Thornbury and The Learning Body


Scott Thornbury has been talking about “The Learning Body” for a while now. You can see one version on YouTube and you can see another version at the ELTABB website. You can also read a fuller treatment in Thornbury’s chapter in the tribute to Earl Stevick: Meaningful Action   (Just BTW, it’s not a great collection.)  I base this critique on the YouTube talk.

Summary of the Talk

Thornbury starts by asserting that “Descartes got it wrong”. There is no mind/body dualism, rather “Brains are in bodies, bodies are in the world and meaningful action in these worlds is socially constructed and conducted” (Churchill et al, 2010). This devastating rebuttal of Descartes, which Thornbury (ignoring works by Locke, Hume, Derrida and others) reckons was “finally revealed” in 1994, has been ignored by those responsible for the prevailing orthodoxy in SLA, who insist that “language and language learning are a purely cognitive phenomenon.” Thornbury tells us that this orthodoxy claims that we need look no further than cognition for an explanation of SLA – other factors are not important.

Thornbury then goes on to explain that the modern view sees the brain as part of a larger set, involving the body and the world, leading to a new concept of “embodied cognition”. Without bothering with considerations of how “the mind” as a construct relates to the brain as a physical part of the body, Thornbury proceeds to look at the mind as embodied, embedded and extended.

Embodied Mind

The construct of the “embodied mind” is defined as “rooted in physical experience”. Our mind (see how hard it is, even for Thornbury, to stay away from Cartesian dualism) deals with ideas that are all related to our “physicality” as Thornbury puts it, and this applies to language and language learning. Key points here are:

  • “Language is rooted in human experience of the physical world”(Lee, 2010)
  • We adapt our language to different circumstances and different people.
  • Learning is enhanced by physical involvement.
  • Larsen-Freeman’s latest work argues that language is a dynamic emergent system.
  • Language is noted, applied and adapted in context.
  • Mirror neurons and body language are evidence for the embodied mind construct.

Embedded Mind

No definition of this construct is offered. Thornbury only says that language is embedded in context, which should come as a surprise to nobody. Thornbury refers to “ecolinguistics”, likens the learning of language to the learning of soccer by children, and reminds us that we adapt our language to different circumstances and different people.

Extended Mind

The “Extended mind” construct is nowhere even casually defined, but Scott uses the film Memento (a great film which I recommend, but which has little to do with Scott’s description or use of) to make the point that our bodies help us to remember. This is followed by a discussion of gestures, which have a big role in communication.


Not much here. Thornbury refers to the importance of our physical relationship to our students and says “Learning is discovering alignment”. This means group work, gesture, eye contact, “acting out”.


Thornbury gives this summary:

  • I think therefore I am: Wrong. Better:
  • I move therefore I am.
  • I speak therefore I move.
  • I move, therefore I learn.


Thornbury’s talk is interesting, and very well-delivered: he’s the best stand-up act in the business (sic) and his use of video clips is particularly good. But when you tot it all up, there’s almost nothing of substance, and the argument is hollow. Thornbury makes a straw man argument against research in SLA, and says nothing of much interest as to how all this “embodied” stuff might further our understanding of SLA. As to teaching, there’s absolutely no need to even mention “embodied cognition” in order to agree with all the good things he says about gestures and the rest of it. Earl Stevick was indeed concerned with holistic learning and a teaching methodology which reflected it, but I doubt he’d be impressed by this attempt to use fashionable speculations about cognitive science to back it up.

Specific Points

  1. The use of Descartes to promote an argument against current SLA research is simplistic and boringly trite. In the “Discourse on Method” Descartes was concerned with epistemology, with reliable knowledge. His famous conclusion “Cogito ergo sum” has never been falsified – how could it be! – and it’s plain silly to say that “he got it wrong”
  2. Thornbury says that SLA orthodoxy sees language learning as a purely cognitive phenomenon taking place in the mind. He’s wrong. The most productive research in SLA concentrates on cognitive aspects of SLA, but those involved in such research are quite aware that they’re focusing on just one aspect of the problem. They do so for the very good reason that scientific research gets the best results. The job of those who look at other aspects, such as those covered by sociolinguistics, is to show how their work has academic respectability, and misrepresenting the work of those who adopt a scientific methodology does nothing to enhance that job.
  3. The question of the distinction between the brain and the mind is a fundamental one. Thornbury doesn’t even mention it. .


Thornbury, following the muddled and generally incoherent arguments of Larsen Freeman, wants to say that SLA is best seen as an emerging process where, well, things emerge. And given that it all kind of emerges, ELT should help all these things, well, emerge. This is absolutely hopeless, isn’t it? Any theory of SLA must be sharper than this; any teaching methodology needs a firmer basis. There is, of course, a very interesting strand of SLA research that takes an emergentist approach, but it has little in common with Thornbury’s musings. And there are, of course, teaching methodologies based on helping learners “emerge”, although they don’t put it quite like that. Thornbury has done very little to critique SLA research, or to explain how all his “emerging” bits and pieces might help future research move in a better direction.Furthermore, nothing in his suggestions for teaching practice is new, and none of it depends on his “theoretical basis”.

Finally, let’s just have another look at this:

  • I think therefore I am: Wrong. Better:
  • I move therefore I am.
  • I speak therefore I move.
  • I move, therefore I learn.

Not exactly a syllogism, now is it? I speak therefore I move? Really?

And quite apart from being incoherent, how will it affect your understanding of SLA?  Still, at least the last sorry line might inspire you to get off your butt and revisit Asher – he of Total Physical Response.

19 thoughts on “Thornbury and The Learning Body

    1. I hope she’ll tell you Matthew. I know that Earl regarded Connie very highly, that he spent a lot of time shooting the breeze with her, that he asked for her opinion before publishing his books, that she influenced him. I think she’d say that Earl was a teacher and that he had little time for academic bullshit.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. An interesting (as ever) posting, Geoff. And not untypically harsh! It would be a bit much to expect Scott to have gone into a detailed rebuttal of Descartes in the talk. However, we can offset Descartes against…for example…the wealth of literature that has come from the psychological and neurological research that resonates with buddhist teachings. Buddhists, as I’m sure you know, have been researching into the nature of mind for centuries and it would appear that Gautama used the phrase Body-Mind to describe the interplay between both of these elements. Descartes’ error was to conclude that there must be a Self that does the thinking. Buddhists see emptiness where Descartes sees entities. There does not have to be a thinker, they say; it is enough to see that thinking is taking place.

    Regrettably, I am not yet in a position to provide clear pointers to what all of this might mean to teaching methodology – although my feeling is that it points us away from the wrong places: the individual’s cognition, the sense that it is All In The Mind. Knowing where not too look is always helpful.


    1. Hi Diarmuid,

      Thanks for this interesting (as ever!) comment. I didn’t expect Scott to go into a detailed rebuttal of Descartes, but I find it lazy to just trot out the usual post-modernist argument that those who work on psycholinguistic explanations of SLA have failed to ditch Descartes and move on.

      As for your comments, I think you give too existentialist a view of Descartes; he wasn’t really concerned with ontology, with his self and “Who am I?” questions, he was concerned with epistemology – reliable knowledge. Still, I think Scott you and I all agree that “It’s all in the mind” doesn’t represent the best take on things.


      1. Thank you for your gracious words, Geoff! I also owe you some thanks for sending me off to my unread books on embodied consciousness. Perhaps I can discipline myself to get through them.

        Your comment about Descartes being primarily concerned with epistemology rather than ontology will be kept to help me differentiate more clearly between these two – something I have long struggled with and yet now have a clearer understanding thanks to you. Yet I still regard his First Item of Knowledge as flawed. “I think, therefore I am” (which I have now learned he never actually wrote!) – this might be rendered more accurately if we adhere to buddhist teachings as “Thinking therefore being”.

        Embodied consciousness asks us the question, “But what is it that actually does the thinking?” The cognitivists would point solely to the head and tell us that it is the brain. However, scientists of the gut, of the microbiome, of the brain and of society are now pointing their fingers at a much wider range of targets. These are not just objects of perception, they tell us; they are the agents!

        If this is the case, then SLA stands peering into the brightest and most awe-inspiring abyss.


  2. I enjoyed the talk and I enjoyed reading this too. I agree about the embodiment bit needing fleshing out or chucking out but there was a lot to think about. I thought maybe it could relate to multi-sensory stimuli in input/output (yes, TPR but also perhaps a better explanation of gesture/gesticulation than learning styles has attempted to offer).


    1. Hi Marc,

      I enjoyed the talk too. And I agree that there was a lot of good stuff said about gestures, body language, and so on. But did all that good stuff really need the adornment of references to theories of embodiment and of “the extended mind”?


  3. Heidegger’s investigations, it seems to me, at least in the western tradition, into the condition of being-in-the-world remain the best effort to escape the absurdities of dualism without collapsing into denying intentionality, Merleau-Ponty’s the best application of the phenomenological tradition to the issue of the intrinsically embodied nature of what we sometimes call, for want of a better word, ‘the mind.’


    1. Hi Patrick,

      Do you get a “nice little retainer” from The Heidegger Family? 🙂 From my point of view, Heidegger has a lot to answer for – his views having been adopted by too many modern imposters working on relativist approaches to learning, all keen to use him to bash “scientism” and to escape the “positivist” paradigm. There are some who have a clear picture of what they mean by mind – Chomsky, Fodor, Chalmers, Hacking, Ziman, Sokal and Bricmont, for example. Despite some disagreements among them, they resist the new fad of talking about an extended mind and, IMO, they do so for well-argued reasons.


      1. In On Nature and Language (Chomsky, 2002) I find, following a fascinating discussion of how Newton, far from demystifying the natural world, remystified it, I find the conclusion that ‘for the natural sciences, there are mental aspects of the world, along with optical, chemical, organic, and others.’ (p53) It seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between the mental and these other aspects of the world in that, whilst the chemical and organic aspects of the world are discovered, so to speak, by the natural sciences, what we call ‘the mental’ is a precondition of there being any kind of enquiry, including scientific enquiry, about the world at all. The natural sciences presuppose a first person experiencer. We should not suppose that the nature of being a first person experiencer, of being something that it is like something to be, will be susceptible to the same kind of enquiry as the objects in which she who is something that it is like something to be finds herself. The point is difficult to make (hence the obscurantism of which Heidegger and Derrida are so often accused) but it is difficult to make because language appears to be adapted, in one way or another, for talking about the world of objects rather than for talking about the subject for whom the world of objects appears as a world of objects. So far as I understand him, Derrida seems to want to suggest that the source of the alienation from lived experience that Debord and others attribute to capitalism is to be found, rather, in language itself. The application of any of this to SLA or to teaching more generally is of course , I readily grant, hard to see.


      2. Hi Geoff

        Your posts are unfailingly thought provoking. Following this one, I’ve been wondering about the notion of extended mind. I note that, while outrageous, the doctrine of panpsychism is not without its adherents. Galen Strawson, I understand, has recently embraced it. I haven’t read Consciousness and Its Place in Nature but I greatly enjoyed Jerry Fodor’s review of it here (


    1. Great book – I read it the week it came out! But I think I’d probably be a lot more critical of it if I read it again now, Thanks for the tip.


  4. Earl .W. Stevick

    Earl was first and foremost a teacher, not a trainer. He taught students and teachers over the years to think for themselves to find their own way. Much as I hate the word he “enabled”, generations of students and teachers to explore ways to learn and to teach. He was interested in the whole person, what that person wanted to say and how they could best do so. It was all about finding the way in and once that door was opened, letting the person get on with it, well-equipped with the right tools to aid and enhance their own learning. I think, he would not have described himself as an academic, he was just as interested in the what and the how as much as the why. An early proponent of C.L.L. Community Language Learning, he aided students to say what they wanted to say, thereby building up a real dialogue and then using that to look at the language. Long before the negotiated syllabus appeared, CLL was helping students find their own voice and produce their own learning texts… as with elements of Gattengo’s Silent Way, using Cuisenaire rods to help students tell a story, with an amazing recall of the vocabulary and grammar used. It is interesting , in the light of recent comments about textbooks and their use or not in the classroom, that over 40 years ago, not one textbook was in sight. He did not propose that
    any one method was superior to another, nor that any learning strategy was more efficient than another. He talked about a way and ways…. a title of one of his books….. and suggested that successful learners used a variety of different learning devices or strategies to aid their acquisition.

    As a young teacher in the 70’s, I listened to Earl and was astounded. I enjoyed my job, cos that’s all it was, but after studying with Earl, my job became a lifelong passion… something that still thrills me and excites me today, 40 years later. He opened up for me a world where we could really teach our students how to use a second language in a way which not only made sense to them, but was meaningful, and permitted them to be who they were, regardless of the medium in which they expressed themselves. If you have never read his books, I urge you to go out , beg, borrow or steal them….. they will make you think about teaching and learning in a way that might just transform the way you approach our profession. I said at the beginning that Earl was a teacher, not a trainer, look up in any good dictionary how those words are defined and I’m sure you will agree they are worlds apart.
    If I had never met Earl, I would probably have returned to England, got a “proper job”, “settled down”, and bought a caravan !!! A thousand thanks, Earl !

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