B is for Body

12 12 2010

“English is on the up at the moment, an up that is probably unprecedented in world history. But world history is full of languages that have dominated for a long time, yet there aren’t too many of them around now.” (Interview with Nicholas Ostler, Guardian Weekly, 12.11.2010).

This post is not about the dominance of English – I just happen to have chosen that quote because it includes at least two examples of what Mark Johnson calls “the experiential embodied nature of human rationality” (1987, p.100): 1. English is on the up and 2. history is full of languages.

The use of the word up to connote increase, in the sense that MORE IS UP, emerges – according to Johnson – “from a tendency to employ an UP-DOWN orientation in picking out meaningful structures of our experience.  We grasp the structure of verticality repeatedly in thousands of perceptions and activities we experience every day, such as perceiving a tree, our felt sense of standing upright, the activity of climbing stairs…” (p. xiv). Likewise, the idea that history is a container, and hence can be full of languages, is an extension of our own embodied sense of physical containment.  According to Johsnon, “our encounter with containment and boundedness is one of the most pervasive features of our bodily experience” (p.21).

Johnson argues that such experientially-based ‘image schemata’ are integral to meaning and rationality — and, of course, language.  The way that language is, the way we use language, and the way that language is learned, are all structured and shaped by the fact that, as Johnson puts it, “the body is in the mind” (p. xxxviii).

One fairly obvious manifestation of this is the way we choose particles for phrasal verbs.  We fill up the tank, the future is looking up, and children both grow up, and are brought up.  Likewise, notions of boundedness and containment are intrinsic, not only to the semantics of the noun phrase in many languages (think of countable and uncountable nouns), but also to verb aspect (a point I will take up in a future post).

In an article in the latest Applied Linguistics, Dwight Atkinson (2010) explores the way an extended, embodied view of cognition might affect second language acquisition. He suggests that language learning, rather than being an intellectual process of internalization, is a socially-situated, adaptive behaviour, a process “of continuously and progressively fitting oneself to one’s environment, often with the help of guides” (p. 611). Atkinson proposes what he calls ‘the alignment principle’: “Learning is more discovering how to align with the world than extracting knowledge from it” (p.610). To this end, interaction and engagement are key: these are the processes by which we externalise language. “Instead of isolating language in cognitive space, we wear it on our sleeve, so to speak, because it helps us live in the world” (p.617).

from Applied Linguistics, 31/5, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 609

To demonstrate how this might be realised in practice, he traces, in minute detail, the interaction a Japanese schoolgirl has with her aunt, an English teacher, as they work through a homework exercise together: an intricate meshing of language, gesture, gaze, and laughter, inseparable from the experience of learning itself, and bringing to mind these lines of Yeats:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

In another recent article that reports the same data, the researchers summarise their point of view:

If  language is intrinsically embodied and embedded, then what does that mean for its acquisition?  Obviously, if language is learned for worldly use, the learning process itself must be use-based.  In this view, language learning is not primarily about squirreling away abstract linguistic competence in an isolated cognitive space,… Rather, language learning is a process of building meaningful ways of participating in socio-material worlds — of constructing flexible, reliable, and therefore survival-enhancing repertoires of ecosocial participation. (Churchill. et al. 2010, p.249).

So, learning is using, and using is learning. That much we know. But what are the implications of a more ’embodied’ view of learning? Is there a case for incorporating more kinaesthetic practices? For reviving Total Physical Response, even? And to what extent, as teachers, are we conscious of the way that ‘body language’ helps in the co-construction of learning?


Atkinson, D. 2010. Extended, embodied cognition and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 31/5, 599-622.

Churchill, E.,  Okada, H.,  Nishino, T., & Atkinson, D.  2010. Symbiotic gesture and the sociocognitive visibility of grammar in second language acquisition.  The Modern Language Journal, 94/2.

Johnson, M. 1987. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: Chicago University Press.



53 responses

12 12 2010

The use of ‘up’ as a particle is something that has been fascinating my 4-year old son (and therefore me as well!) recently. There are numerous examples but my favourite came when he picked up (there we go again) ‘tangle up’ from a story book. One day when we were getting out of the car he said: “Daddy, my seatbelt is all tangled up – can you tangle it down please?” A perfect example of hypothesis testing!

Interesting that you mention the possiblity of ‘reviving’ TPR at the end – it’s very much alive and well in young learner classrooms through vocabulary chants, mimes and song actions. However, I must admit I use it not as a way to promote acquisition of internalisation but as a way to change pace in the lesson and allow some outlet for the kids’ energy.

12 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Loved the ‘tangled up/tangle down’ story, Dave. There’s a whole thesis to be developed here about children’s creative construction of language, the development of image schemata, and, as you say, hypothesis testing.

It’s also good to hear that TPR is well established in the repertoire of young learner activities. For Asher (its progenitor) TPR was grounded in the belief that psychological and physical behaviours are mutually implicated, and, in that sense, perhaps he anticipated subsequent developments in cognitive learning theory.

12 12 2010
Jessica Mackay

TPR, in the guise of ‘Simon Says’ works a treat with medical students to teach parts of the body. We’ve even done it with internal organs with ‘volunteers’ lying down on the table as the practice dummies.
I’ve also done a variation on musical chairs using key words in listenings, e.g. sit down when you hear an irregular past simple tense.
It never fails to amaze me how much ‘serious’ adult students enjoy and throw themselves into supposedly children’s games, at least in a Spanish context.

I’ve also had some really positive experiences recently with visualisations of learners’ Future L2 Selves that I’ve been experimenting with in class. The students have to describe and write up all the sensations in their ‘vision’; smells, touch etc. as well as what they see, say and hear. The results so far are really encouraging!

12 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

I’m interested in this visualisation technique, Jessica. Do they have to visualise how they will be as a proficient speaker of the L2, in terms of sensory phenomena? How does this work, exactly?

13 12 2010
Jessica Mackay

To answer Scott’s question, I ask the ss to visualise themselves as competent L2 users – e.g. ‘you are speaking in English fluently, naturally and confidently’.

I haven’t started the qualitative analysis of the written ‘visions’ yet but recurring themes seem to be travel and perhaps more surprisingly, food and eating; how’s that for a bodily experience?

I love Adam’s link to the Seinfeld clip below, although as a parent myself I’m more aware of the ‘ups’;
Sit up! Hush up! Eat up! and most of all Hurry up! What does that say about my parenting?
Talking of parentspeak, Jill’s material also introduced me to the ‘Mom Song’ as an activity to introduce the ‘Ought-to Self’

My students proved that you don’t have to be a mum/mom to enjoy it!

12 12 2010
Ceri Jones

I love this idea too. I’ve been fascinated by L2 self images and how we can access and manipulate them since I saw Zoltan Dornyei talking about enhancing L2 self images in a plenary at IATEFL a couple of years back. I haven’t used full sensory visualisation yet, but am going to – in my next class! Thanks 🙂

12 12 2010
Jessica Mackay

I was lucky enough to have great material to work with, courtesy of Dörnyei and Jill Hadfield, who are collaborating on a book of practical activities to implement his L2 motivational self theories.

I used a reading on positive visualisation in sports training to ‘win over’ the doubters (the teenage boys, generally). There’s also a very nice section in Pep Guardiola’s biography about how he ‘sees’ a game before it is played.

The ss need a certain amount of training in visualisation; the music and relaxation & breathing techniques in ‘Imagine That’ (Arnold, Puchta & Rinvolucri, 2007) worked a treat. The use of visuals is very important so I use ppts to show images of future selves; home, family, professional etc. The visualisation itself begins with the relaxation techniques then leads students through images of their ideal selves, focusing on sensations; where are you? what is the temperature? Is it light or dark? What can you smell? etc. They then report back to each other orally.

In a subsequent class the students are shown images of successful language use (presentations, telephone, socialising) and select those which are useful/desirable/attainable for them personally, compare and discuss. Jill then produced a set of readings on learners’ descriptions of their ideal L2 selves (Greek, Maori, English) which ss summarise to each other. The steps to the visualisation are then repeated and this time, as well as the oral summary the ss produce a written version at home, which gives them time to elaborate their ‘vision’ further.

There are further visualisations in later classes to bring in the image of the ought-to self (One of the scripts uses the idea of a mythical figure in the forest, handing out sage advice, again giving free rein to the senses of smell, touch etc.) and what Jill has termed the ‘barrier’ self, the one which prevents us from achieving our goals, which was visualised successfully as the little devil on your shoulder giving bad advice. That lead to a fantastic role play; one student playing the demon, another the angel, trying to convince the student (seated in the middle) whether or not to watch that film with subtitles, to do their English homework, to pick up a book in English. etc.

The two things that have really surprised me about trying out these techniques are; first, the creative visions that ss can picture, far more detailed and vivid than I’d ever imagined (obviously they’re better at it than me!) and, second, how much they’ve enjoyed it. I thought I’d have to work harder to convince them but they’ve taken part with gusto and the feedback has been great. They’re relishing doing something fresh, novel, focused on themselves but yet they see the relevance of.
In my working context, ss are often learning English because of a vague sense that they have to, without any real idea of why or what role it may play in their futures. As is probably obvious from this overly-long comment (apologies), I’m a convert!

12 12 2010
Ceri Jones

That sounds fascinating, Jessica. Really looking forward to seeing more of that when the book comes out! Thanks again.

12 12 2010
Mr Darkbloom

Fascinating stuff, Scott.

Yet more compelling evidence in favour of sociocultural theories of learning.

I do wonder, however, if you have bridged your differences with Jeremy Harmer over this. After the epic tussle on his blog (fantastic!), have you managed to persuade him any more that indeed you have “a coherent and principled base for foregrounding the social (rather than the purely cognitive) component of language learning. […] a central tenet of dogme ELT.” ?!

Don’t get me wrong, Jeremy is an excellent writer and thorougly entertaining polemicist, but, to draw a crude analogy, he does remind me somewhat of the ‘cultural relativist’ in that he treats with suspicion anyone who may use the avilable scientific evidence to draw genuine conclusions and make real-time judgements. For the relativist ‘the jury will always be out’ as concerns evidence and we have no right to allow current research to convincingly inform our practice.

As Jessica rightly highlights, TPR activites such as ‘Simon Says ‘ are yet another tool in the teacher’s box that can be pulled out with the right learners at the right time.
To base any kind of ‘teaching’ method on these kinds of activites is, and always was, obviously misguided.

Three cheers for ‘post-method’; Hip, hip… ?!


12 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Well, I might have to invite Jeremy to answer that question, but, yes, I do believe the conclusions of the Atkinson, and of the Churchill et al. studies, do seem to vindicate a socially-constructed view of learning, but one in which the socio-cultural context is re-configured to include the physical, and where the shared ‘mind-space’ (of learner and teacher) is accessed as much through the body as it is through speech.

12 12 2010
Steve Kirk

I think you and I have similar reading lists, Scott – though whereas you read, I seem only to have added Atkinson (2010) to my ever-lengthening to do list!

I am teaching the second half of my SLA: Perspectives for Teachers module in the New Year around precisely some of the things you mention here and your talk of TPR reminded me of Randal Holme’s great book ‘Cognitive Linguistics and Language Teaching’, which I will be drawing on.

B is for Body: “[t]he body can be rethought as the expressive instrument of the language that must be learnt”. In relation to enacted cognition and embodied views of language (a central theme in his book), Randal talks of how an enactment and movement (E&M) based pedagogy can help in “…building a bridge between movement, imagination and recollection (2009:48). He suggests that traditional TPR, assuming an L1-like (and, of course, Krashen-linked) need for a silent period, be updated to include private or public speech related to the movements being performed (2009:48). Learners might, for example, mime their journey to the classroom, while other students try to produce the commentary.

In a link to your recent post on R is for Repetition, Holme comments that “[o]ne has only to enter a Khoranic school to see how closely physical and rhythmic movement can be associated with the memorisation of a foreign language text” (2009:44). Some interesting food for thought here, then, in relation to potential links between memorisation, body and language-as-usage.

I’m hoping my students will agree…!

12 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Fascinating comment, Steve. Sounds like the Holmes book is one I should get hold of. The connection between physicality and memorization is a suggestive one – you only have to think of university students cramming for their exams – I remember seeing hordes of them earlier this year on the campus of a Turkish university, roaming the lawns, muttering and gesticulating. Thanks for the tip.

12 12 2010
Chris Ozog

“Learners might, for example, mime their journey to the classroom, while other students try to produce the commentary.”

That sounds like a great activity. Thanks for sharing that. I’ll try that one on Monday…

12 12 2010

I think Jerry Seinfeld sums it all up quite nicely in his ‘wait up’ routine:

It’s only a short clip but it makes for an interesting addendum to this discussion.

13 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Nice clip. Adam – thanks for sharing it (hadn’t been able to watch it until today due to lousy wifi connection in hotel).

It reminds me of the line about lumberjacks: What do lumberjacks do? They cut trees down and then they cut them up.

I wonder how many other clever one-liners can be made of pairs like that?

12 12 2010
Ceri Jones

I dusted off my cuisenaire rods recently in a general spirit of experimentation and revisiting long-forgotten activites. I used them with an adult class for a change of pace and focus. We worked on giving specific instructions (building shapes and pictures with the blocks and “dictating” them to each other). As Jessica has already said, I was surprised by how absorbed and engaged they were, how it helped them slow down, focus on the structure and accuracy of their instructions and pick up on lingusitic details and patterns (one was in fact the use of up in standing up as opposed to lying down).

18 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that comment, Ceri, and sorry I’ve taken so long to get round to replying. I used to have a set of cuisenaire rods too, but they long since got robbed/lost/mislaid – take your pick. Not that I used them a lot, but I completely identify with your point about the degree of attention they can focus. Better for one-to-one, perhaps, than groups (which reminds me that my very first Spanish lessons were mediated by rods on a carpet in Camberwell or Lewisham, or somewhere equally far from where I was living at the time).

12 12 2010
Lindsay Clandfield

Thanks Scott for another very thought-provoking entry. I remember Mario Rivolucri giving a talk on The intelligence ELT forgets. He was referring to the kinaesthetic style of learning.

The examples suggested above by Jessica and Steve seem to me as sensible and doable activities. But I’ve seen things done with adult classes (gulp, some that I’ve done myself when I had “discovered” MI theory) designed to “get them moving” and address that aspect of learning that really just did not work. I mean, the students were moving around and the teacher defended this as a bodily-kinaesthetic activity (many running dictations leap to mind) but I couldn’t help wonder if the time could not have been better spent otherwise.

With my adult classes – and I’m not talking about young learners here – I’m all for Simon Says, and the occasional bit of TPR but I think “incorporating more kinaesthetic practices” could get (if you pardon the body expression) out of hand.

12 12 2010
Chris Ozog

Another interesting post and fascinating replies.

I agree with Lindsay above about the ‘dangers’ of teachers trying to incorporate “more kinaesthetic practices” into their teaching. The reason I say this is more or less exactly as Lindsay describes. I’ve seen classes in which there was movement, justified as helping kinaesthetic learners, which seemed to me to be just movement for the sake of it. Running dictations and board rushes are often fun because of the competitive element; putting a reading text around the room can be fun, but does it really help the students improve their reading skills? If their is a rationale behind it other than “helping kinaesthetic learners”, i.e. if the teacher really understands the theory behind it, I think it could work if incorporated occasionally, but not with movement for the sake of it.

I’m certainly not saying that incorporating this into your teaching is bad thing all the time. I do a phrasal verbs introduction with elementary students which involves them “standing up”, “sitting down” etc. I based it on the following: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikZY6XpB214
It’s popular with the students, but I have no evidence that it helps them internalise any better than the focus on form afterwards. Likewise, I use loads of movement activities – mimes, drawing, making things, etc. – with YLs. Very popular with the kids, who enjoy the change of pace and the movement aspect, I find. I also think it helps them internalise better, especially vocab. There’s a section on the IHCYL about it, and throughout that course movement is pushed as a big positive in YL teaching.

I’ve also noticed that some teachers are very resistant to this style of teaching. One teacher, a good friend of mine, keeps going on about “celta style teaching” in a most derogatory way. What he means is that, at more advanced levels, say from B2 up (up!), this “touchy-feely celta style” teaching is just patronising to the learners. This suggests that TPR and so forth are, in his view, fine for elementary and beginners, but become redundant as the learners become more advanced and can handle the language better. I disagree, as I feel there’s always a place for any ‘methodology’ provided it’s incorporated at the right time and in the right way, but I do see his point to some extent. Will be interesting to see if anyone who is very anti-TPR and related ideas posts here.

13 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Chris. You say, with regard to performing actions with verbal input, “It’s popular with the students, but I have no evidence that it helps them internalise any better than the focus on form afterwards”.

There does seem to be some evidence that physical movement — specifically gesture — aids learning and memorisation. In a paper called ‘Gestures and Second Language Acquisition’ by Marianne Gullberg, in The Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics And Second Language Acquisition, (edited by Robinson, P.& Ellis, N., Routledge 2008) it is reported that “children who gesture while learning about math perform better than children who do not”, and, more relevantly, in a study on the effects of gesture on comprehension and lexical learning in the teaching of English as a foreign language to French children, “Children who receive gestural input with vocabulary explanations retain significantly more items than those who do not. Importantly, children who also reproduce the gestures themselves perform even better than children who do not even if they have had gestural input” (p.292).

In attempting to answer the question “Why should producing gestures help learning?” Gullberg cites the work I have referred to on “embodied cognition”, to the effect that the body is in the mind, just as much as the other way round. Why rhythmic movements may help learning, as in the case of the Koranic schools, mentioned in another comment, may be accounted for by the theory that “gesturing reduces cognitive load on working memory… The argument is that by gesturing, speakers upload cognition onto an external representation, thereby liberating processing resources which can be re-assigned to memorisation, planning, or other working-memory intense operations.” (Gullberg, p. 293).

This might also help explain why second language speakers tend to gesture more in their second language than in their first language, irrespective of cultural background, etc. Gestures help people keep talking.

13 12 2010

Hi all,

I happened to be reading this at the same time as I was reading Robert Fisk’s latest in the independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-why-cant-a-palestinian-woman-tell-her-own-story-2157457.html) :
“…Mortier also met Lisa Appignanesi, the British writer of Polish-Jewish origin who gave him some of the best advice I have ever heard. Appignanesi’s mother, during the Second World War, managed to save herself and her husband from Nazi persecution through a complex play of identities. Her mother, she said, had been “a queen of deception”, her parents striking a balance between remembering and forgetting. “Sometimes they would come across sensitive parts, whereupon they had to retreat and nurse their wounds. My mother’s stories were so confusing to me because her ‘negotiations’ with the past essentially amounted to her not wanting to see herself as a victim… Her narrative was one of triumph.” Thus, Appignanesi explained to Mortier, “Memory always takes the form of a negotiating table.””

It seemed to fit this quote from above with me:

“Learning is more discovering how to align with the world than extracting knowledge from it”

Just thought I’d share that.

13 12 2010

I’m a little late into this discussion but I’ll add – we need more understanding of the role culture plays in language (in MFL – they use culture much more effectively in language instruction), but more importantly, a better understanding of the differences and similarity between “thought” and “language” and how they result in “meaning”. I think what you are talking about here falls into the “iconicity” camp and how we use phrasal verbs to signify something that is similar. (there is a connection between the sign and the meaning). Why do we wake UP? Well, we do lift up our bodies… Glad in any case to see some sign of semiotics (pun intended).

I think Levi Strauss would have a lot to say about the binary opposition of up and down, the way we divide up the world between opposites. He thought that cleanliness/uncleanliness was the most defining category of them all.

I don’t think we are talking about a “learning” style or even a “teaching style” but rather how cultures “think” and name the world. It isn’t as simple as more TPR or learning language while doing. That’s my opinion. Further, we have to note that Johnson was talking about a first language — I think we are making the error far too many applied linguists make – assuming one reflects the other. I’m not sure that we do the same when we learn a second language.

Loved the Seinfeld video – thanks for posting!

13 12 2010

It’s short but sweet and food for thought. I even blogged about it myself, David.

13 12 2010
Jessica Mackay

While we’re on the subject, does anybody have any thoughts of the differing usage of ‘up’ in British and American varieties of English?

For example, the use of ‘up’ in expressions which, to me at least, seem inherently American;
‘What’s up?’ ‘Word up’ etc.
and the addition of ‘up’ to verbs where in BrE it wouldn’t be considered necessary; eg.
‘Listen up’, ‘Wait up’ etc.

Is it more emphatic? Just curious.

13 12 2010

As an ESOL teacher of adults, admittedly, a less well-read one than most of you, I always find it interesting that the need for movement in the classroom is often associated solely with students’ level and/ or age… I don’t see the ‘start/end’ point myself, apart from the varying extent to which you would use it.

13 12 2010
Jane Arnold

With “embodying” language learning, what immediately comes to my mind is Adrian Underhill’s way of teaching pronunciation. I have seen him explain this very physical way to teach it to our students at the University of Seville and they were amazed – I had incredible feedback from them.
Perhaps because I myself have a strong need to move (watch me at any meeting that lasts more than 20 minutes) I am constantly incorporating ways to let students “move to learn”.
Doing an activity last week in a class that focuses on Speaking – and involvesmoving-, I was talking with an Erasmus student (I try to participate myself and am always happy when the number of students in a pair activity is odd so I have an excuse to get in there myself) and he told me about a end of something paper he did in his country, an experiment which showed, as have other studies, that people can improve their skill in sports not only by actual practicing but also by mental rehearsal, which in his study was shown to be even more effective. This has something to do with what Jessica has written recently about the ideal L2 self.

13 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Jane, thanks for that – how could I have NOT mentioned Adrian’s approach to pronunciation teaching? In fact, in this video clip he actually begins by saying that the first principle of this approach is “to take pronunciation out of the head and into the body”:

Thanks for reminding me!

13 12 2010
Dwight Atkinson

I really enjoyed reading through the various responses on Scott’s post. I’m not very experienced at responding to blogs and such–this may actually be the first or second time I’ve done it, so I don’t know the etiquette but here are a couple of thoughts.

It’s eye-opening to me to see so many references in the responses to LT approaches that use the body. Sure, TPR has been around for a long time, and things like realia are things I believe in in the language classroom, but the other approaches were news to me. It strikes me that a good review could be written of these approaches, and what they have in common. And maybe what they’re based on theoretically.

Regarding the question of whether activities that encourage physical engagement also encourage learning (or just physical engagement), it seems to me that engagement of any sort is critical to learning. We know this from its opposite–that people who aren’t engaged in what they’re doing (the large numbers of American high school students who drop out, for example, especially from “minority” groups) don’t learn, or at least don’t continue learning. So I would think that anything that engages us–is meaningful to us in this sense–would also promote learning.

13 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for dropping by, Dwight. The point about engagement seems fundamental — whether the engagement is physical or mental or both. I’ve always been a bit chary of the argument that we should use movement in class in order to satisfy the needs of so-called kinaesthetic learners. All learning surely has kinaesthetic elements, especially if we accept the notion of ’embodied cognition’, and you don’t need a theory of multiple intelligences to argue the case for whole-person engagement in learning.

13 12 2010
Karenne Sylvester

I’m not sure whether or not this is something obvious or not to teachers however I often get students to act out difficult vocabulary – sometimes with prework and sometimes just straight into it.

R for repetition and all that. 🙂 Lemme see if I can try to make a little sense…

Currently teaching automotive students in 8dx8hr intensives. Curriculum heavy on ‘complicated’ lexis.

e.g. one of the pages in book we’re using has 40+ verbs on the processes involved in car-making…

day 2: Split the words up between students and got them to make cartoons (maintenance, assembly… that sort of thing). Then got them to then share with their partners what words they’d personally had and why they had drawn what they drew/mixed up partners several times.

day4: Divided students in 4pp groups and handed out even number of cartoons – got them to try and remember what was on picture without any word prompts at first – then mixed up the ‘toons- then asked them to cross-check with the students who had drawn the original cartoons if not in their group.

Asked them to write the correct answers on the back of cards.

day 6: The physical bit –

Spread all of their cartoons all across the floor/ shoved the desks to the wall and then got them to walk around the room in pairs telling each other what they thought the different words were.

day 8: gave students the original list of words (in text/from day2) and asked them to mime the actions (stamp/press/seal etc) complete with noise effects 🙂 if they wanted to and they had to get other students to guess what they were “seeing/hearing.”

Anyway, like I said, not sure if this is what you meant or if useful…


13 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Sounds good to me, Karenne! At the same time, I do share some of Lindsay’s reservations (above) about classroom activities that may — to some students — seen too much like a reversion to primary school! I remember once doing some TP activities with a class of adult students, only to be told, afterwards, by one of them that she felt this was entirely inappropriate and even humiliating. She never came back!

Not that I’m suggesting your lesson in any way might have provoked such a reaction, but I guess, as in all things, we need to be very sensitive to the learners’ feelings and expectations.

14 12 2010
Karenne Sylvester

That’s very true and it’s a tough line to walk along… I’ve also been in teacher-training sessions where I’ve been given ropes to fiddle with and thought to myself “What the…” my class would “hate” this 🙂 yet, I guess the trainer was doing it because her/his students had enjoyed it… have also observed teachers doing the running dictation thing which is another slippery road to travel down on… and yet, I actually do have a running (well, walking…) game which works well – using the lyrics from ‘Mercedes Benz’ – hmm… but can’t do it with all classes- just the automotive ones…

I suspect, yikes, I think I say this a lot, any activitiy is really down to the teacher and the relationship s/he has + the students: how they feel about learning English, their personal levels of interest and motivation, and also I reckon the amount of time together also plays a factor (I think in the case above with getting my students walking around or acting out it’s sort of a welcome light-relief due to heavy schedule) plus what else is being taught and whether they “feel” they’re learning even if being silly -anyhoo, I think you’re a hundred percent right that we have to be very sensitive to learners’ feelings.

I have often thought that some sort of psychological profiling/training, albeit lightly, should be taught to trainees, even at Certificate level as part of being a good teacher (IMHO) is the ability to “feel the room”… dunno – do other teachers think about things like “feeling the audience” (makes us a bit like actors on stage :)!


14 12 2010
Mr Darkbloom

“some sort of psychological profiling/training, albeit lightly, should be taught to trainees, even at Certificate level as part of being a good teacher”

That’s a very good point, Karenne. I remember my teacher trainers doing a rather fleeting worksheet once with us… ‘what kind of learner are you?’ (visual etc…) just to play with the concept a little, but then they dropped it.

So much of the course was unfortunately about exploiting (more like following, really) a coursebook and getting us into a PPP frame of mind (!!uggghhh!!) when it could easily have been less about ‘teaching’ and more about what it means to be a teacher. There is surely a difference…

Actually, funny to think, it was one of my tutors who first put me on to Scott’s work. I remember him advising me to read ‘anything’ by Mr Thornbury, but when I did, I discovered what Scott preaches played such a scant part in the training course.
I got the chance to discuss these issues many months later with the tutor in question… he told me I was expecting ‘too much’ from an introductory (CELTA) course… ‘most people don’t even know what a skills lesson is at this stage’ etc…

Even though I’m the first to admit I simply don’t have enough experience to put a teacher training course together (I mean, was I perhaps unfair in my criticism?), I can’t help the nagging feeling, in many respects, they were flogging a dead horse. No less than starting with a broken system. I surely would have, at least, a few worthwhile (probably radical!) suggestions for them now.

It’s like a brutally witty friend of mine once said ‘you can’t polish a turd!’ My tutors were still trying their best though, bless ’em! 🙂

Yep, I’ve just decided… I probably am being unfair!! 🙂

15 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks to Steve Kirk for alerting me to this NY Times article on embodied cognition:


It’s fascinating how the writer, Andy Clark, makes a case for digital technology as an extension of the mind-body continuum:

At the very least, minds like ours are the products not of neural processing alone but of the complex and iterated interplay between brains, bodies, and the many designer environments in which we increasingly live and work.

This book of Clark’s is going straight on my Xmas wish list:

Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (Oxford University Press, 2008).

16 12 2010
Robin Walker

Another great post, Scott. Where do you get the time? Especially relevant to some of the work I’m doing at the moment was a comment you made at the end of the post: ‘So, learning is using, and using is learning. That much we know.’

This is something I continually hear CLIL experts say. We no longer learn so as to then go on and use. Rather learning and using are one and the same process. I’ve absolutely no quarrel with this, of course, and I guess for many ELT practitioners it’s been this way for a long time ( and certainly long before CLIL appeared on the horizon). It’s also how most of us learn to use ICT, to blog, etc.

But with the predominant role of English now being as a lingua franca, we need to extend this idea of learning and using. Increasingly I think we’ll see that learning is using, and using is constructing. In other words, as users of English communicate with each other, not only will they be learning the language, they will also be constructing it.

Many of these novel constructions will be ad hoc and will not survive beyond the moment in which they were created, but others will last, and will become embedded in the language, at least in English as it is used among non-native speakers (ELF).

If we accept this (and the fact is that is happening whether we accept it or not), teaching will be not so much telling learners about what others have done before them with words (which is essentially what corpus linguistics does), but about helping learners to see what the English language can do for them; that is to say, how they as users can optimally exploit the potential of words and their attendant grammar.

I saw a good example of English being exploited in this way in a hotel at Prague International Airport. A sign by a telephone connection in my room said ‘Please do not plug out.’ We all know of course that you either ‘plug in’ or you ‘unplug’. Yet there was no mistaking what I was being asked to (not) do.


16 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Robin. I totally agree that ‘using is constructing’, although I wouldn’t necessarily restrict this to users of ELF. If you take a complex systems view of language development, then using is always constructing, irrespective of the user. As Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008) point out, “language structure is shaped by the way that language is used, and its use in turn fuels further development” (p.93) and they add, “language is for ever being virtually updated, even though from all appearances, it remains the same language” (p.96). I guess that in ELF contexts, these processes of co-adaptation experience a greater degree of variability, initially at least, since the participants are less constrained by memories of what is ‘normally done’. But the fact that major ‘phase shifts’ in the past, such as the Great Vowel Shift, occurred very rapidly, should alert us to the fact that change is not always slow and incremental, and that one morning we may all wake up speaking ELF!

18 12 2010
Ben Goldstein

Another take on the body here. Recently, I’ve been reading learner autobiographies and testimonies and it’s interesting to see how the language learning experience is often referred to in a physical, bodily way. For example, Alice Kaplan, in her memoir “French Lessons”, perceives her attempts to pronounce the ‘r’ sounds in French like this:

“I speak my lines with muscles quavering… The Mouth has to be in the right position to make the vowel sounds: lip muscles forward and tighter than in English, the mouth poised and round… In September, my ‘r’ is clunky, the one I’ve brought with me from Minnesota. It is like cement overshoes, like any number of large objects in the world, all of them heavy, all of them out of place, all of them obstacles… I didn’t know at the time how important it was to feel that American ‘r’ like a big lump in my throat and to be dissatisfied about it” (Kaplan, 1993; p. 54/55)

In her book on the experiences of foreign language learners “The Multilingual Subject”, Claire Kramsch comments on Kaplan’s work and other autobiographies and finds time and again how people precisely when speaking a new language discover the essence of their mother tongue. “We can quickly see how sounds and mouth and body postures take on symbolic meanings” (Kramsch, 2009; p. 57). For example, for Kaplan that American ‘r’ sound represents ‘heaviness’ and feeling “out of place”.

I confess to feeling something similar when trying to pronounce the ‘tr’ sounds in Spanish, despite living in Spain for nearly twenty years. The other day when asking directions to a restaurant called ‘La Trucha’ (The Trout), I had to repeat the name a half dozen times, paying particular attention to the rolled ‘r’ before I was understood. There, like Kaplan, I felt my British ‘tr’ as a clear obstacle. The interesting thing is if I want to, I can make this ‘tr’ sound in standard Castillian fashion, but it takes some concentration and I would say a considerable change in the way I position my mouth. If I want to get a word like ‘teatrero’ (theatrical) right, I have to open my mouth very slightly, make my eyes slit-like and even sound a little angry. That’s what I sense I’m doing, at any rate!

I’m interested in why learners might choose to highlight or hide aspects of their output which mark them culturally, identifying them in one way or another to different speakers (such as the clunky ‘r’ or ‘tr’ sound does). I find myself doing both as the mood takes me: sometimes enjoying my status as an outsider and not stopping to get the ‘tr’ right and at other times, feeling a desire to make that effort and integrate into a Spanish native speaker community. In any case, it is definitely a bodily thing.

19 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

I find myself doing both as the mood takes me: sometimes enjoying my status as an outsider and not stopping to get the ‘tr’ right and at other times, feeling a desire to make that effort and integrate into a Spanish native speaker community…

Interesting insight, Ben. The way that identity is ’embodied’ through pronunciation is endlessly fascinating. In a chapter in the book Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self (Dörnyei and Ushioda, 2009), Segalowitz et al. hypothesise that identity issues are implicated in the failure of many learners to achieve a native-like pronunciation, for one of two reasons: “One is that L2 speakers with a strong sense of affiliation to their primary ethnolinguistic group may deliberately ‘hold back’ some aspects of their L2 use in order to avoid sounding too much like members of a different ethnolinguistic group” (p.173).

The other reason (not entirely incompatible with the first) is that “a sense of ethnolinguistic affiliation shapes the social niche one inhabits and this in turn determines the type and range of experiences a person might have hearing and using the target language” (p.174). In other words, the less group-bound you are, the more likely you are to interact with members of other groups.

To test these hypotheses, the researchers investigated the use of the /ð/ phoneme (as in this, that, etc) in the English of French-speaking Canadians, and found that native-like accuracy correlated more with contact and use, rather than with attitudinal factors, although the amount of contact and use seems to be in inverse proportion to the strength of one’s primary ethnolinguistic group identity.

In your case, it seems that the choice is more subtle and fluid, less a question of contact and use (of which I know you have a lot), but one of immediate and situated group affiliation.

20 12 2010
Jessica Mackay

This research also came up in Segalowitz’s seminars here in September. My understanding was that having controlled for language contact and use, there was still found to be a significant correlation between feelings of ethno-linguistic affiliation and level of attainment.

The suggestion was that the stronger the individual’s identification of national identity with their L1, the less open to the acquisition of an additional language they appeared to be. As you can imagine, this caused quite a stir amongst a predominantly Catalan L1 audience, but I have to say that it rings true with my classroom experience here.

19 12 2010
Adrian Underhill

“Is there a case for incorporating more kinaesthetic practices?”

Thanks for your question Scott. Pronunciation is indeed an embodied side of language. Pronunciation uses muscles and breath and movement and coordination and precision, and is not so different from learning to dance and becoming more attentive to subtle muscular movements that you are not normally aware of. The other language systems, grammar and vocabulary, are more cognitive activities which we teach and learn in generally cognitive ways. The problem is we do this to pronunciation too, either by talking about it, or by using repeat-after-me exercises which do not lead to the discovery of the muscles that make the difference. Pronunciation asks for a physical learning and teaching style, a kinaesthetically insightful practice. It must help students to connect with the muscles that make the difference. A first tasks with a new class is to help them (re-)discover the main muscles that make the pronunciation difference, to locate the “internal buttons” that trigger the muscle movements. At the beginning it may enough to help students discover 4 such buttons which provides a basic muscle kit for navigating vowels and diphthongs, and which also transfers to consonants:
1. Tongue (moving forward and back)
2. Lips (spreading and bringing back, or rounding and pushing forward)
3. Jaw + tongue (moving them up and down)
4. Voice (turning it on or off, to make voiced or unvoiced sounds)

A more subtle aspect of embodiment is the presence of pronunciation beyond just speaking: Deaf people watch it in their ‘listening’, we may feel it internally when we hear language in our ‘mind’s ear’, or when we rehearse internally something we want to say, or perhaps when we just think language. Pronunciation is also present when we write or read silently, when a subtle inner voice may be active.

So pronunciation is deeply embedded and embodied in language activity. But our present situation is like teaching a language in Flatland. One of the three dimensions, pronunciation, is missing, and language kind of collapses without pronunciation….. You’re left picking your way round piles of learning with all its embodied dimension drained out.

Yes, I think there is a strong case to incorporate kinaesthetic learning, especially where embodiment itself is the content.

19 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Adrian. I was remidned (by your comment about deaf learners) of an extreme example of the ‘physicality of speech’, as demonstrated in this clip of Helen Keller ‘feeling’ the voice of her teacher, Ann Sullivan.

I wonder if we lose the ability to engage with voice at this level at a very early age (unless, of course, we have to depend on it, as in the case of Keller). And to what extent – I also wonder – do technological aids, like visual representations of sound waves, or of mouth, tongue and lip articulations, help learners ‘appropriate’ the same vocal features?

20 12 2010
Steve Kirk

Do we perhaps, in developing an L2 and an L2 self, also develop an ‘L2 body’? Is this maybe part of what fluency involves? I wonder whether this is more evident for some L1-L2 relationships than others and more likely among L2 users with strong L2 culture/language/people affiliations than those with weak affiliation. In learning Japanese (in Japan) I learned to embody the Japanese sense of ‘thank you’ in various degrees of bowing. I still cannot utter ‘hai’ in the sense of ‘I understand’ without a small tip of the head (I have a Japanese wife but have not lived in Japan for 13 years). When knowing I’m asking favours of others, I feel a physical weight of the ‘meiwaku’ (burden) I’m causing that I simply did not in my pre-/early Japanese learning self/body. Doing things for others in Japanese is encoded in verbs by appending the verbs of giving and receiving to the verb phrase and, while the literalness of this conventionalised conceptual metaphor is probably not processed consciously by Japanese speakers, in my L2-user body it is.

I say ‘L2 user’ because these new embodiments have crossed from L2 to L1 using environments. I feel these things in English now. As Viv Cook has highlighted through his work on multicompetence, altered ways of seeing and experiencing the world, developed through a second language, can impact on the first. My construal of the world is slightly different now.

Does bringing target culture/language/other gesture, visualisation, embodied pronunciation work and many other of the suggestions in this thread provide us with ways of developing our learners’ ‘L2-user bodies’ in ways that may positively reinforce retention? These L2-user bodies will not be the same as those of native speakers of the L2, of course, assuming dynamic views of language learning (Larsen-Freeman etc), but if Gullberg is right (see Scott’s earlier post) that external representations through the body, however instantiated, can bear some of the cognitive load for memory, perhaps we should be working this into our classrooms more often. This does not necessarily mean simply suggesting we do TPR with adults but it does mean exploring ways to learn with more than just the mind. Adrian has just reminded us of how to think about this for pronunciation.

And, looking to your most recent A-Z entry, Scott, is this also an alternative way of seeing the development of a ‘feeling’ for the language?

20 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Lots of food for thought here, Steve (and it occurs to me that the idea of ‘feeding thought’ or ‘thought feeding’ is a suggestive metaphor for embodied cognition!). I have an article on gesture (from a sociocultural perspective) that I want to read before I reply in any more detail. I hope to get back to you shortly!

20 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

The article is in fact a chapter from the book Sociocultural Theory And the Genesis of Second Language Development, by Lantolf and Thorne (OUP 2006), and argues that, like private speech, gesture is a form of self-regulation, a way of mediating between thought and language: or, in the words of two researchers, gestures are ‘material carriers of thinking’. Research is cited that suggests that L2 learners who have experienced cultural immersion adopt the gestures of the target culture, whereas those who had simply experienced classroom learning, do not. They hypothesise that the ‘immersion learners’ are not simply impersonating speakers of the target culture, but have adopted the abstract concepts that these gestures connote.

A further thought: if gesture is intrinsic to language use, mediating between thought and utterance, doesn’t this argue for face-to-face practice opportunities, and against ‘disembodied’ learning, e.g. via chat rooms, mobile phones, virtual worlds etc? Chris Brumfit expressed this same doubt some years ago:

“The Internet cannot be a substitute for the holistic understanding that comes from direct meetings with individuals; knowledge transfer cannot be a substitute for seeing, smelling, hearing and walking through unfamiliar settings”

Brumfit, C. 2001. Individual Freedom in Language Teaching. OUP. p.125.

20 12 2010

I’m sure that anyone who has lived for any length of time in an immersion situation will identify very strongly with the first part of this comment. I know I certainly do, especially thinking about my experiences learning Italian where the gestures were not only an extension, but an integral and inseparable part of the language and the culture. And I only need to see one of those once familiar gestures to be thrown back (bodily!) into my Italian self.

But I’m not so sure I can identify quite as strongly with the second half. I think there is also a language of “gestures” and conventions which are “carriers of thinking” which need to be learnt and absorbed when communicating and learning online and which constitute a very valid “physical” (in the sense that they are embodied in e.g. icons, punctuation, physical aspects of writing) side of “disembodied” communication. I know I’m still learning this aspect of my own language, with all its nuances and registers, as I travel through the still “unfamiliar settings” of the virtual ELT community.

21 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Apropos the cultural significance of gesture, posture etc, I’ve just learned the term ‘hexis’ – used by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to mean ‘a certain durable organization of one’s body and of its deployment in the world’ (as glossed in the introduction to Language and Symbolic Power, 1992). Bourdieu asserts that “Language is a body technique, and specifically linguistic, especially phonetic, competence is a dimension of bodily hexis in which one’s whole relation to the social world, and one’s whole socially informed relation to the world, are expressed” (p.86). Thus, the way we ‘perform’ our gender, age, ethnicity, social and cultural affiliations, etc is not confined simply to lexical and grammatical choices, but is encoded in our accent, our intonation, our gestures, the way we sit, stand, and walk — that is to say they are all part of a single continuum.

What are the implications for SL learning? And teaching? Should we be teaching hexis as well as lexis? 😉

22 12 2010
Susan Hillyard

Hi Scott,
Just found this today and can’t believe there is no real mention of teaching a language through Educational Drama!
All your stuff about kinaesthetics and nought about Drama.
Am in shock!
That’s a bit dramatic, I know …….
Susan H

22 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Susan! I have to say I’m in two minds about drama: it is of course ’embodied’, involves the whole person, both lexis and hexis (!), but in simulating behaviour, even falsifying it, is it the best means of discovering one’s second language identity? When I play a role that is not to me, is my language, including my gesture, authentic — or does this matter? Or have I missed the point!

26 05 2013

Just came here to check out ‘hexis’ — but I must ask about drama; I think Bourdieu (and I and Alan Maley and Alan Duff (Drama Techniques and Language Learning) that if you’re doing it spontaneously in a drama activity (even one prescribed by a teacher), it IS you, just part of a socially undiscovered you. I think used wisely, drama activities encourage creativity (both linguistic and non-linguistic, whole-personish) better than just about anything else. In turn, I would imagine there is research somewhere that connects a developed ability to create with a propensity for communication across languages…?

4 03 2013

I’m thinking back to my time (very much immersed) in Sri Lanka; it wasn’t very long before I found that my neck swiveled in an entirely new way, in support of entirely new (and subtle) cluster of expressions of social intention, emotion, etc.

22 12 2010
Robin Walker

What an incredible post this has been, Scott. And there is so much to go at that it’s hard to know where to start, so let’s pick up on Susan’s plea for drama, which I think is not unlike TPR and kinaesthetic activities. They can all contribute positively to the language classroom, but in my experience the ways in which they contribute aren’t so easy to map out as might first appear.

Back in the 80s I remember jumping at the chance to include drama activities in my classes – I’d done amateur dramatics myself, and, more importantly, it was the obvious anti-dote to the book-bound, rule-driven classes that were typical around Spain at the time.

The response I got from my learners (young adults at a university school of tourism), was very mixed. Some loved it – it was a bit of fun, especially compared to the desert-dry lectures they had for the rest of the week. But that was the problem – it was fun, and I don’t think they ever saw it as a genuine learning opportunity.

Others, needless to say, didn’t enjoy drama activities because they were child-like, a point that was made in an earlier posting. Most interesting to me at the time, however, were a small number of introvert students who, given a role to hide behind, absolutely flourished, saying and doing things in public from the safety of their ‘given’ identities, that seemed completely out of keeping with their other self.

Not unlike my students’ attitudes to drama, were their reactions to the task of making audio and video recording of scenes from the world of tourism.This was done as a vehicle for improving their pronunciation. Some students were clearly themselves as they played out their roles, with little or no apparent desire to take on a new identity. Others seemed to identify very strongly with the L2 culture, including its gestures, body language, voice, etc, a point that has come up in various posts. A third group, the dramatists, created new identities that were sometimes a parody of their L1 culture, and sometimes of the L2 culture. This group irritated me, I have to confess. But were they to blame, or was I at fault for not catering to them as learners?

In retrospect, what is obvious now is the diversity of learning styles and learner attitudes in my classrooms, and so I accept that some learners will thrive on running dictations, others on constructing a new identity (including an L2-user body), some will warm to a more cognitive approach, whilst others will wilt.

And then there’s us, the teachers. As has also been noted, we have styles, too. I’ve been at this for 30 years now, and there are things that I don’t especially favour but that are valuable, and that I include in my lessons because of their value. But there are activities that are too far away from me as a person, that are too ‘touchy-feely’, for example, and that I don’t use, not because I think they are wrong in any way, but simply because I’m not comfortable with them.

All of which leaves me somewhat in awe of what happens in a language classroom – so simple on the surface, yet so complex in practice.

22 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Great comment, Robin. The mixed response to drama activities that you recount echoes my own mixed feelings too. Interestingly, in the latest issue of The Modern Language Journal, an article (Huth, T. Can talk be inconsequential? Social and interactional aspects of elicited second-language interaction, MLJ Vol 94/4, 2010 ) makes the case for role-play, even when learners subvert it, or when it is ‘not authentic’, artificial, etc. According to the writer, the evidence that he has gathered suggests that such interactions do still ‘draw substantially from mechanisms structuring naturally occurring talk’. He argues that such talk “emerges as no more nor no less consequential, authentic, artificial, or polite than other talk” (p. 550).

I imagine that – if someone were to research interactions in virtual worlds, such as Second Life – these findings would be corroborated, i.e. that even when people are fooling around behind the security of their avatar’s mask – they fool around in ways that replicate real-life fooling around.

I’m not sure how that this validates drama activities in class, but it offers an interesting perspective on the talk that results.

26 12 2010
Jane Arnold

I think the to drama or not to drama question and the effectiveness of drama in the ELT class may depend in large part on how convinced the teacher using it is. I know teachers who do very interesting things with drama and others who would feel very uncomfortable even trying (echo of Robin’s reaction to the touchy-feely).
But what really interested me in Robin’s post was the comment on the introverts who really flourished when they could speak using a new identity. This of course is very much like suggestopedia where students all take on a new identity for the course, and as Nancy the fashion designer from New York or Patrick the Journalist from Auckland :)) they apparently often feel free from limiting inhibitions related to their real self and with their new (fictional) identity develop greater fluency.

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