The Embodiment of Language and Conceptual Knowledge

The Embodiment of Language and Conceptual Knowledge

Caroline Handley

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A lot of people probably still believe that the computer remains the best metaphor we have for the brain, indeed some people may even think that the brain is quite literally computer-like. This notion can be linked to the computational theory of mind, often associated with the philosopher Jerry Fodor (see this Stanford article for a long review), and in linguistics, probably with Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. However, arguments against this theory have been building up since the late 1980s, in particular from theories of embodied or simulated cognition, also associated with extended or distributed cognition. Bergen’s (2012) book, Louder than Words, is probably the most accessible introduction to this field published to date. However, he does not provide an historic overview of the development of the theory and omits many important theoretical and empirical articles. Nevertheless, the focus on embodied language demonstrates how the theory is relevant for foreign language educators.

In a nutshell, the theory of embodied cognition and language can be related to the symbol grounding problem (how words get meaning) in computational theory of mind: If words and thoughts are composed solely of symbols that are related to other symbols, how do we ever learn what any symbol refers to in the real world? Embodied cognition theorists argue that all “higher-level” cognitive functions are grounded in multimodal simulations of prior experiences and situated action (or interaction) in our socio-cultural environment. Now this is quite a mouthful, so I’ll try to unpack it a little below, or for a longer, academic explanation try reading Lawrence Barsalou’s (2008) influential review paper, Grounded Cognition or Nick Ellis’s (2019) review, which, although quite dense, explicitly relates the theory to foreign language learning.

Basically, in this view our higher-level cognitive skills (such as language, reasoning, and decision-making) are intertwined with our perception of the world around us, and our own being and behaving within it, rather than being clearly distinct systems. There is no module in the brain that “does” a particular function, but rather all thinking, behaving, and sensing involves complex network dynamics spread over diverse regions of the brain (Sporns, 2012). To put it another way, our conceptual knowledge is grounded in the perceptual information we receive via our senses, as well as the experience of our own body, in its temporo-spatial existence, proprioceptive sensations (feeling of body movements and positions), and emotions.

One of the early arguments against a symbolic language of thought is documented by Kosslyn, Thompson, and Ganis (2006) in their book on mental imagery, in which they claim that images underly thinking. However, they focus exclusively on visual imagery, whereas within the field of embodied cognition it is emphasised that although visual imagery is often dominant for humans, imagery is multimodal, and may incorporate multiple senses, motor actions, and feelings. There is by now a vast literature supporting this theory, both from neurological research, for example, motor cortical areas are activated when processing action verbs (Hauk, Johnsrude, & Pulvermüller, 2004), and behavioural studies, for example, reaction time research that suggests people form mental images of objects when reading sentences (Zwaan, Stanfield, & Yaxley, 2002). More recent research suggests that emotional experience may play a role in processing abstract words (Vigliocco et al., 2014).

So that, very briefly, is the theory of embodied cognition and language (read Brian Birdsell’s article for more). But is it important for second language teaching and learning? In my opinion, it’s important for teachers to be aware of the theory, although, as Javier Salazar Vilchez states in his Think Tank article, it’s probably not something that students need to know about. I think that, for teachers, knowing a bit about how language and conceptual knowledge are represented in the brain and how the two meaning-making systems interact enables us to better understand what we are asking students to do in learning a foreign language.

On a positive note, embodied cognition suggests why there are similarities across cultures and not just differences, or why we can assume a large body of shared knowledge with our students, whatever their native culture. I say this, as embodied cognition suggests a resolution to the realism-idealism-constructivism debate on the nature of our relation to the world. There is no need to assume the world is whatever we think it is (idealism), as there is no conflict between the existence of an objective reality and our neural representations constructing our reality. Even if our behaviour is not direct stimulus-response, but is mediated by higher-level, conceptual representations that “construct” the world (Kumaran, Summerfield, Hassabis, & Maguire, 2009), these representations are grounded in our real experiences. There is an objective reality “out there” that dictates what we perceive, but our experience (knowledge) of it is constrained by what our physical bodies can and cannot do, such that our knowledge of the world is both a direct consequence of the affordances of an external reality and constructed by us. Importantly, despite individual differences, human bodies are broadly similar to each other, so we share commonalities in how we perceive reality (for example, most people have three types of cone cells in their eyes and so experience colours similarly, although those with only two functioning types of cone cells are known as colour blind and there are some rare instances of women who have four functioning types of cone cells and have greatly heightened colour perception).

From this perspective, constructivism does not entail some ridiculous argument in which, for example, my conceptual cows are pink with red spots and go around smoking daisies. My cows were created using my sensorimotor cortex in shades of brown, black, and white, with big, soft noses, munching away on grass in undulating meadows, much as I hope your cows are too (my conceptual knowledge is very anti-intensive farming). My concept of cow was constructed via the capacities of my eyes, ears, nose, and hands, and the cortical brain areas that process their inputs, was inherently stamped with a value of good or bad and woah! or meh through the thalamus and limbic system (hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala), and then, through the as-yet-not-clearly-understood wizardry of my temporal and frontal lobes, formed the concept cow with the aid of the identifying linguistic label /kaʊ/.

However, the embodiment of cognition and language also suggests that learning a foreign language may be an even more complex task than just language learning. It is not only difficult for students to learn how to use words and phrases correctly because word meanings are context-dependent (Hanks, 2013), but also because the underlying concept of each word is also context-dependent. For example, my concept of cow (like all my other concepts) is not a fixed concept, but a dynamic, context-dependent one that is reconstructed every time I see, hear, smell, or touch a cow (I can’t remember how a cow tastes, having turned vegetarian when I was 10 years old). My concept is also reconstructed every time I think about cows (not that I do very often) or hear, speak, or read the word “cow.” This means, to borrow from Connell and Lynott (2014), that I can never represent the same cow twice. My reconstructions might be very similar, but they will be influenced by the last time I saw a cow, by whether or not I’ve run out of milk (I’m not a full convert), by the news story I read last week that mentioned cows, and by my own random selection of the word “cow” in the previous paragraph, due to the words “idealism” and “realism” activating memories of a favourite and rather surreal TV show when I was a child, in which there was a cow that was pink with red spots and went around looking as if she was smoking a daisy. The reconstruction of a concept that is activated by a word in a text (or spoken by a teacher or peer) will be slightly different for each student and to the extent that their current reconstruction is dissimilar to the producer’s intention, this will interfere in comprehension, beyond any language difficulties.

"This makes language an incredible cognitive tool but also a deceptive cognitive despot."
Caroline Handley
TT Author

An added complication is that language is not just grounded in such complex multimodal representations, it also helps us to abstract across them. Language provides a heuristic shortcut that allows us to process and share our experiences, largely independent of time and space. This makes language an incredible cognitive tool but also a deceptive cognitive despot, creating the illusion of stable representations that objectively “name” reality, as claimed in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Whorf, 1956/2011). For example, it has been claimed that there are 11 basic colours, which are experienced similarly across all cultures (Berlin & Kay, 1969). This seems fine when working from the English language (which has 11 basic colour words), but is quite rightly challenged by, among others, speakers of Russian. Their language distinguishes 12 basic colours, due to a compulsory distinction between an area of the colour spectrum English-language speakers would label as light blue and dark blue (see Pavlenko,2014, for a discussion of this and other effects of language on thought). Language co-constructs our conceptual knowledge, including, if Lisa Barrett (2017; see the May, 2018 Think Tank) is right, our emotions. The language(s) we speak alter how we perceive reality, such as whether we see an object as a cup, a mug, or a glass, although we are typically not aware of this.

In sum, if language is embodied, not purely symbolic, when we teach our students that “cow” means “牛” (ushi), we should not assume that we all have exactly the same understanding. When discussing a word like “cow,” the conceptual difference (or distance) might be greater between rural folks like myself and urbanites than between speakers of two different native languages. I’m not suggesting that the language a person speaks dictates the whole content of their concepts. As I said earlier, it is our experiences that dictate our concepts, and language is a very important part of human experience, but it is only a part. The point is that although the conceptual knowledge underlying our meaning for any linguistic label shares commonalities, it probably also differs more than we realise, at any one time. And the linguaculture we grew up in can be a big differentiator. When I taught Japanese students in the U.K., their previous teachers had clearly tried to teach them the pronunciation difference between rice and lice, but it was a real shame nobody had thought to teach them that British people mainly eat long-grain, dry rice, so these learners wouldn’t have been disappointed when ordering it. Intercultural miscommunication is not just a language issue, but also a multimodal conceptual one.

Overall, the embodiment of language suggests why deep learning of a foreign language may be particularly problematic in the classroom learning context (Shaules, 2019). One hypothesis is that learners initially link foreign language words to their nearest native language translation equivalents and thus to conceptual knowledge. As proficiency develops, direct links between foreign words and the concept they refer to become stronger (Kroll & Stewart, 1994). But if all we give students in classrooms is words and phrases, without pictures or other stimuli or multimodal mental imagery, let alone embedding the language in the rich context of situational use, how can we expect them to create an embodied foreign language? Maybe, just maybe, teachers need to add embodiment of the language to their list of things to worry about students experiencing, beyond vocabulary and grammar and pragmatics (there is evidence that gesture may improve vocabulary acquisition; for a review, see Macedonia & von Kriegstein, 2012). Or maybe we need to factor in the poverty of the stimulus of the classroom when forming our expectations of what students can achieve.


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Caroline Handley, the BRAIN SIG Coordinator, is an English lecturer at Asia University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Applied Linguistics at Swansea University, where she is researching the relation between conceptual and linguistic knowledge in lexical processing, using an embodied cognition perspective.

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