Great Aunt Edna’s Vase: Metaphor Use In Working With Heritage
This article explores the use of a particular metaphor – Great Aunt Edna’s Vase – as a means
to facilitating multilingual families in contextualizing and engaging with complex emotional
connections as linked to language, identity, and belonging. Building from the premise that
language is linked to the construction of identity, but that individual family members will
have different views and opinions on the heritage language within this context, the article
highlights the use of metaphors in family work, before introducing the metaphor of Great
Aunt Edna’s Vase and situating it in relevant literature around language, heritage, and
identity. The concepts introduced add to the existing body of literature in addressing the
growing need for work specifically aimed at multilingual families, in a globally ever-more-
diverse society, highlighting the links between language and well-being, and making a
contribution to the global knowledge necessary for practitioners and families to explore these
The use of metaphors in family therapy work has a long history, with earliest models of
family relationships being modelled on imagery in the 1960s (Boszormenyi‐Nagy & Framo,
1965). While many of the existing metaphors explore the family as a whole, or specific roles
within the family, there is also a history regarding the use of metaphors to relate certain
aspects that are part of family life, such as faith (Smith, 2017), death (Llewellyn et al., 2017),
or grief (Goldberg & Stephenson, 2016; Nadeau, 2006), to name but a few. Metaphors can
help to define reality (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980), and in doing so, they have the power to
change the focus of this reality. By applying metaphors to specific contexts, certain features
of this reality may be explicitly highlighted, whereas others may be disregarded or
diminished (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Pocock, 1999). In an increasingly diverse society,
mental well-being among multilingual and multi-ethnic communities is coming increasingly
into focus (Whaley & Davis, 2007). While there is literature on providing counselling either
for couples who are from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds (Tien, Softas-Nall &
Barritt, 2017), or for children alone (Linde, 1986), work that focuses on the whole family is
comparatively sparse (Softas-Nall, Cardona & Barritt, 2015). This may be because of a
hierarchical family structure adopted in some cultures, preventing children from being active
participants in family discourse (Daly, 2005; Pećnik, Matić, & Milaković, 2016; Softas-Nall
et al., 2015), an aspect that becomes particularly apparent in family language choice and
family language policy (Author, 2017).
However, engaging families in conversation about language choice, and opening up
avenues of recognition that different family members may have different views, is vital in
understanding contexts where the family language may be an issue of contention (see Okita,
2002), and can be particularly important for monolingual practitioners working in
multilingual contexts (Softas-Nall et al., 2015). Fauber and Long (1991), for example, draw
together a variety of literature to explore the role of the family in child behaviour and mental
well-being, emphasising the importance of a supportive and inclusive family environment.
This paper explores the affordances of one particular metaphor – Great Aunt Edna’s
Vase – as a way to help family members in multilingual contexts to review their and others’
emotional links with the heritage language, by likening the language to a vase that gets
passed down the generations, with each generation and individual developing their own
emotional response to this inheritance. While emotional connections to heritage languages
have seen various explorations in the literature (Chen, Kennedy & Zhou, 2012; Okita, 2002),
the explicit link to mental health is receiving increasing attention (Czubinska, 2017; Author,
2017), especially in work that considers the entire family, and intergenerational relationships.
Bi- and multilingual children are not simply double or multiple monolinguals, and the
intricacies between language and identity need exploring from a multilingual, rather than a
monolingual perspective (García, 2009). The metaphor explored in this paper has been used
extensively as part of lectures, public engagement events, and in research as conversation
starters. It is here fully conceptualised and theorised to critically engage with its applicability
in the family and social work context, contributing at both a theoretical and a practical level
to the current knowledge base, thus addressing the needs of an ever-growing diverse society
(Whaley & Davis, 2007). In the following, this paper draws briefly on literature outlining the
use of metaphors in family work, before introducing the metaphor of Great Aunt Enda’s vase
itself. It then moves on to explore the literature in relation to the concepts underlying the
metaphor, highlighting both applicability and limitations.
Metaphors in Family Work
The metaphor of Great Aunt Edna’s Vase is not solely aimed at family therapists, but
rather intended as a conversation starter between families and teachers, social workers, or
support assistants. Nevertheless, the frequent use of metaphor in therapy work warrants a
close look in this context, in order to understand its affordances and shortcomings. Metaphors
provide a non-threatening way to talk about emotionally complex concepts, providing both
distance and relative safety (Cederborg, 2000). Stories, words, sentences, poems, or
memories have all been successfully integrated as metaphors into family therapy (Angus,
1996; Chesley, Gillett & Wagner, 2008). Although both may be an appropriate approach, the
use of metaphor may be driven by families, rather than introduced by a specialist (Sims &
By providing a study specifically focusing on Chinese families, Liu, Zhao and Miller
(2016) have made an important contribution to the knowledge base on metaphors in family
therapy. They argue that the use of metaphor in collectivist societies and cultures may add
further value by facilitating a means to discuss problematic issues in an environment which
would typically encourage keeping such issues private in order to save face (Dwairy, 2009).
As discussed below, the metaphor of Great Aunt Edna’s vase thus holds potential advantages
in decontextualizing emotive connections between language and identity in multilingual
While metaphors may provide a shortcut to enable families to talk about certain
aspects or issues, their use needs to be critically evaluated to ascertain no long-term damage
will occur from internalization of the metaphor (Cederborg, 2000). However, ‘the
examination of metaphors can be used not only to reveal unstated assumptions in theories but
unstated assumptions in families’ (Davies, 2013, p. 68). From a holistic, developmental
perspective, therefore, a metaphor may be helpful in inviting families to consider alternative
stances and viewpoints, without necessarily having to subscribe to the metaphor
wholeheartedly or permanently. In the following, I introduce the metaphor of Great Aunt
Edna’s Vase, contextualizing it in view of the literature on heritage language, identity, and
parenting, and illustrating its potential use in bringing theoretical concepts closer to families.
The Affordances of Great Aunt Edna’s Vase
In liking the heritage language to a vase which may be passed down the generations,
family members are facilitated to take a more external or distanced view on emotional
attachment, allowing the metaphor to open up alternative viewpoints in a less threatening
way. Like any inheritance, the person inheriting may have multiple complex, and sometimes
conflicting, emotional reactions. The metaphor of Great Aunt Edna’s Vase facilitates the
exploration of these. Great Aunt Edna can, of course, be renamed to suit cultural
circumstances, although the name itself can help with thinking about the concept of
emotional attachment in a more abstract way. The metaphor of a vase also brings with it
connotations of fragility, an underlying concept of the implications that any damage to the
vase might have, which is further discussed below.
In inheriting the vase, the inheritor may love it just as much as Aunt Edna did, in its
own right, and treasure it. Such investment without the emotional influence of memories and
shared history may be comparatively rare, and attachment to either vase or language is more
likely to be influenced by a certain level of remembrance and history-making. This, however,
goes hand-in-hand with the notion of ‘inheriting’ the language: it is rarely an immediate
inheritance (first the language is not part of family life, then it is), instead, children could
explore, through the metaphor, what it means to love something very much, and then to pass
it on to somebody else.
This leads to the more common scenario, where one may love the vase (i.e. language)
because of shared memories linked to it, and therefore choose to treasure and nurture it –
maintaining the language, akin to putting the vase on display. In this instance, the vase not
only reminds us of Aunt Edna but, through shared memories, has become a treasured object
in its own right. In terms of heritage language acquisition, this may not mean that children
have the same expectations of themselves as their parents do, but that there is an internalized
attachment and willingness to engage. Mills (2001), working with third generation Urdu and
Punjabi speakers in Britain, showed that children were able to express their own reasons for
wanting to maintain the heritage language, both emotional (e.g. communication with
extended family, and a sense of identity) and practical (e.g. employment opportunities).
While some of these were instilled by parents, others had developed individually, with
children taking ownership of the ‘vase.’
In juxtaposition to this, memories can be ambivalent, or even negative. This may lead
to holding on to the vase out of a sense of shared history and potential family obligation, but
not feeling particularly close to it. The vase will not be given pride of place but may be kept
in a cupboard, half-forgotten. Later, when the inheritor has children of their own or through
another critical incident, the vase may be remembered as something worth passing on. Wong
Fillmore (1991) explores the ways in which a loss of language may lead to a loss of culture,
too, linking language, culture and identity. These links are not necessarily universal, and
maintaining cultural connections is possible without necessarily being a confident language
user (Kumar, Trofimovich & Gatbonton, 2008), possibly leading to a hybrid identity (Harris,
2006; Pavlenko & Blackledge, 2004).
On this sliding scale of emotional connectivity, the inheritor may also decide that they
simply do not like the vase. Maybe they never did, feeling no sense of connectivity or
belonging, the vase does not fit with the way the inheritor sees themselves, their lifestyle, or
their sense of identity. At the earliest opportunity, the vase is removed. In later years, this
decision may be regretted, and efforts to find a similar vase may take place; however, there
may be a lingering feeling that something precious was lost. On the other hand, however, the
decision to give up the vase may never bother the inheritor at all. This interpretation raises
the question at what age parents allow children to have their own preferences and opinions
with regard to the heritage language, a question which is doubtless related to parenting
practices (Daly, 2005; Pećnik et al., 2016). However, if identified early, it may also be an
opportunity for parents to help children establish emotional links for themselves, rather than
What becomes obvious through the use of metaphor is that emotional attachment can
be established by proxy, and that this emotional link can be strengthened through shared
history, joint memories, a sense of ownership, and independently developed emotional
attachment. Within the metaphor, Great Aunt Edna’s liking the vase may initially be a reason
to keep the inheritance; however, without one’s own connected history, maintaining an
engagement can be difficult. The metaphor may thus not only help families in expressing
their initial viewpoints, but it could also help them understand how they may work together to
facilitate individual emotional connections. Following this introduction to the metaphor, the
following sections break down the underlying concepts in more detail, contextualising ‘Great
Aunt Edna’s Vase’ through the relevant literature.
Family Language, Home Language, or Heritage Language?
Research and work with multilingual families is defined by the lack of descriptors,
more precisely, the absence of a singular term which accurately serves to incorporate the
many complex family situations. Therefore, many researchers choose a definition that best
describes their particular context and focus, and it is important to understand both the
terminology and complexities in order to gain a better understanding of the field and the
particular affordances of Great Aunt Edna’s Vase within this context.
It is important to understand the ways in which definitions and terminology seek to
categorize both the family and the family’s respective languages. This becomes problematic
as soon as we look beyond the term ‘family’, to the concept of ‘family members,’ and explore
how terminology may in fact be divisive, as well as unifying. When we speak of a
‘multilingual’ or ‘bilingual’ family (Softas-Nall et al., 2015), for example, we refer to a
family where multiple languages are spoken; however, such families may still include
monolingual family members (Okita, 2002) or even a language which parents choose to teach
to their children for non-heritage-related reasons (King & Fogle, 2006). Similarly, terms such
as family language (Strobel, 2016) and home language (Kang, 2013; Mcgroarty, 2012) imply
that the family – or home – has a specific language, which is different from the community.
This supports the view of family and home as specific, ubiquitous, social constructs, not
taking into account individuality within the home or family. Frequently, the terms ‘home
language’ and ‘family language’ are used in direct juxtaposition to ‘school language’ (Guhn,
Milbrath & Hertzman, 2016), establishing the idea that each context is distinctively
associated with a single, specific language. In reality, many families communicate in more
than one language on a daily basis, arguably sharing multiple ‘home languages’, one of which
may also be the societal (or ‘school’) language. The notion of family language policy
somewhat extends this but focuses primarily on when and by whom certain languages are
spoken within the family (Spolsky, 2012) without necessarily taking into account emotional
connotations. From another perspective, there is the focus on the child as a ‘main character,’
situating the child’s language experiences within this context. This focus, which has led to the
classification of six different environment types typical for bilingual acquisition (Romaine,
1995), is useful in outlining the complexity of the field but requires further in-depth
engagement to support family work. All these terms are useful and accurate in their own
contexts, and the point here is not to undermine or disprove them. Instead, the focus is on
identifying a term which may be used in conversation with families without making
assumptions about individual family members (e.g., calling it a ‘family’ language when not
all family members apportion the language equal status).
The term ‘heritage language,’ which is supported by the metaphor of Great Aunt
Edna’s vase, implies that a language is passed down through the family (Baker, 2011) and
specifically points out that such inheritance is not inevitable (Bourdieu, 2000). Bourdieu’s
notion of evitability is in contrast to previous work. For example, Romaine (1995) argues that
research into bilingualism is somewhat dominated by middle-class families, where
bilingualism may be a choice, and thus open for discussion, rather than a practical necessity.
Romaine dubs these two scenarios ‘elite’ and ‘folk’ bilingualism and rightly highlights the
need for differentiation. Nevertheless, having to accept an ‘inheritance’ does not mean that
one does so willingly and may still lead to family discord which may be alleviated by
facilitating a more mutual understanding.
Unlike ‘family language’ or ‘home language,’ the term ‘heritage language’ explicitly
seeks to distance itself from the inevitability and forced inclusivity that is implied in the first
two terms. However, the notion of heritage may hold strong connotations with social
constructs such as ‘tradition’ and ‘duty’ (Kang, 2013), as well as being of potential religious
importance (Glinert, 1999). Linking heritage to social or emotional concepts encompasses,
for example, Bourdieu’s notion of capital. Bourdieu (2000) stated clearly that ‘only when the
heritage has taken over the inheritor can the inheritor take over the inheritance’ (p. 152), thus
problematizing complex emotional links between heritage and identity. These complexities
can usefully be discussed by giving the heritage language an externalised ‘identity’ in the
form of Great Aunt Edna’s vase, discussing notions of both inheritance and heritage.
While the term ‘heritage language’ is particularly useful in family work, it
undoubtedly comes with its own limitations. Families may have multiple potential heritage
languages but choose one over another, or even choose a language which is not actually
‘inherited’ but important to the parents for social, cultural, or economic reasons (Author,
2017), including transnational adoption (Shin, 2013). It is here that Great Aunt Edna’s Vase
may hold particular potential as a metaphor, because all family members may hold separate –
and often unvoiced – views of the family language (Author, 2017).
Emotion, Identity, and Belonging in Multilingual Families
The maintenance of the heritage language is inextricably linked to notions such as
identity (Czubinska, 2017; Author, 2017; Norton, 2013) and belonging (Mills, 2001; Norton,
2013; Tien et al., 2017). In previous work, I highlighted the link between heritage language,
identity, and mental well-being as being particularly unexplored in the family context
(Author, 2017), because emotional attachments are both more difficult to express and more
difficult to justify between family members. Partners and children may therefore not only not
share the emotional connection to the heritage language, but may also be unaware of it in
other family members (Author, 2017), necessitating a means for families to jointly explore
each other’s emotions and feelings in relation to the heritage language. One existing tool for
this is Krumm’s (2001) language portrait that encourages children to colour in a human
outline to represent their various languages as part of themselves. The technique has been
successfully used in heritage language research with younger children (Martin, 2012; Seals,
2018) to explore how children internalize their various languages, but it is not typically used
with families as a whole. While the language portrait is highly personal, the metaphor around
Great Aunt Edna’s Vase extends the practitioner’s toolkit by a more decontextualized way to
discuss language within the family.
Parents frequently have particular expectations of their children’s heritage language
development and if not met, can lead to parental disappointment and the children developing
a sense of failure (Piller, 2002). Within the family context, it is not just the children who
might be assessing their linguistic identity. Piller (2002) shows how linguistic identity is
responsively constructed and negotiated, a concept that is further illustrated by Palviainen
and Bergroth (2018) in their work with multilingual parents. Among Palviainen and
Bergroth’s (2018) participants, a ‘bilingual’ identity was essentially viewed as a birthright
and could not be claimed later in life. This notion of a ‘birthright’ that cannot be attained later
in life can usefully and gently be challenged through the use of metaphors, such as Great
Aunt Edna’s vase, which the inheritor may come to love eventually, despite initial
misgivings. The metaphor facilitates the exploration of evolving, personalised, emotional
connections, rather than assuming a default mental position. As such, it can help to address
the parental fear that if they take a more relaxed approach, the child’s bilingual identity will
suffer (Author, 2018).
Limitations and Applications – Stretching the Metaphor
Like any metaphor, Great Aunt Edna’s Vase can only be a partial representation of a
family’s complex connections with their family language (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Pocock,
1999). The ‘vase’ analogy focuses on emotional connections, because this is an aspect less
frequently made explicit in the intergenerational family context (Author, 2017). Practical
applications of the heritage language, such as requiring children to translate for parents, thus
do not translate as easily to the metaphorical context. However, such practical necessities are
more easily understood within the family, and less frequently questioned, harking back to
Romaine’s (1995) differentiation between ‘elite’ and ‘folk’ bilingualism. When one considers
that a vase is both a functional and an ornamental object, the functionality can be further
integrated into the metaphor. While parents may wish to encourage children to take on the
heritage language - ‘Great Aunt Edna’s Vase’ – in its entirety, children may choose to like
the functionality of a vase, but adopt a much more serviceable model (e.g., in the
metaphorical context, a water jug or a different kind of vase). Thus, they may choose to adopt
the spirit of heritage language maintenance but be happy with an incomplete, different, or
purely instrumental adaptation (e.g., language for basic oral communication, rather than
The fragility of the vase stretches and endangers the metaphor. In a practical
application of the metaphor during an interview, an eight-year-old boy who had a great
dislike for the heritage language suggested that ‘smashing the vase’ would be a good way to
ensure that he never had to see it again. Seeing his mother’s reaction to this statement made
him re-consider the definitiveness and finality of such an action and ultimately opened up
family communication. The incident aligns with Cederborg’s (2000) warnings about the
potential dangers of metaphor use, in this case, both regarding the emotional reaction of the
mother and the guilt the child expressed after realizing his mother’s reaction. Ongoing work
is needed to ensure such statements are not left behind for families to deal with unsupported.
Another shortcoming of the metaphor is the notion of inheritance as a whole, because
it implies a death in order for the inheritance to take place. In family work, this shortcoming
actually leads to additional potential for the facilitation of conversation: unlike an inheritance,
which sometimes happens without the inheritor being aware of an item’s history, parents
have countless opportunities to make the language emotionally meaningful to the child. So if
during their engagement with the metaphor, family members open up about emotional
connections that have previously been kept private (Liu, Zhao & Miller, 2016), these can be
discussed, and further connections can be made for the child to establish their own
meaningful links to the inheritance.
Seeking to contextualize the complex relationships between language, identity, and
belonging when working with multilingual families can be painstaking and difficult for both
the practitioner and the family members, even more so when the practitioner does not share
similar experiences (Nguyen, 2014; Softas-Nall et al., 2015). Within this context, a metaphor
such as Great Aunt Edna’s vase can help both practitioners and family members in exploring
emotional attachment and a sense of identity through a narrative tool that is deliberately
removed from the family’s daily context. Within the long use of metaphors in family work,
Great Aunt Edna’s vase occupies a specific niche for addressing the particular needs of
multilingual families, at a time when such families are becoming increasingly common in
today’s multi-diverse society (Whaley & Davis, 2007). As such, the metaphor makes an
important contribution to the field’s ability to problematise and theorize notions of identity,
multilingualism, and heritage, not only as a theoretical tool but through real, practical
application of the metaphor in family work.
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