Teaching Embodiment to the Language Learner: The Neurocognitive vs. the Cultural Anthropological Perspectives

Teaching Embodiment to the Language Learner: The Neurocognitive vs. the Cultural Anthropological Perspectives

Javier A. Salazar Vilchez

A few years ago, after many years of living in Japan, I returned to my home country, Venezuela, and an elderly family friend gave me a welcome home present. When I started to thank her, I unconsciously also did something that incited in her the most puzzled look I have probably ever seen in my life: I was bowing. You see, we Latin Americans do not normally bow. Japanese people, on the other hand, normally do, especially in a situation like this one, where deference must be shown to someone who is your senior. So, there I was, thanking her in Spanish but bowing in Japanese. Her quizzical look made me realize that, somehow, I had been embedded within Japanese culture for so long that I had started to manifest it through my body … even when I wasn’t speaking Japanese.

The Neurocognition of (My) Japanese Bowing

This anecdote epitomizes, I believe, what in this Think Tank issue we have been calling embodiment, embodied cognition, and/or embodied simulation. Following what Birdsell posits in his piece in this Think Tank, perhaps what happened to me in this story was that the mental model I had about the notion of “deference towards a senior” had become imbued with the Japanese one (including its somatotopic expression–bowing) and it ended up expressing itself through enactment. Gillis-Furutaka and Kelly’s article on sensory input hints at yet another layer of analysis in terms of how mirror neurons intervene in social cognition. In a sense, my bowing was determined by first having seen it being performed, having internalized an agentive relationship between the action and its meaning/affordance, and finally having performed it myself several times in Japan for that effect. In the words of Gallese (2005):

“To perceive an action is equivalent to internally simulating it. This enables the observer to use her/his own resources to penetrate the world of the other by means of a direct, automatic, and unconscious process of motor simulation. Such simulation processes automatically establish a direct link between agent and observer, in that both are mapped in a neutral fashion … Mirror neurons constitutively map an agentive relation; the mere observation of an object not acted upon indeed does not evoke any response…. It is just the agentive relational specification that triggers the mirror neurons’ response.” (Gallese, 2005, pp. 35-36)

However, this perspective for understanding embodiment (henceforth called the Neurocognitive Perspective) in spite of all its elegance and descriptive/explicative power, presents to me, a deep pedagogical conundrum. You see, I am a language teacher, and as such, I am interested in any theoretical artifact that can potentially help me teach language in a better way. My Japanese bowing story is precisely the kind of story that I like to tell my 19 year-old students to make them understand that language is not just vocabulary and grammar rules. Moreover, it can potentially show them how embodiment can be crucial for language learning.  Thus, I could of course attempt to explain to them how undisputable a fact it is that language is neurocognitively embodied, describing the abstract mental processes that occur when embodying a foreign language. But, alas, if I did so, I am fairly sure that my class would turn into a snore fest

If so, then, how can I explain embodiment to a language learner in a way that it would help him/her learn language better?  Positing this question does come with inevitable corollaries, such as: Should we even discuss bringing such a complex notion as embodiment directly into the ears of a language learner? Or is this concept just something that we specialists in Language Learning should relegate to our ivory tower by discussing it in our papers, journals, conferences, think tanks (Oops! Sorry?) with the hope that it will “inform our teaching” …. but not necessarily to “inform our students”?

In order to answer these questions I would like to first ask you, the reader, to step out of your comfort zone for a moment. Entertain the idea of looking at the notion of embodiment through a different set of eyes, the eyes of a young and naïve graduate student of Cultural Anthropology who has just heard about this concept for the first time in his life.

The Other Perspective

A shaman (left) and an ethnographer (right) Source: Singh, 2019

I remember that class vividly. It was in one of the introductory classes of the graduate program, in which we examined a myriad of ways to understand what culture is and how it manifests itself. The professor showed a slide that had something written on it along the lines of:  “Culture has a corporeal component.” Then, in order to exemplify this idea, she went on describing the studies of ethnographers such as Glass-Coffin (2010) who, in order to understand the cultural underpinnings of shamanism, took the same psychoactive concoctions that the shamans of the tribe she was studying took for their shamanic rites. In other words, the ethnographer, in order to understand the Other (that or who is perceived as radically different than oneself) attempted to feel, in her own flesh and bones, whatever it was shamans were experiencing while in a trance. The ethnographer of course knew the scientific explanation for these “magical trips” (that they were the result of biochemically induced states of altered consciousness), but this fact is of no relevance in the context of an ethnography. Instead, the ethnographer wanted to make sense out of the Other by conducting an embodied simulation of what it felt/meant to be within the culture of the Other.

It was then that I entered the rabbit’s hole of what I now understand as cultural embodiment, which, for the duration of this article, will henceforth be called the Cultural Anthropology Perspective. Herriman’s (2012) introduction to cultural embodiment, is an excellent crash course on this perspective (it even gives yet another anecdote on the intricacies of Japanese bowing!) but it is by no means exhaustive. Cultural embodiment permeates a vast array of phenomena, such as: the anthropology of odor (Classen, Howes, and Synnot, 1994, describe how cultures differ on their perception and assignment of meaning to smells), the anthropology of taste (Falk, 1994,  posits that although there is an objective way to describe the biochemical reactions between gustatory receptors and foodstuffs, the sociocultural context is the one responsible in assigning symbolism to it), the anthropology of sound (Holger, 2016, explains how the sensory plasticity of sound is mediated by culture), the anthropology of personal space (aka Cultural Proxemics, Hall et al. 1968), the ethnomusicology of dance and musical performance (Downey, 2002; Roman-Velazquez, 1999), cyborg/digital anthropology (Laughlin, 1997, explores the mediation between digital culture and the human body), the anthropology of gender and sexuality (Shahrokhi, 2017) and the anthropology of emotions (Gieser, 2008).

Views of Embodiment from the Cultural Anthropology Perspective

If I now look at my welcome home present story through this lens, yet more strands of analysis appear. Culture take center stage in the place of neurons and mental models, as I could say that the corporeality of  culture (in this case, Japanese Culture) manifested itself through language. By the time I started bowing in non-Spanish to a Spanish speaker, I had spent too many years embodying the Other (the Japanese) to the point that Japanese Culture became a catalyst for the interaction of my body with the social milieu. There was no shamanic drug taken, but still, I had taken nonetheless a magical trip into losing myself in the culture of the Other.

Two (Competing?) Perspectives on Embodiment

Herein two perspectives on embodiment: The Neurocognitive Perspective (NCP) and the Cultural Anthropology Perspective (CAP). I do not necessarily see them as opposing one another, rather, they complement each other. In fact, Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1991) recognize this by positing that:

“By using the term embodied we mean to highlight two points: First that cognition depends upon the kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities, and second, that these individual sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological and cultural context” (pp. 172–173)

Thus, if NCP and CAP are basically two sides of the same coin, then what’s the point of making a distinction between them? Well, for one, CAP is the older perspective of the two, predating NCP by millennia. NCP is four decades old (Ellis, 2019)  whilst the first “proto-ethnographies” of recorded history as far back as 49 B.C.E. (Ceasar, ca. 49 B.C.E./1884) already had passages focusing on the Other’s body as a locus of analysis of cultural differences. On the other hand, NCP’s robust body of research is extensively and meticulously scientifically grounded (Ellis 2019; Gallese, 2005; Shaules, 2019), to a level that CAP probably cannot ever aspire. Nonetheless, the main argument of this article is that NCP and CAP, although not necessarily competing with each other in terms of descriptive power, do compete in terms of the pedagogical implications they have in the language classroom. In the following paragraphs, I will argue that CAP has the edge over NCP in regards to helping language learners not only understand and see the point of embodiment, but more importantly, to care about it and consciously integrate it into their own language learning.

"The cultural anthropology perspective has an edge over the neurocognitive one in terms of pedagogical implications in the classroom."
Javier A. Salazar Vilchez
TT Author

Bringing Embodiment into the Classroom: TED Talks through Otherness

In order to exemplify this, I will bring forth one of the many class activities I use for making embodiment take center stage in language learning. The following teaching strategy has its roots in yet another personal anecdote (it’s the last one, I promise!)

It happened years ago when I had just come to Japan to continue my graduate studies and was enrolled in Japanese language classes. There was an assignment for which I had to prepare a presentation in Japanese. I was supposed to prepare it as if it was a formal affair. I needed to present (wearing a suit) a Japanese product to an imaginary audience of potential customers and investors. After I was done, my Japanese teacher gave me (likely, unbeknownst to her) my first ever master lesson on embodiment in a language learning context. When giving her feedback, she said: “Javier, your slides and content were fine but I’m sorry to say that I think you move your hands too much… I understand that maybe in your country that is how you are supposed to speak but for us Japanese, it is confusing. We don’t know the meaning of what you are doing with your hands. Also, it may not be perceived that what you were doing was a formal, serious presentation.” Back then I accepted her feedback but it was only a few years later, after further embedding myself in Japanese Culture, that I truly understood what she was trying to say. Notwithstanding the stereotypical assumptions implicit in her feedback (you Latin Americans do too many hand gestures; we Japanese don’t), I believe that she simply was trying to help me navigate the way Japanese people communicate with each other in Japanese. And indeed, after watching Japanese comedians such as Pikotaro I do agree with her that, within the Japanese context,  exaggerated body language could be perceived as comedic, to say the least.

How, then, do I bring this body language awareness experience into my own English classes? Well, to put it succinctly, I turn the tables on my students. I have them watch TED Talk after TED Talk and, besides extracting from them common presentation structure techniques and slide design strategies, I also have them pay careful attention to  the TED speaker’s body language (mannerisms, facial expressions, eye contact, hand gestures, posture, etc.) and speech (prosody, emotional inflections, etc.) while I signpost key moments in the talk. I then show a few generic videos of Japanese doing speeches and ask my students to discuss in English what cultural differences they see. Invariably, common assertions made by students are that the Japanese presentation style tends to be much more understated than your average TED Talk. In addition, they also tend to identify that that eye contact/facial expressions/gestures/emotional inflections are much more subdued in Japanese speech. Thus, in this part of the activity I am compelling them to talk about the otherness of the Other in the language of the Other.

Next, I have them shadow TED speakers, emphasizing imitation of the speakers in every possible way. On the final assignment, they must choose two TED Talks on a similar topic and present them to the class by summarizing them and giving an integrative conclusion. They are evaluated based on their ability to shadow the presentation style (including body language and speech) of the TED speakers in question. Here, I am forcing them to experience the otherness of the English Language not just by “watching” it, but by acting it, by bringing it into the corporeal realm. This is done not with the expectation that the students will just magically turn into this expertly coached TED speakers, but with the objective of helping them understand how the Other communicates by making them embody the way the Other communicates. In a way, what I am asking them to do is akin to what the shamanism ethnographers of my graduate years of yore did. The difference is that in my case, there’s no “trippy” psychoactive drug to be taken. Instead, there’s this alien communication style that they must attempt to embody in order to be able to comprehend.

As a result, my experience shows that embodiment activities like these are very effective in introducing the relevance of the concept to language learners. Mind you, it is not even necessary to mention the word “embodiment” to them at all. Instead, all that they are told is that, given the cultural context of a TED talk, the speakers strive to make the audience listen, to get their point across, to cause a meaningful impact. Hence, if they want to get the attention of an English native speaker, learning the how-to from a TED speaker is an excellent way to start. In this sense, I focus on the culturally mediated communicational effect of embodiment, not on the embodiment per se. Most students get it, some don’t, but there are always those highly motivated few who truly internalize the lesson, and in their presentations they show how invested they can become in embodying the Other, because, above all, they are there in your class because they truly want to communicate with the Other. But the crux of the matter is that, at least as far as I’m concerned, this cultural embodiment angle has a bigger chance of making my students listen than if I were to use the NCP one. Culture, if done right, is in my opinion a far more relatable subject for a 19 year-old than mirror neurons, information processing brain models or sensorimotor mechanisms will ever be. Consequently, CAP has, at the very least, the potential to make your students care about embodiment. If contextualized in terms of the pragmatics and/or the sociolinguistics of it, CAP will allow them to easily see the communicative benefits embodiment brings to their language learning.

"Otherness 3 is a method for learning about the otherness of the Other by talking about it in the language of the Other and by embodying the Other."
Javier A. Salazar Vilchez
TT Author

In the grand scheme of things, activities such as the one described fit within a pedagogical framework that I like to call Otherness3. It is cubic because it involves three ways of approaching the Other:  Otherness3   is a method for learning about the otherness of the Other by talking about it in the language of the Other and by embodying the Other. Yes, I know, it’s a mouthful. Or more exactly, an “otherful”…one that probably deserves an entire article of its own.  


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Javier A. Salazar Vilchez’s background is in social psychology, cultural anthropology, and human informatics. He holds both an MSc. and a Ph.D. in Human Informatics and is currently the Publications Chair of the Intercultural Communication in Language Education Special Interest Group (ICLE SIG) of the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT).

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