Campus & Community

Metaphors That Open Doors

3 min read

“Is the brain shaped and even changed by its experiences with language?” wonders Mary Helen Immordino-Yang. “Does language change the way people think?”

A former seventh-grade science teacher, Immordino-Yang is particularly interested in the relationship between language and the brain’s functioning–in part because of what she witnessed in her classroom. “I found myself increasingly interested in how language interacted with ideas for my students,” she says. “I had kids who didn’t speak English very well, for instance, and I was fascinated by the ways they used language as a platform, a scaffold, onto the scientific concepts–the way they sort of manipulated language in order to understand concepts.”

Wanting to better understand what she was observing with her seventh-graders, Immordino-Yang took night courses in linguistics and the psychology of language at the Harvard Extension School, where she learned about the work of GSE scholars such as Howard Gardner and Catherine Snow. Now a third-year doctoral student at the Ed School, Immordino-Yang recently returned to her old classroom to explore how seventh-graders respond to the use of metaphors in a science lesson.

“I’ve just finished conducting a small-scale qualitative study–I call it a metaphor study–of how seventh-graders comprehend a genetics lesson,” she says. One of the science teacher’s metaphors played out in an interesting way. The teacher asked the kids what they had had for breakfast that morning that could be compared with a cell. “Eggs!” one child shouted. “The teacher then told the kids to think of the cell as an egg, and they did, literally. The kids took all of the information they had about eggs and juxtaposed it onto the cell–saying that the yolk controlled the rest of the egg and was responsible for the color of the egg, and so on.”

Immordino-Yang’s interest in the interconnection between language, the brain, and problem-solving springs from a love of languages. A French major in college, she also learned Russian and Swahili while living in Russia and Kenya. “I enjoyed the process of going deeply into another language with French,” she says. “I learned Russian because I wanted to watch myself learn to read and write all over again and see what the process was like–to see if I would feel like a little kid learning to read again, which I did. And I decided to tackle Swahili because, unlike French and Russian, I didn’t recognized any words in the language; nothing about it was familiar, and I wanted to see what that process would be like.”

Immordino-Yang plans to combine research with a teaching career, and hopes that her research will always be applied to “real kids and real learning situations.” Pointing out that language is the tool for getting curriculum across to children, she adds: “It is really important that we understand how language and knowledge development interact. If we can understand the ways in which symbolic thinking functions in learning, we can teach kids more effectively.”