Embodiment as a Way to Understand Language

March 2020

In this issue, we explore how the brain and body connect to make meaning of the world around us. Embodiment, in this case, refers to how our brain interprets everything through the lens of the body itself. Learn more about Embodied Cognition and develop a new perspective on language teaching (and learning)!

Watch before you read...

In a delightful podcast interview, Alan Jasanoff tells us about how the “brain, body and environment collaborate to make us who we are.” Mark Johnson, known mainly for his work with George Lakoff on Metaphors We Live By, also explains how the meaning of language is rooted in our body. Amanda Gillis-Furutaka and Curtis Kelly continue by examining how the brain uses embodied simulation to make meaning of sensory input and language. Brian Birdsell carries on the discussion by informing us about the shift in neuroscience towards this view and its relevance to language teaching. Caroline Handley goes deep into embodiment and examines how language is stored in multimodal representations. Finally, Javier A. Salazar Vilchez takes a different tack, looking at how a cultural anthropological perspective of embodiment can help learners understand otherness.

In the Plus section, Scott Bowyer tells us how an overconfident boy was humbled in the world of higher education, and yet, came out all the better.

Our Thoughts on Embodiment

A Concept Every Language Teacher Should Know Think Tank Staff

Have you ever thought about how our brain does language? How does the sound of a word stimulate a mental image of its meaning? Does our brain have some kind of built-in dictionary for each word, as was once commonly believed? In that case, what defines the words? Other words?

Think Tank Articles

Reflections on Mirror Neurons and Our New Insights on Embodied Simulation Amanda Gillis-Furutaka & Curtis Kelly

In 1992, Rizzolatti and a team of researchers at the University of Parma attached sensors to Macaque monkey motor neurons to map muscle-motor interactions. Then, as the story goes (Taylor, 2016), during a break, one of the researchers started eating lunch in the same room. The monitors started showing an odd pattern. Whenever the researcher grasped his lunch and lifted it for a bite, the neurons in the monkeys’ brains for the same grasping and lifting actions fired as well, as if they were doing the eating. In that way, mirror neurons were discovered.

The Movements of Language: Learning from Embodied Semantics Brian J. Birdsell

The brain and computer are two everyday words for concepts that widely capture the imagination of so many people by their complexity and intelligent design and have been bed partners in an enduring metaphor since the 1940s. These two concepts are so intricately interconnected in language and thought that it is hard to imagine one without imagining the other. For instance, the electrical currents of a computer are similar to the action potentials of neurons firing in the brain.

The Embodiment of Language and Conceptual Knowledge Caroline Handley

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.

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.

Think Tank Plus

The Parable of the Gifted Winner and the Gritty Grower D.S. Bowyer

As a young boy growing up in rural England, I was blessed with the somewhat unusual combination of truly terrible behavior and very high school grades. Every year my report card would have virtually the same comment from all of my teachers. It usually read something like this: “He is a gifted individual with a natural aptitude for learning. If only he would buckle down in class…”

Call for Contributions: Ideas & Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Since we last met, an important holiday – one celebrated in neuroscience as well – has come and gone.  But we are still celebrating it here with …

Happy Valentine’s Day!

More neuroscience here and Marc Helgesen’s Energy Break slides here.  Thanks Marc.

Speechless: By Design

Her son’s language disorder inspired this cutting-edge art exhibit

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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

Curtis H. Kelly                Skye Playsted



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