Bodies of thought
Just a brief one this week, largely to get the idea out of my head and down onto…errm…down into pixels. As usual, it is @thornburyscott who has been making me think, this time by asking if my new found conviction that it’s all about the knowledge and less about the skills is compatible with my extreme left-wing armed insurrectionist political philosophy. Inexplicably, this question has been instrumental in pushing me further into a calcifyingly dogmatic embrace of knowledge and I have been flirting with the idea of grammar teaching before – 20 years late- I have rediscovered the lexical approach. In this latest endeavour, I have nothing but huge admiration for the work of bloggers such as @leoselivan, @muranava, @hughdellar, @CELTtraining and @luizotavioELT.
My recent rediscovery – I read The Lexical Approach years ago, decided I couldn’t really understand it and promptly abandoned it- has breathed a new love of ELT into my lungs. It has also made me reflect that for the last twenty years or so, I have been coasting on the rapport that I was able to build up with my students (and my employers). I have always claimed that being the scion of a village shopkeeper was the greatest training that I ever received. But perhaps there really is something to the idea that a language teacher should be a…well…a teacher.
Unfortunately, I come to this discovery rather late in life. The lexical approach may well have been debated and dismissed for all I know, but it provides me with a body of knowledge -a huge body of knowledge- that will sate my need for something concrete to be taught for now. Interestingly, it does seem to favour an adoption of published or pre-prepared materials, as this post from Andrew Walkley argues.
It also coincides with my growing interest in embodied cognition, another interest sparked quite likely by @thornburyscott who wrote a brief blogpost on it in 2010, following Atkinson’s paper in Applied Linguistics. The vagaries of life, eh? I think I read Scott’s post too and filed it under Interesting in a makes-you-think kind of way. It was the reading around psychopaths that led me to read more about neuroscience that led me to read more about cognitivist psychology that led me to start following lots of new people on Twitter that led me (back) to the theories about embodied universes that led me (back) to the idea of embodied cognition.
For those of you who are struggling to understand what the hell is going on here, embodied cognition is a rather philosophical approach to psychoscience that suggests that we may have been fooling ourselves all along. For as far back as we can remember, we have lingered under the assumption that the site of cognition – thought and intelligence- has been inside the head, hidden away in the folds and crevices of the brain. Embodied cognition challenges that assumption and sees the brain as no more than a tool for our cognition, alongside our environment and our body. Ha! Another one of those explanations that do nothing to help anybody. Let’s try again.
The gestures we make when we talk, the way we take notes when we read, the scribblings in the margins, the sense that the interesting thing we read in the book was back about a third of the way on the left-hand side of the page, the sense that we know that person from somewhere that we go to buy things, etc etc etc – such things have frequently been studied to glean further information on the cognitive processes that happen inside our head. What do such things tell us about the brain? Proponents of embodied cognition would argue that they tell us very little about what goes on inside the brain because, rather than being signs of cognition, they actually are cognition. Cognition -or thought, if it helps- takes place outside of the brain. The neural networking of the brain is an important factor in learning but that doesn’t elevate it to actually becoming learning.
Gestures are made because they are thinking. Notes in the margin are an example of our cognitive miserliness (why bother processing this in the brain when we can store our thoughts on paper and access them whenever we need them?) as are the feelings we get where we can physically indicate the location of knowledge (it was towards the bottom on the left hand side of the book/I know her from somewhere where I buy things). To be honest, although this is ground-breaking stuff, it begins to seem pretty straightforwardly obvious when you think about it. Our brain is just a wrinkled old nerve centre that sits within a head that sits atop a body that potters its way through the world for its fourscore and ten years. It makes infinitely more sense to suggest that our intelligence, our thoughts and our learning are located in places other than the brain. But what the hell does this mean for language teachers?
On a crude level, I have taken it to mean that there is more need than ever to paper the walls with learning. Surround learners with cognitive crutches wherever possible. In fact, I haven’t really gone beyond this crude level yet, largely because I am still struggling to come to terms with the idea that our brain is not the centre of all learning. It’s a mammoth realisation, I hope you agree. But it is a target for my learning and there are huge resources available thanks to that embodiment of embodied cognition that is the internet [Note that where Scott refers to embodied cognition as the way that our cognition can be found in our bodies, I am taking the line that embodied cognition is bigger than our bodies and is actually a tangible phenomenon that we live in…see this paper for a more coherent explanation…in brief, applications like Evernote or Twitter or blogs etc do not just help our brain, they are our brain].
Finally, because the clock on the wall makes me know that I have little time left to me, what does this mean for my newfound love for the lexical approach? Well, it makes me wonder about some of the thinking that went into this. After all, it seemed to aim at the lodging of lexical chunks in the brains of learners. But now we know that brains are not the only place that learning takes place. The lexical approach seemed to concern itself with word frequency, but who is to say that frequency is actually important? Logically, it might be. But logically, our brains process information and convert it to learning, and we know that this is not necessarily true anymore. And, somehow, I have started thinking along the lines of what is second language learning anyway? Scott asked whether or not learning was experiential. We learn language, he reasoned, by doing language. This sits well with the theories of embodied cognition, but less well alongside my current predilection for language teaching being about knowledge rather than skills.
Might it not be, I wondered, that language emerges from our interaction with the world, but that second languages are really just about learning the knowledge necessary to re-encode this tool? In other words, that language-as-a-skill is what happens when we move through the world as humans. We begin to make use of the social artefact that is language and we use it to be able to interact with the world around us. The more we do it, the better we get. BUT second language is not about language acquisition. It is about re-encoding the language that we have already acquired. And to do this, we only need to know the different words and sounds that the target language employs to express the meanings that approximate most closely to what we as language users wish to convey?
Oh dear. I suspect that this is so convoluted as to be impenetrable. If this is the case, accept my apologies. I could -and quite probably should– just save as a draft. But I am so desperate to get these thoughts out of my head and into a more tangible form for me to reflect on that I am going to inflict them upon you. I will offer up the mandatory five Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys as a penance.