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Book review
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Meanings and Metaphors: Activities to Practise Figurative Language (Cambridge Copy Collection)
by Gillian Lazar

Review written by Jane Birdsall

Metaphors play an enormous part in communication. Mark Haddon's recent bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Jonathan Cape, 2003), is mostly about the difficulties the hero has in understanding human behaviour. Christopher, who has Asperger's Syndrome, puts down half his problems to not being able to read facial expressions and half to not understanding metaphors. "People do not have skeletons in their cupboards…imagining an apple in someone's eye doesn't have anything to do with liking someone a lot," he complains. Christopher reads the world literally and most of us, a lot of the time, don't. As a result, he's like a fish out of water, up **** creek without a paddle. Figurative language helps us express ourselves at different levels, from cliché to poetry. To a certain extent, as Lakoff and Johnson have shown (Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago Press, 1981), they also shape the way we think. In English we think of life as a journey; time as money; relationships in terms of temperature, war or magic.

In the past coursebooks have tended to avoid this area, apart from, perhaps, the more colourful idioms: as different as chalk and cheese, birds of a feather flock together, etc. This supplementary book takes a new approach by looking at "metaphorical sets" - a kind of extension of "lexical sets". Common collocations are thematically linked with units, for example, on figurative language derived from horticulture, from food, from animals, from machinery. This is a great idea and one that Gillian Lazar has pioneered as a practical way of implementing Lakoff and Johnson's theories. Sensibly, she does not limit herself to higher levels - the book has activities for students from lower intermediate to advanced. As Lazar says in the introduction, the units will be particularly valuable to students who feel that their vocabulary learning has "plateaued" or those following exam courses, such as First Certificate or the Certificate of Proficiency.

The general approach is to combine language work with skills work: speaking, reading and writing. Lazar has a good variety of text types, many of which are authentic, e.g. newspaper articles, adverts, poems, extracts from Corpus research, a speech by Martin Luther King. Besides reading, with particular emphasis on deducing meaning from context, there is most emphasis on providing controlled practice. There is a wide variety of practice activities, ranging from checking understanding of meaning to very imaginative writing.

Most of this book seems extremely useful and the content matter is interesting. Certainly the units I tried out (on time and money with mid-intermediates and animal expressions with an advanced group) went down very well, although I found the speaking activities fell a little flat. The ideas for working with and writing poems seem very usable but there is one rather bizarre poem full of food metaphors which advanced students are supposed to convert into a newspaper article. Maybe too wacky for most students. Another quibble might be that not all the "set phrase" idioms might be necessary for learners abroad. A lot of these are very British and some are going out of use already (as poor as a church mouse, as dull as ditchwater, to be worth his/her salt, a stitch in time saves nine). However, since this is a book to pick and choose units from, this is not a great problem. There is plenty here of use to your students and much that you will not find elsewhere.

The format is that of many other Cambridge supplementary books: photocopiable pages for the students interleaved with easy-to-follow teacher's pages. A couple of commendable innovations are the extension/revision activities at the back of the book and a student record sheet. The latter is a bit cramped, but the idea is nice could be adapted by the teacher.

To sum up: Meanings and Metaphors is an excellent supplementary book for different levels, mainly pitched at decent intermediates, with some advanced material. The focus is on collocations arranged in metaphorical sets and you can choose the areas which tie in with your coursebook. Some units are good for encouraging imaginative writing and others will encourage a critical approach to reading certain genres, e.g. advertising and speech writing. Very teacher-friendly: get your DOS to buy it.

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