Circa 2018. A close colleague and friend announced that he wanted to go on a strict exercise and diet regime. Recent tests had revealed that several of his body vitals were borderline deranged. He preferred lifestyle changes to medication. Apart from rigorous walking, disciplined food habits, and yoga, he wanted to also do freestyle exercise and dancing. “Great idea,” I thought, “I could also join in for that!”
And so, we decided to take the plunge together. In our very first workout session, we diligently selected a YouTube channel for freestyle dancing and were all set to begin! Bang came the first instruction, “Put your right foot forward!” Metaphorical implications aside, it was a straightforward instruction. I followed it verbatim. Only to notice that my colleague had moved backward instead of forward. I looked to my side. I realized he had taken a step back with his left foot instead of taking a step forward with his right. “Well, the result is the same – right foot ahead, left foot behind.”, he quipped when I burst into peals of laughter.
What was going on?
Both of us had heard the same words in the same sequence in the same language from the same source. And yet, our minds had processed the information differently. And so, the actions we executed were different too.
And this is where today’s book comes in!
How our mind makes meaning is what Benjamin Bergen talks about in this nutcracker of a book ‘Louder than Words’. In the very opening chapter, Bergen boldly declares that making meaning from language is what sets us apart from other species and hence “to understand how meaning works, then, is to understand part of what it is to be human.” (p.3)
What the book introduces, elaborates and synthesizes, through eloquently developed argumentation and hypothesis, is a very powerful discovery for any language or communication educator – we do not make meaning of language by looking at the dictionary or reading definitions. Meaning is made by the mind and the body.
How does meaning-making work in the mind and body? It happens through embodied simulation, that is, “…we understand language by simulating in our minds what it would be to experience the things that language describes.” (p.13)
And this embodied simulation is dynamic – our mind generates images frequently and often, discards images, and replaces them with new ones as it receives new information. The process of simulation is as powerful in making meaning as the outcome. What’s more! These motor and perceptual simulation processes are triggered not just when understanding concrete language like the dance instructor in the YouTube video but also abstract concepts like, let’s say a TED talk about how language learning is a transformational experience.
What does this mean for language and communication trainers?
For starters, it flips the whole paradigm of viewing language learning as simply a transfer of codes on its head. Human communication engages the mind and body in far deeper ways than mere decoding of language elements or form. And if that is the case, then does knowledge transfer or a set of dos and don’ts help achieve the learning objectives of a language or communication course or training?
And that is not all. The book goes on to state, through the results of several scientific experiments, that this embodied simulation is different for individuals, that is, those with different life experiences and cognitive styles understand language differently. (Think again of my friend moving his left foot backward when the instruction on the video was to put the right foot ahead!) And if you haven’t guessed already, people from different cultures, who speak different languages and those with different worldviews would process meaning differently because the simulations their minds produce would be different.
And this is why language learning is difficult – it involves having to reshape mental images and life experiences with newer ones. This is also why intercultural communication is difficult. To quote the author, “When two people’s backgrounds are different, whether it is within or across cultures, the words they use will evoke different embodied simulations in their respective minds, and, to the extent that the task they’re using language for relies on the details of those embodied simulations, then communication will be impaired.” (p. 192) And that is also why, if done right, language learning or intercultural education can be the most life-changing, rewarding experience.
This book will be an eye-opener if you are a language teacher or a communication trainer in an academic or corporate organization. There is a lot to learn from this book – I was brimming with ideas about how to think of activities in a classroom, for example. Viewing an understanding of language through the lens of visual and sensory processing will go a long way in making our training more effective and meaningful for our audiences.
Ishita Ray is a Facilitator and Trainer in the field of Business and Intercultural Communication and Design Thinking. She has formerly worked at academic and corporate organisations where she has developed learning content, designed curriculum and strategy and conceptualized end-to-end learning programs.
Now an independent learning professional, she collaborates with corporate and educational institutions in India and across the globe to develop learning resources and curricula, conduct large-scale train-the-trainer programs, and present at international forums.