Language Within and Beyond the Brain

Photo by Darrel Und on

As I was preparing for a session I was facilitating recently, I went down a rabbit hole on language use and cognition. I know saying “went down the rabbit hole” typically bears a negative connotation, but I gotta say, I love me some getting lost in meandering exploratory nerdy byalleyways. While rabbit holes may oft lead nowhere but to wasteful skimming of social news feeds, I believe that they can also lead to fortuitous and deeper connections that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.

Case in point: whilst engaged in aforementioned spelunking, I discovered an absolutely wonderful paper synthesizing various theories of language, and I say wonderful because it manages to thread together varying theoretical perspectives from a stance of learning and curiosity, rather than pitting them against one another, as is so often the case. The paper is Essentials of a Theory of Language Cognition by Nick Ellis, and while it may be heady and academic, there’s something playful, even poetic, in the author’s use of language (so meta! (just realized I can’t even say meta anymore without the looming paratextual reference of Meta – ugh)).

By example, here’s a couple of gems:

“Language and usage are like the shoreline and the sea. Usage affects learning and it affects languages too. So, our understanding of language learning requires the detailed investigation of usage, its content, its participants, and its contexts—the micro level of human social action, interaction, and conversation; the meso level of sociocultural and educational institutions and communities; and the macro level of ideological structures.”

“Language is the quintessence of distributed cognition. Language is ever situated, either in the moment and the concrete context or by various means of mental extension to reflect prior or imaginary moments.”

Dear reader, you may or may not be aware that I have another (not updated any more) blog entitled, Schools & Ecosystems, wherein I geeked out about complex adaptive systems and how ecological concepts relate to the physical and social environment of schools. So you can imagine my nerdy delight when I discovered a connection in this paper between complex adaptive systems thinking and LANGUAGE! Oh my. It was like two previously schizophrenically disparate selves suddenly merged into one.

Here’s a couple of quotes regarding language as a complex adaptive system:

Language as a CAS [complex adaptive system] involves the following key features: The system consists of multiple agents (the speakers in the speech community) interacting with one another. The system is adaptive; that is, speakers’ behavior is based on their past interactions, and current and past interactions together feed forward into future behavior.

De Bot, Lowie, and Verspoor (DBL&V) present a persuasive case for language as a complex dynamic system where cognitive, social, and environmental factors continuously interact, where creative communicative behaviors emerge from socially co-regulated interactions, where there is little by way of linguistic universals as a starting point in the mind of ab initio language learners or discernable end state, where flux and individual variation abound, where cause-effect relationships are nonlinear, multivariate and interactive, and where language is not a collection of rules and target forms to be acquired, but rather a by-product of communicative processes.

In a previous post, we looked at some interesting findings from neuroscience that suggested language in the brain is mostly associated with parts for communication, rather than thinking. So this idea of language as a complex adaptive system that emerges based on social use within a particular community makes quite a bit of sense.

One of the other things that jumped out at me as a theme emerging from these various theories of language was the idea of language as an ecology: something dynamic and situated within a particular time, place, and community of relationships. It’s a beautiful — and more accurate — way to think of language that allows us to acknowledge the unique language ecologies we can each have as individuals and as members of communities — most especially for multilinguals who bring a rich repertoire of linguistic experiences and cultural knowledge.

This paper is also a wonderful companion to Annie Murphy Paul’s book, The Extended Mind, which isn’t focused on language per se, but connects to many of the theories in this paper and also has some Easter eggs for language focused nerds, such as an exploration of the use of gestures as a precursor and accelerator of language.

Not to get even more geekier than I already have in this post, but I’ve been exploring an open source annotating software called Hypothesis and used it to annotate up the Ellis paper (an exercise in paratextual language and mind extension; meta, dude). Feel free to join me by commenting on my annotations and highlights or adding in your own!

Somehow I had not stumbled across “usage-based” linguistic research or theory previously, so I’m excited to dig more into this realm. Seems like it has a lot to offer, especially as the reading research crowd begins to unpack more the language connection to reading (importance of phonology, morphology, incidental learning, statistical learning, etc).

By manderson

I live in NYC.

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