Root Metaphor

To track – attainment metaphor

Illustrative Example of Root Metaphor


For an explanation of this composite visual metaphor please view the short video below.


The word lernen is related to lehren (to teach) and List (noun: trick, trickery). It belongs to the word group/word family leisten, which originally meant “to keep track, to trace, to look into (sth.), or to investigate”. The word lais means in Gothic (language) “I know”, and more specifically “I have investigated”. The Indogermanic root *lais means “trace (noun), track (noun), line or groove”. The origin of the word lernen entails a passive and an active meaning, i.e., “to leave traces” (subjectivized meaning), but also “to track or to investigate (sth.)” (objectivized meaning).

Common phrases

Common phrases about learning
  • Learn the hard way.
  • You need to learn to walk before you can run.
  • Learn something from the bottom up.
  • Learning one’s own way.
  • Make up for lost ground.
  • Two ways of thinking.
  • It (he/she) is a lost cause.
  • Getting lost – eg. I got lost at fractions and could never find my bearings again
  • Figuring out my way through the material
  • Learning the right way (or the wrong way)
  • Falling behind
  • Moving forward.
Common phrases about teaching
  • Helping students find their way through the material
  • Pointing out how to get there
  • Setting the course
  • Steering the crowd (of learners)
  • Do you know where we are going?
  • Teaching the right way
Common phrases about knowledge
  • A mountain of information
Phrases about knowing
  • Know something backwards and forwards.
  • Know your place.
  • As far as anyone knows.


The roots of the word Learn can be found in the PIE roots of the word lois meaning to furrow and track. It is similar to the German lernen, Dutch leren which mean “to follow or find the track.” To follow of find the track invokes the Attainment Metaphor which is so intricately woven into everyday English that it’s nearly impossible to notice when it is being invoked. And so, even though the Attainment Metaphor has a major shaping influence on formal education (e.g., the word curriculum originally meant “a path to be followed,” and a schooling experience framed in terms of curriculum necessitates regular progress reports; it goes on), it is rarely explicitly named … and even more rarely critiqued. Since the learner is a passive recipient, the teacher is responsible for ensuring learning occurs.

Implicit Spatial Associations

The tracking – Attainment Metaphor suggests a uni-directional, progressive aspect to learning (ie. Moving forward or falling behind)  

Please cite this article as:
Francis, K., & Davis, B. (2023) “Learn" (English). In Metaphors of Learning in Different Languages. https://doi.org/10.11575/8B7N-V637. https://learningmetaphors.com

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