Thursday, April 5, 2012

Atkinson (2010) Extended, Embodied Cognition and Second Language Acquisition


Atkinson's paper in 2010 is a very informative introduction to the ideas of extended cognition (see externalism) and embodied cogniton for applied linguists and one of the pioneer studies of SLA, which currently is categorized (perhaps too humbly) as one of the "alternative" approaches.

Dwight Atkinson
Extended, Embodied Cognition and Second Language Acquisition
Applied Linguistics (2010) 31 (5): 599-622.
doi: 10.1093/applin/amq009

A cognitivist approach to cognition has traditionally dominated second language acquisition (SLA) studies. In this article, I examine two alternative approaches - extended cognition and embodied cognition - for how they might help us conceptualize SLA. More specifically, I present: (i) summaries of extended and embodied cognition, followed by reasons why the two can be treated as a single, synthetic perspective; (ii) an approach to SLA grounded in an extended, embodied view of cognition - i.e. a sociocognitive approach - in three principles; and (iii) a naturally occurring example of extended, embodied cognition-for-SLA.

Atkinson regards extended cognition and embodied cognition as mutually related "because bodies link minds to the world -- we experience, understand, and act on the world through the bodies." (Atkinson, 2010 p. 1). These two perspectives, which have entered the cognitive science mainstream, are synthesized and constitute what he calls a sociocognitive approach.

In introducing extended cognition and embodied cognition, Atkinson calls our attention to seminal papers such as Clark and Chalmers (1998) and Barsalou (2008).

Below is the introduction of Clark and Chalmers (1998). (You can also use Google Scholar).

Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin? The question invites two standard replies. Some accept the boundaries of skin and skull, and say that what is outside the body is outside the mind. Others are impressed by arguments suggesting that the meaning of our words 'just ain't in the head', and hold that this externalism about meaning carries over into an externalism abou mind. We propose to pursue a third position. We advocate a very different sort of externalism: an active externalism, based on the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes.

And here is the abstract of Barsalou (2008).

Grounded cognition rejects traditional views that cognition is computation on amodal symbols in a modular system, independent of the brain's modal systems for perception, action, and introspection. Instead, grounded cognition proposes that modal simulations, bodily states, and situated action underlie cognition. Accumulating behavioral and neural evidence supporting this view is reviewed from research on perception, memory, knowledge, language, thought, social cognition, and development. Theories of grounded cognition are also reviewed, as are origins of the area and common misperceptions of it. Theoretical, empirical, and methodological issues are raised whose future treatment is likely to affect the growth and impact of grounded cognition.


The next section of Atkinson's paper is his sociocognitive exploration into SLA. At the beginning of the section he states:

Extended, embodied perspectives on cognition have entered the cognitive science mainstream, but are just beginning to influence SLA studies. I try to promote their development here, working within a sociocognitive approach to SLA (Atkinson 2002; Atkinson et al. 2007; Churchill et al. 2010). Specifically, I introduce three SLA principles based on extended, embodied cognition: (1) The Inseparability Principle: Mind, body, and world work together in learning/ SLA; (2) The Learning-is-adaptive Principle: Learning/SLA facilitates survival and prosperity in complex environments; and (3) The Alignment Principle: A major engine of learning/SLA is alignment -- the means by which we effect interaction.

Let's see more about what Atkinson says regarding the three principles and their implications for SLA.

(1) The Inseparability Principle and SLA

This section is very persuasive with four versions of the same picture and readers will be entertained by the way Atkinson argues for the inseparability of the mind-body-world. Regarding learning, he argues that the inseparability principle suggests that:

(i) Learning is more discovering how to align with the world than extracting knowledge from it (Ingold 2000); and (ii) By being environmentally embedded, knowledge/cognition is made public and thereby learnable (Goodwin 2003).

These are indeed very good suggestions to classroom researchers (reflective teachers of course included) for observing learners, although many learners in formal school settings are deprived of affordances that the real world or the authentic learning environment offers. It may be imperative for teachers to take a second look at the classroom and re-design it so that learners' minds can better be coordinated with their bodies and worlds. Teaching goes beyond the teacher and is extended into the time-space of the classroom.

(2) The Learning-is-adaptive principle and SLA

This principle, according to Atkinson (2010, p. 611), has four implications: (1) Learning/SLA is relational [to the environment/social practices]; (2) Learning/SLA is experiential, participatory, and guided; (3) Lerning/SLA is public; (4) Learning/SLA is aligning, and learning to align.

Japanese teachrs may easily recall how a very formal, controlled and boring classroom looks like. In there, learners are isolated from each other and what surrounds them. Stone-headed administrators may say "Learners are to just sit silently to study, and no talk or distraction!" [negation of (1)], "Learning must be exactly planned and controlled, and no unexpected events in the class!" [negation of (2)], or "Think how you answer in the entrance examination. All you have is private mind. Learning should take place just in the head!" [negation of (3)].

(3) The alignment principle and SLA

For the definition of alignment, Atkinson quotes one of his earlier works: 'the complex means by which human beings effect coordinated interaction, and maintain that interaction in dynbamically adaptive ways' (Atkinson et al. 2007, p. 169). I should probably read this Atkinson et al. (2007) first and summarize its argument in another post later.

Overall, Atkinson concludes about sociocognitive approach.

Ultimately, sociocognitive approaches to SLA are based on this tripartite premise: (i) Mind, body, and world are in continuous processes of interactive alignment; (ii) These processes are partly public; and (iii) In being public, they are
learnable. Thus, if cognition is the site of learning, it is extended, embodied cognition that makes learning possible, at least in part.

Learning (or at least some part of it) takes place in the alignment of the mind, body and world, and as it is exteded and embodied it is public, that is shared with others. Neural networking within the skull is essential in learning, but that is not the end of the story. Rather the brain activities are the basis of learning, upon which the Mind-in-the-Body-in-the-World interact and align with each other. (After all, Heidegger was right when he used the term In-der-Welt-sein or Being-in-the-World.)

You may say that the implications and suggestions sociocognitive approach offers are just commonsensial and what good teachers know. Maybe. But the important point is that these have been mostly negated by the cognitivism (See Atkinson's Introduction of Alternative Approaches to SLA.)

Cognitivism is still reagarded as the "mainstream" by many in applied linguistics. I wonder whether it should be better regarded as "ancien regime" which should be carefully preserved in the good spirit of conservativism, but not be advanced any longer. For the reflective teacher-researcher, at least, the sociocognitive approach is one of the mainstreams, not one of the 'alternatives'.


Atkinson, D. 2002. ‘Toward a sociocognitive approach to second language acquisition,’Modern Language Journal 86: 525-45.

Atkinson, D., E. Churchill, T. Nishino, and H. Okada. 2007. ‘Alignment and interaction in a sociocognitive approach to second language acquisition,’ Modern Language Journal 91: 169-88.

Churchill, E., T. Nishino, H. Okada, and D. Atkinson. 2010. ‘Symbiotic gesture and the sociocognitive visibility of grammar,’ Modern Language Journal 94: 2.

Barselou, L. 2008. ‘Grounded cognition,’ Annual Review of Psychology 59: 617-45.

Clark, A. and D. Chalmers. 1998. ‘The extended mind,’ Analysis 58: 7-19.

Goodwin, C. 2003. ‘The body in action’in Coupland J. and R. Gwin (eds): Discourse, the Body, and Identity. Palgrave-MacMillan.

Ingold, T. 2000. Perception of the Environment. Routledge.

1 comment:

Yosuke YANASE said...

With his kind permission, I paste Dwight Atkinson's personal email here.


I looked at your summary of my 2010 article and it looks good. One thing I'm thinking about these days though is how alignment can take place even in seemingly unpromising circumstances, like some (e.g. grammar-focused) ESL/EFL classrooms. I guess it depends on the engagement of the learner (as I talked about it at the end of the paper, and I think when I intro'ed the second sociocognitive principle too. Some people can be highly engaged in studying grammar. They might see it or experience it as an elaborate game--a kind of puzzle, or what not. Others might identify strongly with the teacher--even be in love with him or her (you know, in the true Platonic sense of course!). Or they might be super competitive on exams and so engaged/motivated/invested (or whatever you want to call it) in that sense. I think all of these could lead to a kind of engagement and alignment with the teacher and/or learning task. I guess we see this in the data in our 2007 article and the 2010 article too. Ako and Tomo are highly engaged/aligned, even if the topic is deadly dull (but some people's judgments, at least) grammar. At any rate, I'm not disagreeing with your point about boring EFL classrooms in Japan (and elsewhere--I could tell you what I've seen in India, for instance, and it might shock you). In fact, I agree--engaging classrooms and teacher should (and do) promote language learning. It's just that I think what is engaging is in the eyes of the beholder--one person's deadly boring thing may be another person's most exciting thing.

That's one thing I'm thinking these days, anyway.