Scott Thornbury on language and the body

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Scott began on a philosophical note, with Descartes’ idea of mind and body being separate entities, and a modern extension of this dualism on the part of Stephen Pinker, who regards the mind as a computer encased in a fleshy body. Scott presented a more ecological alternative conception, in which mind, body, and indeed the world beyond are in some sense all one. He then set out to flesh out how this idea works through in language and language learning in three ways: by being embodied, embedded and extended.

Language is embodied in its vocabulary. We talk in metaphors that assume our physical bodies, for example ‘going forward’ and ‘going back’ assume a body which moves in a direction and has a front and back. Many phrasal verbs exhibit this embodiedness, either literally or metaphorically, and this is something that teachers can exploit by using movement and gestures as mnemonics to help students learn and remember them. Referring to Adrian Underhill’s work, Scott went on to point out how very physical pronunciation is, and that our bodies have a memory of their own. “Our bodies remember” – I notice how true this is as I type this: my fingers know where the letters are better than my mind does!

Language is embedded in the physical world. Scott began this section with reference to the late Leo Van Lier’s ecological metaphor. For example, learning to play football is a self-regulating process. The untrained beginners always begin by chasing the ball en masse. Later on, they begin to see the possibilities of cooperating in team work, and strategy emerges. So we (can) learn by doing. Reminds me of the communicative approach slogan, “Talking to learn”. Scott then moved on to show a TED talk video by Deb Roy called “The birth of a word”, in which a language acquisition enthusiast demonstrated how his child learnt new words in association with different locations in the home, eg ‘water’ in the kitchen, ‘bye’ by the front door. Argument in favour of taking your students outdoors and into the ‘real world’ – at least, if you happen to be working in an English-speaking environment.  Scott moved on next to the idea that language is embodied in that it is developed, applied and then adapted in specific contexts – bringing us to the theme of how speakers accommodate to their interlocutors. This he illustrated with a video of Liverpool footballer Joey Barton frenchifying his own accent for the benefit of viewers of a French TV station.

Language is extended outside of the mind. For instance, we may help our thought by, say, using our fingers to count on. A physical mnemonic. Scott moved from this to a consideration of gesture. He pointed out speakers use gesture to amplify meaning, and classified gestures as beats, emblems, pointing, iconic gestures and metaphorical gestures (Jerald R Green reference). Interestingly, this gesture is not purely for the benefit of the listener – speakers do it even on the phone, so it must also be for the benefit of their own minds. Bringing us back to the classroom, Scott suggested there may be scope for further developing gestures as mnemonics for lexis and grammar – beyond, for example, the familiar pedagogic device of pointing your thumb over your shoulder to mean ‘in the past’.

For participants who wanted to read more on this topic, Scott pointed us towards ‘B is for body’ and ‘M is for mind’ on his ‘A to Z of ELT’ blog.

From reading the abstract for this talk in the programme, I located it in the South West of our map of ELT, the area concerned with learning and learning theories. After seeing it, I would revise this and position it in the North West, the area of Language and linguistics. It would be in one of the remoter, less explored corners of the territory, making it more interesting and less ‘applicable on Monday morning’ in equal measure! One participant commented to me after the talk that she’d loved it because it was like a TED talk. An embodied TED talk with a TED talk embedded within it, I would add, hereby extending it into the blogosphere.



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