisms are at work in parallel, a linguistic processor produces the immediate activation of salient word meanings, whereas a contextual processor shapes the overall message. It is argued below that these mechanisms depend on the psychological processes of associative fluency and analogical reasoning respectively.

Associative fluency

9Associative fluency refers to the ability to make a wide range of connections when presented with a given stimulus (see Guilford 1967; Carroll 1993). It is likely to be one of the key components of the linguistic processing aspect of metaphor interpretation as, when they are asked to interpret novel metaphors, subjects need to search the ‘semic webs’ (i.e. the networks of associations) surrounding the base domain in order to find areas that might overlap with the target domain. Individuals who are skilled in associative fluency are likely to come up with more possible meanings than those who are less skilled (see Pollio & Smith 1980 and Littlemore 1998).

Analogical reasoning

10Analogical reasoning is likely to contribute to contextual processing. Analogical reasoning involves the observation of partial similarities between concepts so that the characteristics of one of the concepts can be used to shed light on the other (Holyoak 1984). According to Gentner (1983:234) analogical reasoning can be decomposed into a number of sub-processes:

  • Accessing the source

  • Performing the mapping between the base and target

  • Evaluating the match

  • Storing inferences in the target

  • Extracting the commonalities

11This set of sub-processes has much in common with the process of metaphor interpretation, which also involves the capacity to perceive partial similarity between different domains. The role of analogy in the process of novel metaphor interpretation has been outlined by Paivio and Walsh (1993), who claim that the capacity to perceive partial similarity between apparently disparate domains is central to all kinds of metaphoric processing. The idea that metaphors are instructions to find relevant common properties of topic and vehicle terms is also advocated by Chiappe and Kennedy (2001). Most research into metaphor interpretation is based on A is B type expressions (for example, her smile is a knife). Participants are asked to explain what the base term (knife) tells us about the target term (her smile). However, when words are used metaphorically in economic writing, only the base terms are given, the target terms usually have to be inferred from the context. Therefore, the analogical reasoning in which the student needs to engage is likely to be more complex: The student must first infer the target term from the surrounding context. Only then can he or she identify similarities between base term and the target term. The analogical reasoning must therefore take place between the unknown word and the context in which it appears.

12In other words, effective metaphor interpretation in context requires that the student is able to access as many meanings as possible for the base concept (associative fluency), whilst identifying all possible links between this concept and the surrounding context (analogical reasoning). It is unclear whether the associative thinking strategy precedes the analogical thinking strategy, or if it is the other way around, or if both occur simultaneously.

Image formation

13The use of mental imagery is likely to help individuals to engage in both associative fluency and analogical reasoning. Researchers have already suggested that mental imagery can serve as a powerful tool in language learning. For example, Arnold (1999) argues that, in second language learning, the generation of mental images results in deeper learning and longer retention times for new vocabulary. Paivio and Walsh (1993) argue that image generation serves as a powerful tool in metaphor comprehension. They believe that different pieces of information that are represented visually can be recalled simultaneously, whereas different pieces of information which are represented verbally can only be recalled sequentially (see also Paivio 1983). It follows from this that metaphors can best be understood by fusing the base and the target concepts by means of an interactive image:

An individual merges two images, throwing into relief a common quality and thereby accomplishing a perceptual abstraction without relinquishing the context from which the singled out quality draws its life (id.: 313).

14Reichmann and Coste (1980) support this claim, arguing that readers are generally willing to go through a number of imagistic distortions in order to discover the meaning in metaphoric sentences and that imagery is a powerful mechanism for fusing ideas.

15A strong argument for the role of imagery in metaphor interpretation also comes from a study of empirical findings that have been made in the area. For example, simple noun conjunction, which is the prototypical model for metaphor formation, tends to produce almost universal reports of visual imagery experiences in experimental subjects (Johnson and Malgady 1979). Harris et al. (1980) examined subjects’ use of imagery in encoding metaphors in comparison to non-metaphors. They found that subjects typically reported vivid images in reaction to metaphors. They used images significantly more frequently to encode metaphorical sentences than non-metaphorical sentences. Interactive images were also present, which, in Harris et al’s words:

Were frequently highly creative, constructed, literally anomalous ‘surrealistic’ images involving both the topic and vehicle fused in dynamic interaction. (op. cit.: 178)

16Katz et al. (1988) found a link between imageability and comprehensibility, implying that imagery can act as an aid to comprehension. Furthermore, Ernest and Paivio (1971) discovered that high imagery and word concreteness were both related to associative response speed, thus implying that imagery might help the associative aspect of metaphor comprehension. This suggests that, in order to help students to understand the metaphorical meaning of new expressions, it may be beneficial to encourage them to form a mental image of those expressions. It also suggests that, an even more powerful technique would be to form an interactive image between the literal meaning of the term, and the context in which it appears.

17The theory outlined above suggests that it may be beneficial for language teachers to help their students to develop associative fluency and analogical reasoning, and that one way in which they might do this is by encouraging students to form (possibly interactive) mental images when faced with novel metaphors. In the following section, I describe how I went about doing this with my economics student.

Helping the student to develop metaphor interpretation strategies

18During the first few teaching sessions, it became clear that this student would probably benefit from training in the use of strategies for working out the meaning of unknown vocabulary. When faced with unknown vocabulary, her first reaction was to ask me to tell her the meaning, or to look it up herself in a bilingual dictionary. She was very unwilling (or unable) to try to guess the meaning by using the surrounding context. I therefore decided, after introducing the aims of the research project and obtaining her consent to participate, to help her to develop metaphor interpretation strategies. As we saw above, the focus of this research project was on the fluid aspects of metaphoric competence, in other words, it was hoped that the student would develop the ability to derive for herself the metaphorical sense of words whose literal meaning she already knew. In order to help her do this, I hoped to develop her associative fluency and her analogical reasoning skills, as well as her ability to use the surrounding context to aid understanding. In order to do this, I employed a two-stage procedure. During the first stage, I provided a high degree of support, whereas in the second stage I sought to develop the student’s own autonomy over her use of metaphor interpretation strategies (cf. instructions in Appendix 2).

Stage 1: Teacher-aided metaphor interpretation strategies

19I began by getting her to tell me the literal meaning, if she knew it, of any unknown words in the texts. I then asked her to form a mental image of the concept and to think of words associated with this image. This activity was designed to develop associative fluency. Next I asked her to apply some of these words to the context of the article. This activity was designed to develop analogical reasoning. Finally, I asked her to try and form an interactive image between the word and the context. This activity was designed to reinforce both the associative fluency and analogical reasoning processes. After she had done this, I asked her to think what metaphorical meaning of the word might be in this context. Two examples of this procedure are outlined below:

20Example 1:

Market research indicated that consumers were willing to pay a premium for PCs containing Intel’s chip. Intel decided to offer the PC makers a rebate on chip purchases to be spent on advertising, which displayed the Intel logo. It was an offer clone makers could not refuse.

By the late 1990s even big names such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard had joined the bandwagon. Intel’s logo appeared on the computers of more than 1,600 manufacturers and its chips held a 75 per cent market share.

(“The Essence of Building An Effective Brand”, The Financial Times, 18th December 2000)

21In this example, the term ‘join the bandwagon’ proved problematic. I began by asking the student to separate out the words band and wagon and to ask her to picture a wagon carrying a band playing music. I then explained that it is an old-fashioned idea where the arrival of a bandwagon in a town generally attracted a large following. I then asked her to picture the scene (a large group of people following the bandwagon) and to write down words and concepts that are associated with this image. The concepts that she came up with were popularity, crowd, movement, noise, publicity, enthusiasm, togetherness, old-fashioned clothes, a fair ground. This was the ‘associative fluency’ part of the exercise. I then asked her to think about how these concepts might apply to the context in which the expression appeared. This was the ‘analogical reasoning’ part of the exercise. In effect, I was asking her to use a ‘mapping process’, in which she compared the base domain to the target domain. This led her to pick out concepts such as popularity, crowd, movement, noise, publicity, enthusiasm, togetherness from the above list. I then encouraged her to employ a blending process, whereby she attempted to blend the concepts of bandwagons and big business, by means of an interactive image (Intel sitting on the bandwagon, IBM and Hewlett Packard in the crowd behind). Although she claimed to find this part of the exercise difficult, she was able to identify a wider variety of concepts, which included preconceptions that she may already have had about IBM and Hewlett Packard. For example, she thought that they may be large, push the other companies out of the way and kick some of the weaker ones off the bandwagon. This finding is in accordance with Fauconnier and Turner’s (1998) ‘blending’ theory, according to which, metaphor interpretation involves a blending of domains, rather than a simple mapping from one domain to another. This example shows how the student was able to achieve a rich understanding of the term ‘bandwagon’ through the use of metaphor interpretation activities. Moreover, she had no difficulty recalling the meaning of this item when tested several weeks later.

22Example 2

How does an organisation win out against its competitors? Segmenting the market correctly and targeting the right customers are vital to a company’s success.

(“Segmentation: making sure the customer Fits”, The Financial Times January, 2001)

23In this example, the term ‘targeting’ proved problematic. I began by asking the student if she knew the literal meaning of the word ‘target’. It turned out that she did. If she had not known the meaning, then I would have drawn a rough picture of an archery target, along with a bow and arrow. Again, I attempted to promote associative fluency by asking the student to picture the item and to think of as many associated concepts as possible. In response to this activity, she came up with the concepts of focusing on the target, taking aim, firing something at it, and hurting it. When asked to engage in analogical reasoning, she decided that only the first three of these concepts were really appropriate. I then asked her to form an interactive image of the metaphor (for example, a firm firing a product at a particular customer, who is standing in a group). When she did this, she was able to make further interpretations including, the fact that it is important to identify the right customer, to see what that customer looks like, to find an appropriate arrow to hit that particular customer, and that there are difficulties inherent in the whole process. Again, the student appeared to have achieved a rich understanding of the word through the use of metaphor interpretation strategies.

24As these two examples demonstrate, the student responded well to the training and was able to use metaphor interpretation strategies to aid her understanding of the new vocabulary. However, as was said at the beginning of this article, the aim of the study was to investigate the extent to which she could be encouraged to do this for herself, without the aid of a teacher. I attempted to do this during the second stage of the procedure.

Stage 2: developing learner autonomy in the use of metaphor interpretation strategies

25In order to help the student to develop a degree of autonomy in her use of metaphor interpretation strategies, I created two computer-based self-access activities in which she was encouraged to try out the strategy for herself. I observed the student carrying out both of these activities, but did not intervene.

26In the first activity, thirteen metaphorical expressions, which the student had found problematic in previous lessons, were presented in their original contexts. Electronic links were provided to relevant images from ‘clipart’ (​). An ‘example’ item was given, in which the word ‘entrenched’ was linked to an image of a First World War trench. Other items in the activity included the word ‘rooted’, which was linked to an image of some tree roots, the word ‘spawned’, which was linked to an image of a frog producing spawn, and so on. A full list of the items used is presented in Appendix 3. A short rubric reminded the student of the metaphor interpretation strategy outlined above and asked her to work out the meanings of the words, in context, using the links if she wanted to. She carried out the exercise using all the links, but it is difficult to say whether she did so out of curiosity, or out of a real need to look them.

27The following week, a computer-based testing session took place. This time, the student was presented with twelve new expressions (see Appendix 4), whose meanings, it was hoped, could be worked out using metaphor interpretation strategies. This time there were no links to related images. The student was simply asked to work out the meanings of the expressions, and to indicate on a short questionnaire, the strategies she had used (see Appendix 5).

28It transpired that the student was already familiar with one of the items (‘handled’). She was unable to work out the meaning of one of the items ‘embedded’. She was able to work out the meanings of the remaining ten items. The interpretations that she gave of these items were judged to be appropriate by two independent native-speaker judges. According to the questionnaire, she used the context to work out the meaning of one of the items (‘also-rans’), a mental image for seven of the items (‘fit squarely with’; ‘grounded’; ‘inroads’; ‘measure up to’; ‘breakthrough’; ‘build-up’; and ‘surmount’), and associated concepts with no mental image for the remaining two items (‘wholeheartedly’ and ‘deep-seated’). She did not use an interactive image for any of the items. It is fairly easy to see why she was unable to work out the meaning of ‘embedded’. It takes quite a large stretch of the imagination to get from the word ‘bed’ to the idea of fixed and entrenched. One would probably have to go (with the help of a teacher) via the concepts of ‘flowerbed’ and ‘implanted’. Equally, it is fairly easy to see how the student was able to use the context to work out the meaning of ‘also-rans’. The fact that ‘also-rans’ refers to ‘others, which are less desirable, because they perform less well’ can be inferred from the relationship of contrast, signalled earlier in the sentence by the words ‘make all the difference between’. One reason why she did not use imagery to interpret the words ‘wholeheartedly’ and ‘deep-seated’ could be that it was only necessary to understand the ‘whole’ and ‘deep’ parts of these words in order to work out their meanings. The concepts of ‘heart’ and ‘seat’ do not add a great deal to the meaning, in the two contexts in which they were used. Thus we can see that the student used metaphor interpretation strategies selectively and that it was more appropriate to some types of words than to others. The limitations, and possible applications of these findings are discussed in the following section.

Conclusions: Limitations and applications of the findings

29The findings made in this study suggest that metaphoric awareness training can, in some circumstances, be successful. Although the student was not able or willing to use interactive imagery, she appears to have developed sufficient confidence to work out the meanings of unknown words using metaphor interpretation strategies, aided by the use of imagery, where appropriate. The student gave very positive informal feedback on the study, suggesting that, in subsequent lessons, we should search for related images on the Internet, to help her remember new vocabulary.

30One of the main limitations of the above study, however, is that it focused on only one student. Although the approach could quite easily be adapted to a group teaching situation, it may meet with varying degrees of success, depending on the individual characteristics of the students. Indeed, individual differences do exist in the ways people tend to interpret metaphors. For example, Littlemore (2001) found that language learners with a ‘holistic’ cognitive style tend to display higher levels of metaphoric competence than learners with an ‘analytic’ cognitive style. This may mean that analytic learners are less willing to employ metaphor interpretation strategies, whereas holistic learners may respond more positively, even going so far as to employ interactive imagery.

31Individual differences have also been found concerning peoples’ ability to form mental images (Richardson 1977) and their preference for doing so (Childers et al. 1985). These differences may mean that as students internalise this approach, they may personalise it, highlighting those aspects that correspond to their own particular learning style. For example, some students may prefer to use only interactive images, whereas others may have difficulty forming interactive images, and may thus prefer to stick to the initial image and work with that. Other students may be unwilling or unable to form any images at all and may prefer to develop their associative fluency and analogical reasoning skills in a verbal manner. One might also find that students from different disciplines exhibit differing degrees of resistance to the technique. For example, Roe (1951) reports that biologists and experimental physicists found it much easier to think in images than psychologists and anthropologists. One possible solution to the problem of individual differences might be to ask the students to work in pairs or groups. This would enable students who respond positively to the technique to encourage their more sceptical peers.

32Another of the limitations of the procedure described in this article is that it can be lengthy. However, as we saw in the introduction, working from first principles does aid the learning and retention of metaphorical language. As the teacher and the students become more accustomed to the strategy, it would be possible to make short cuts, depending on the students’ learning styles, as mentioned above.

33The third limitation of this procedure is that, in order to have complete autonomy over the interpretation process, the student must have some knowledge of the original, literal meaning of the word and this may not always be the case. On the other hand, as we saw above, the student in this study was aware of the literal meaning of the majority of the metaphorical expressions encountered, and this is likely to be typical. Furthermore, it has been noted that metaphorical processes account for the majority of meaning extensions of lexical items (Dirven 1985), so the strategy is likely to have a broad application.

34Finally, it remains to be said that, although early signs are promising, more research is required to investigate empirically, the extent to which metaphoric competence can be developed using the procedure described in this article. The procedure should be tested on larger groups of students and the influence of factors, such as learning style and learning context, needs to be investigated. An interesting application of the procedure might be to incorporate it into the ‘help’ options of CD Roms designed to teach reading skills. A strength of such CD Roms is that they can offer help with unknown vocabulary at the click of a button. Often this help simply consists of an explanation of the word in question, or, in some cases, a translation. If, however, the help were to include an image of the word’s literal meaning, rather than a verbal explanation of the word’s meaning in context, then the student would be forced to engage in extra cognitive processing that would lead him or her to develop metaphor interpretation strategies, and result in deeper learning and longer retention. More ‘low tech’ methods might include the drawing of sketches and diagrams, or the use of mime and gestures.

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Appendix 1. Examples of problematic vocabulary

Examples of non-metaphorical words and expressions that were found by the student to be problematic

The top team will be able to comprehend and interpret the shift
It offers the Courtyard brand for travellers on a budget
It has tried to overcome this problem by inventing new brands
they seek ways of enhancing their competitive position
In the mid-1990s following the rise of private labels in fast-moving consumer goods
They spoil the game for everyone.
We must fight this endemic scepticism
must produce higher returns or else the branding exercise is futile
But, to the dismay of brand builders, most spending is wasted...
The founder’s philosophy of doing business precludes the use of advertising.
Effective promotions create synergies.
There is scope for differentiation.

Examples of metaphorical words and expressions that were found by the student to be problematic (italics indicates that the student was familiar with the literal meaning of the word or expression)

Targeting the right customers is vital to a company’s success.
Aspects of the marketing mix: sales promotion and distribution channels
The costs of offering different products or brands outweigh the returns. is struggling to stay afloat
There is a risk of diluting company credentials and spreading its resources too thinly
Use the 3C framework and come up with their target segments
Successful marketeers are those who can take aim at the appropriate customer segments.
By the late 1990s, big names such as IBM and Hewlett Packard had joined the bandwagon.
The quality of this process can make all the difference between a desirable brand and the also-rans
For Sony, what differentiates its brand is the excitement embedded in its products,
a streamlined but intelligent simplicity that often hides a complex technology.
Not all great brands are built on the back of high-budget mass advertising.
The importance of point of sale is not limited to bricks-and-mortar businesses.
Intel, Scwab and Microsoft have embraced disruptive innovations
Established companies, with their valuable brand names, entrenched relationships and deep pockets...
Equity markets expect continued growth in earnings while start-ups are valued for their prospects
Their finely-honed instincts, established ways of thinking and embedded skills make it tough to deal with a disruptive innovation...
Which of these technologies will become the hot innovations of the future?
Pitfalls for incumbents include...
making established companies stick with what is familiar to them...
Choice of technology is often clouded by uncertainty about whether technical hurdles can be overcome.
First, managers are concerned about cannibalising profitable products or encountering resistance from partners.
Finally, successful organisations are not naturally ambidextrous
These four explanations impair decision-making, erode enthusiasm and cause managers to hesitate.
Disruptive innovations signal their arrival long before they bloom.
Its much celebrated ‘turn on a dime’ response when confronted with Netscape’s web browser is just one instance.
In essence, microsoft had developed a strong hand of cards to play in a variety of worlds that might emerge.
Another strategy is to hive off the disruptive business into a separate unit.
The objective of putting the new business in a cocoon is to enable the new group to do things differently.
This also permits separate objectives, recognition of long development cycles and continuing cash drains.
Some companies take the approach so far as to create spin-offs. These may be complete companies with their own stock...
Such equity carve-outs have been pursued by Thermo Electron, Safeguard Scientifics, Enron...
Collaborative filtering is effective for learning customers’ preferences and helping them choose items they may enjoy.
Learning customers’ preferences can not only help meet their needs, but it can also help marketers forge an enduring relationship.
Companies are awash with tales of chairmen not talking to their chief executives.
After our hellos, it quickly became clear that things had gone sour for him and the company in that time.
We were riding high, doing so well, then we hit a wall.
Competitors started offering attractive, bundled products to major customers.
Worse still, attempts to tackle things had failed.
Whenever I try to get my top executives together to wrestle with these challenges, invariably one of more of the division presidents will argue tat...
They’re each running their own fiefdoms.
Many groups are simply constellations of executive talent: individuals who rarely come together.
Senior executives often exhibit blinkered perspectives.
This likemindedness does not rule out disjointed initiatives
The senior group needs to roll up its sleeves and take on substantive tasks.
Another job for the group to take on is retooling the company’s performance management
They are armed with better and almost instantaneous information
Meanwhile capital has leached out of industries with poor prospects
Industry prospects are determined by the interplay of five forces
Powerful buyers have the power to squeeze their suppliers’ profit margins
Suppliers can integrate forwards, bypassing their buyers altogether
There are two other forces that put a ceiling on profits.
Managers still have to offer investors reasons for backing them
The idea of ‘core competencies’ can help us understand…

Appendix 2. Instructions in how to use the metaphor interpretation strategy

If you think hard, you may find that you know the literal meaning of the word, or a rough equivalent in your own language, but cannot think of what it means in this particular context… Try the following...

Imagine you come across the following expression:

“It was time for her to finish with her boyfriend. Their relationship had become a bit entrenched and it was time for her to move on...”

You do not know the meaning of the word ‘entrenched’ but have some idea of meaning of ‘trench’.
1. Form a mental image of a ‘trench’
2. Think of concepts associated with this image (people have been there a long time, there is no clear escape, people are bored and tired, everyone is stuck in the mud...)
3. Apply concepts associated with the word ‘trench’ to the context of ‘relationships’
Form an interactive image between ‘trench’ and ‘relationships’
What do you think an ‘entrenched relationship’ is?

Summary of this procedure:

Can you form a mental image of the word?
What words/ideas do you associate with this image?
Can you apply any of these words/ideas to the context of the article?
Can you an interactive image combining the new word and the context in which it appears?
You might, of course, carry out the whole procedure without forming a mental image...

Appendix 3. Words used in the computer-based training session

Word in context

Image that the word was linked to

Established companies, with their valuable brand names, entrenched relationships and

First World War trench

We must target the right customers

An archery target

Problems for incumbents are rooted in the technological uncertainties, ambiguous customer signals and immature of competitive structures of markets...

Tree roots

There should be diversity of opinion to challenge dominant attitudes and misleading precedents, so avoiding myopic views of new ventures.

A pair of glasses with the caption ‘If you are myopic, you need these to see far away’

His outlook remains firmly anchored in the Liberal tradition

A ship’s anchor

Pitfalls for students are many and varied.

A person falling into a pit

Innovations spawned by developments in emerging technologies such as the internet.

A frog producing spawn

Even big names such as IBM and Hewlett Packard had joined the bandwagon.

A crowd following a wagon with a band on it

Intel, Schwab and Microsoft have embraced disruptive innovations.

Two people embracing

The controversy surrounding brands was re-ignited most recently by...

A wick being lit

Some companies take the approach so far as to create spin-offs. These may be complete companies with their own stock...

A person throwing a Frisbee

Turn your customers into advocates.

A lawyer, with the caption ‘if you employ this man, what will he do for you? Will he say good things about you, or bad things?

The objective of putting the new business in a cocoon is to enable the new group to do things differently.

A butterfly’s cocoon

It was an offer that computer clone makers could not refuse.

A picture of Dolly, the cloned sheep

Appendix 4. Words used in the final testing session

Established companies seldom commit wholeheartedly to new innovations
The needs of such a segment fit squarely with company objectives
Changing peoples’ views is not always easy because attitudes are often grounded in experience.
In most banks costs are handled at the product or operations level.
The new theory challenges many deep-seated assumptions
The task is going to be enormous, however we have managed to make a few inroads already
It’s natural to underestimate developing technologies as they don’t always measure up to familiar alternatives
We’ve just made an important breakthrough.
There has been a build-up of troops on both sides of the border
The quality of this process can make all the difference between a desirable brand and the also-rans.
For Sony, what differentiates its brand is the excitement embedded in its products.
Global marketeers must be able to surmount the challenges of globalisation.

Appendix 5. Strategy questionnaire used in the final testing session

Please indicate which of the following strategies you used to work out the meaning of this word:

I used the surrounding context to work out the meaning
I formed a mental image of the word and used this mental image to help me think of associated concepts
I thought of the word’s associated concepts, without using an image
I applied concepts associated with the word to the surrounding context
I formed an interactive image between the word and its context
I knew the word and didn’t need to do any of the above.

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Jeannette Littlemore, « Developing Metaphor Interpretation Strategies for Students of Economics: A Case Study », Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité, Vol. XXI N° 4 | 2002, 40-60.

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Jeannette Littlemore, « Developing Metaphor Interpretation Strategies for Students of Economics: A Case Study », Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité [En ligne], Vol. XXI N° 4 | 2002, mis en ligne le 15 février 2014, consulté le 01 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Jeannette Littlemore

Jeannette Littlemore is a lecturer in English for Academic Purposes and Applied Linguistics at the University of Birmingham. She has an MA in Applied Linguistics and a PhD in English Language Teaching. Her research interests include the use of metaphor in language learning and teaching, individual differences in second language acquisition, and learner autonomy.

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