How Basic Is “UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING” When Reasoning About Knowledge? Asymmetric Uses of Sight Metaphors in Office Hours Consultations in English as Academic Lingua Franca

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Colleges, School and Institutes


Twenty-seven semi-guided conversations between lecturers and Spanish-speaking undergraduate students were recorded at five different universities in Europe where English is the medium of instruction. Examination of the metaphorical language used in these conversations revealed that SIGHT plays an important role in academic mentoring in English. Lecturers often frame their advice to undergraduate students in terms of what has been called “UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING,” on the face of it a somewhat unsurprising finding. If one takes it that the correlation between mental and visual activity is somehow “primary” (Grady, 1997; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999; Sweetser, 1991) then this way of reasoning about learning and knowledge should be common ground in conversations between English- and Spanish-speaking interlocutors. However, we found no such alignment between the two groups of participants in an academic setting. The Spanish speakers not only used words and terms associated with vision significantly less frequently than their English-speaking interlocutors, but also with different meanings. We explore these quantitative and qualitative differences in metaphorical uses of three of the terms used by all participants to talk about learning—see, look and focus—and conclude that, although the “UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING” mapping might be available as a way of reasoning about learning and knowledge to people from different cultures, discourse practices influences how salient it is for different groups of speakers. In this regard, it appears to be culturally salient for English-speaking academics, but not necessarily so for speakers of other languages.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)184-217
Number of pages34
JournalMetaphor and Symbol
Issue number3
Early online date16 Jul 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Metaphor; English as a Lingua Franca