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.