The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

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. 


13 May 2013 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. Very clear, Your Secrecy. Allow me to quote this bit on the (increasingly more frequent) occasions that I talk about embodiment: ‘ 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.’

    You’re right that I use the term embodied cognition in a more narrow sense than you are using it here. I follow some writers and distinguish between three concentric cognitive spheres or zones: the embodied, the embedded and the extended. To explain:

    First, cognition depends not just on the brain but also on the body (the embodiment thesis). Second, cognitive activity routinely exploits structure in the natural and social environment (the embedding thesis). Third, the boundaries of cognition extend beyond the boundaries of individual organisms (the extension thesis).

    Robbins, P. and Aydede, M. (2009) The Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    (I use this three-way distinction to structure my contribution to a new book that celebrates the work of Earl Stevick, ‘Meaningful Action’ edited by Arnold and Murphey, Cambridge 2013. My bit is called ‘The Learning Body’)

    For more on cognitive extension, see Andy Clark’s ‘Supersizing the Mind’ (Oxford 2011), and for an important new book on gesture: How Language Began: Gesture and Speech in human evolution (David McNeill, Cambridge 2012).

    Both books throw doubt (in my mind at least) on your thesis that learning a second language is simply mapping a new code onto existing cognitive structures. The cognitive structures and the language are so intricately meshed that I don’t think it’s possible to think of them separately. This doesn’t mean that you have to learn a whole new set of cognitive structures when you learn an additional language (perish the thought!) – more that you have to ‘re-wire’ the existing ones. This re-wiring can only be done when the cognitive structures are up-and-running (I’m making this bit up but I firmly believe it), not when they are disengaged. That is to say, you need to be using the language in order to learn it. And by using, I mean not just reading it or speaking it, but wearing it, moving with it, inhabiting it, experiencing its physicality, that is to say, embodying it. Phew!

    Comment by Scott Thornbury | 13 May 2013 | Reply

    • Hi Scott. By all means quote away – for a grizzled ol’Red like myself, knowledge -like all other resources- belongs to everyone, but, in this case, you have a particularly strong claim to any one of the thoughts that occur to me since you are a major catalyst for my development (all of which will do wonders for the conspiracy theory that I am you). You will find a lot more coherent thoughts to quote at And deserves a mention because of its inspired title. But the quotation that sticks in my mind for the time being is this from Embodiment is the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies and their perceptually guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing [emphasis in original] the need for complex internal mental representations .

      My thesis is nascent in the extreme and part of my need to type this morning was because I wanted to see it in the world so that I could start to think more about it. Perhaps all of the theories about L1 acqusition are not really about L1 acquisition. They are theories about acquiring the tool of language. By the time that our typical ELT learner comes along, this tool has already been acquired and now what they are interested in acquiring is not language, but the symbols and codes that our linguistic sub-group employs. When learning L2 it might not be a case of re-wiring, but of co-opting the existing wiring for the different purpose of L2 learning.

      We know that the brain is highly adaptable and that when people are brain-damaged, the brain can reorganise itself so that the part that used to process smells is now co-opted to process sound (a completely invented example). Might it not be that with the original wiring laid down for language, the brain co-opts neurons etc that already exist (perhaps for recognising music, or spotting patterns in lines and circles), or whatever else and uses these -alongside the networks laid down for language- and uses these?

      Criminy! When I start getting this convoluted, it is the clearest sign yet that I haven’t got a clue. What a pity a kind neuroscientist isn’t passing by to let us know if the brain does rewire itself or just uses what pathways already exist. What I am trying to suggest is that -in the same way that most of us don’t teach people how to read or listen- we are not really teaching people how to acquire language. They have already mastered that. When we teach them “reading”, we are often just highlighting vocabulary patterns or grammatical patterns. Might L2 learning not be just the same?

      Comment by thesecretdos | 13 May 2013 | Reply

      • Yes, your Secretness, you have hoist me with my own petard. I have consistently argued that we are wasting time teaching (already literate) students how to read in English when (as all the research shows) what is inhibiting their reading fluency is not lack of skill but lack of knowledge. So, stop teaching skimming and scanning (for heaven’s sake: skimming and scanning is what BAD readers do, anyway) and teach them words. Not even grammar. Just words. 1000s and 1000s of the little bleeders. Actually, no, don’t teach them anything. Have them go away and learn 1000s and 1000s of words, and come back when they are ready. No, even better – teach them some word-learning strategies, and then off they go. A year later, with 5000+ words under their belt, they’re good to go.

        OK, but I would still stick to my original point that this knowledge acquisition is not language acquisition. It is, if you like, pre-acquisition: it primes the learner for the real thing. It is absolutely necessary, yes, but it is not language. It only becomes language when it is enlisted for language use. “Developments in second language acquisition research make it difficult to see the learning even of foreign languages as distinct from the process of language use: learning is using and using is learning. (…) Of course, there are also formal activities associated with the learning – people learn vocabulary lists off by heart more than is commonly acknowledged – but these activities are preliminary to the language learning process itself, for only when the language items are fused into active meaning systems by the process of use, is the language system developing for the learner’s own purposes. We may learn the tokens of language formally, but we learn the system by using it through reading or writing, or conversing”.

        (Individual Freedom In Language Teaching by Christopher Brumfit, O.U.P. 2001).

        Embodied cognition adds an extra dimension to ‘using is learning’. Can you handle another lengthy quote?

        “If language is intrinsically embodied and embedded, then what does that mean for its acquisition? Obviously, if language is learned for worldly use, the learning process itself must be use-based. In this view, language learning is not primarily about squirreling away abstract linguistic competence in an isolated cognitive space,… Rather, language learning is a process of building meaningful ways of participating in socio-material worlds — of constructing flexible, reliable, and therefore survival-enhancing repertoires of ecosocial participation”.

        Churchill, E., Okada, H., Nishino, T., & Atkinson, D. (2010) Symbiotic gesture and the sociocognitive visibility of grammar in second language acquisition. The Modern Language Journal, 94/2, p.249.

        So, it’s not even about teaching skills (vs knowledge). It’s about teaching ‘survival-enhancing repertoires of ecosocial participation’ !! Turn that into a coursebook, I dare you!

        Comment by Scott Thornbury | 14 May 2013

  2. Thank you for inflicting these thoughts on us! Such an interesting and thought provoking read! I’m really enjoying following along as you consider and grapple with the different elements of what language learning and teaching is and/or should be. And, as I read your thoughts, I’m examining what I believe and making changes. I’ve noticed that I’m now a bit more aware of the knowledge element. I would agree that the lexical approach has a lot to offer in terms of this knowledge and I’ve got a lot out of reading what people like Leo Selivan and Hugh Dellar have to say. (I wouldn’t think, however, that all proponents of the lexical approach favour the adoption of published materials – perhaps just those with lexical coursebooks to sell 😉 ) Your post on psychopaths helped shed some light on a person who had been baffling me. And now, the idea of embodied cognition sounds fascinating!

    You also write, though, that you have been coasting on the rapport you were able to build up. The implication being that you haven’t really been teaching but, because everyone liked you, you could get away with it. I’m not sure about this. Were the people in your classrooms learning? If they weren’t, would they have really put up with it just because they liked you or you had a good relationship with them? That hasn’t been my experience. The more comfortable they are with me, the more likely they are to tell me that what we’re doing isn’t helping them.

    Also, although you’re examining what it is a teacher should do and what teaching should look like at the moment, I still think it’s important to focus on the learning. People come to us, spending time (and, in some cases, lots of money) to learn a language. So, as interesting and useful as all the new insights you’re sharing are, I’d imagine that you have been helping people learn for the past 20 years. Knowledge is part of it, cognition (wherever that takes place) is another but who you are and who the learners are and the social aspect of language learning and language use can’t be relegated to coasting.

    Comment by Carol Goodey | 13 May 2013 | Reply

    • Carol – you remain too kind. You ask if the people in my classrooms were learning and I would say yes and I think that many of them would too. But I would be foolish to say “no” and there is every likelihood that my students would say “yes” largely because of the time, money and effort that they had invested. In brief, I hate to say it but there is every likelihood that they would put up with it (and me) regardless of whether or not it was helping. Then we have John Hattie who points out that most interventions have a positive effect anyway – so the question shouldn’t be whether or not they were learning, but whether or not I have been stopping them from learning as much as they can!

      I think that what I really mean though is that I may have neglected the side of teaching that is more concerned with looking for evidence of learning. I have taken the easy way out and assumed that by challenging people to talk about “difficult” topics and then helping them to do so, I may have done them a disservice. They may be entirely unaware of this (and many have said very nice things about me and my teaching), but it may still be true nevertheless. How many people spent a fortune on such idioci…such things…as NLP and homeopathy? What was “learning” for me? It was being able to understand and contribute to a conversation that would have floored them prior to their participation. It was being able to read about the topic after the event and understand some of the ideas.

      These days it might still be the same thing. Just that now a voice is beginning to say, “Ah! But if you had focussed less on the skill and more on teaching them how to pronounce things more clearly, or how to speak more concisely, or how to spell more accurately, or how to form letters more legibly, well — perhaps those skills were already there and with their newfound knowledge, perhaps that would have been far more evident?”

      My mind is not made up (emphasis for Scott’s benefit) yet and it is true that blogging and discussing allows me to think in ways that just thinking does not! Thank you for putting up with this indecision – and I am genuinely delighted that my psychopath theory has helped you resolve the puzzling practices of a baffling person.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 13 May 2013 | Reply

  3. Gosh, thanks for the mention, but now I’ve come to read the whole post I feel I have walked into a room which is spinning round and I haven’t even been drinking! I have not a clue what embodied cognition or if it really is something that might be of relevance to language teaching, but I’ll check it out. As far as the lexical approach is concerned, having just seen a talk by Michael Hoey on the Lexical Approach and Lexical Priming (his book – well worth a read), it would seem that our brains capacity to store networks of language is pretty incredible. Frequency in terms of learning seems to me important to consider but it doesn’t have to be the basis of a syllabus – lexical learning and the grammar that emerges out of it, is far too great and far too random to allow that. Thinking about language lexically (not just chunks but how sets work , collocation, texts and discourse) opens up a much larger and varied range of language to teach, notice, embody or whatever it is you believe will get students there. (and keeping interest has to be part of that).

    Comment by Andrew Walkley | 13 May 2013 | Reply

    • Im with you on the puzzlement caused by embodied cognition. It’s a big thing to get your head around, but absolutely worth checking out. I think that when broken down, it problematises the assertion that our brains have the capacity to store networks of language. It suggests that this is based on the metaphor of the brain as a data processor (and points to how the brain has frequently been described in the terms of whatever technology is doing the rounds…a library/a book/etc).It posits that our brain is a cognitive miser and looks to store these vast networks elsewhere in order to avoid having to do very much work. It might do so by consigning them to a physical space or a physical sensation (or, in my radical take on things, to some searchable external database like Evernote, Twitter or my Kindle highlights). Before this was considered to be almost incidental – now cognitive science is beginning to consider the theory that these acts are not just signs of cognitive activity from within the brain; they actually are cognition outside the brain. It follows that -if this is true- there are likely to be huge implications for language learning which has “always” been predicated upon the idea that the brain is a mainframe computer, hungry for input.

      As I said, I am not sure what the implications might be, but it would be logical to assume that one thing we should do is to think more about how we can store our new lexical knowledge outside of the brain. Notebooks, Evernote, wall space, physical gesture, mime, flashcards,role plays, contextual information, anchoring new knowledge in time and space etc. Curiously, one of my favourite words in Spanish, rimbombantemente, was learnt almost twenty years ago while sat in a bar outside the metro station in Las Arenas, Vizcaya, in the morning, reading the newspaper while waiting for my friend who, as usual, was running late. I was reading a short news article where one of the world’s “national liberation” movements was being described as “rimbombantemente marxista“.It was the length of the word that drew my attention to it and the feel of it in my mouth as I said it.

      The NLP charlatans would probably get in a fizz about learning styles and which way my eyes rolled when they were explaining this. Cognitive scientists who are interested in embodied cognition would suggest that there is evidence to suggest that my brain is storing the physical location and that the physical location is storing the lexical data; also that my mouth is storing the lexical data, and my ear is storing the lexical data. I can just picture the splurting of coffee from the mouths of my reader(s). But is this any more than hair-splitting and neuropedantry? I think so – when I walk past sterile learning environments where students regularly leave behind the artefacts of their learning or teachers neglect to put anything meaningful on walls, I see wasted learning opportunities. Scott sees the concept of EC as clear evidence that learning comes from action; I see it as a reminder of how important it is for us to do things with the knowledge that we teach.

      Incidentally, where the lexical approach comes into its own, as far as EC is concerned, is with its insistence that new lexical knowledge should be rooted in the environment from which it came – the don’t fiddle with the language injunction: write things down as you find them; recycle language by rifling through the papers until you find the collocation; essentially, time and time again, go back to the source. It might well be that the lexical approach works well largely because of this approach – by enriching the context within which the knowledge is situated, it roots it more firmly within our cognition. Even more incidentally -or perhaps even more spuriously– I think this may well be another argument for the existence of coursebooks. When I think back to my time learning Spanish -and even further back to my time learning French at secondary school- there are lexical chunks that are well and truly anchored to the pages of coursebooks: to the point that I [think I] can even remember which side of the coursebook they first appeared on.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 14 May 2013 | Reply

  4. After this brainy post, I’d like to start a new conspiracy theory:

    I AM the Secret DOS!

    Comment by JoshSRound | 14 May 2013 | Reply

  5. Hi again, I had a brief discussion with you about EC and said I’d get back to you. I can’t find where it was in Linkedin forums, so allow me a few words here.

    You say:” 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.”

    It seems to me, having looked at it a bit, that EC is extremely interesting and maybe more sophisticated tests will take it on and give it further credibility. Meanwhile, EC bases its case on experiments where the semantics have very clear sensory-motor content. So, in a study of verb comprehension, words such as “kick”, “scratch”, and “lick” that strongly involve different motor effectors (foot, hand, and mouth) are used, to argue that there are different patterns of activation in primarily motor control areas of the brain corresponding to those effectors. But what about verbs that don’t have obvious motor components, like “love” and “remember”?

    EC says that semantic knowledge is grounded in sensory and motor representations, but chooses specific contexts where the claim can survive testable predictions. How do we test other verbs which don’t make easily testable predictions? In the case of abstract nouns, which don’t have simple sensory-motor bases, how do we test the EC theory for them? How is “beauty” represented?

    The claim of EC is that it applies to all semantic representations, and if it can’t, then it fails.

    Comment by geoffjordan | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Oof! Geoff! You ask exactly the right kind of questions – i.e. the ones that I can’t answer and which drive me back to the books. Hardly a peer-reviewed effort, but the work of Richard Wiseman is exploring similar areas I would argue. His “Rip it up” is a popular effort to explain the As If principle – essentially an accessible recounting of experiments that suggest that it is the body that determines the meaning of “beauty” and the brain’s role is limited to classifying it accordingly.

      Eh? Well – to summarise briefly: the body experiences certain phenomena: the heartbeat quickens, the skin becomes warmer, the sweat glands are activated. it could be love, lust, fear, panic, anger etc. The brain processes the environment and draws a conclusion based on the evidence made available: if there is a fierce lion standing directly opposite you with no bars between, the brain determines that you are frightened. If what is standing in front of you is more pleasing on the eye, your brain will presumably have to pick ‘n’ choose between love and lust. The experiments recounted in the book lend weight to the assertion that the body controls the brain rather than the brain controlling the body. It is this assertion that I think opens the door to a bright new world wherein the studies of language acquisition may well need to be re-imagined completely. Quite what we conclude is far too early to say – and is more likely to require the calibre of your intelligence rather than mine, I have to say!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

  6. I read a few articles by good folk, and the majority seemed very optimistic – expressing very much your view that it was early days, but that this was a really BIG issue, which it might well be. I think even the doubts I expressed can, in principle be overcome, but I need to do more reading – you’ve really got me at it now 🙂 I often find the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy a good place to start, and that’s where I started with EC. There’s a link here: but, obviously, we’ll have to go a bit deeper than this good summary does. Thanks very much for drawing my attention to this.

    Comment by geoffjordan | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

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