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What's behind movement and language?

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

or Why a historical linguistic debate can change the way we move?

The Learning Process

The Skinner - Chomsky debate is one of the most famous intellectual debates of our times. It is based on a very simple but meaningful question.

'Is Language learned from zero or is it also based on an inherent born pattern?'

To consider Movement as language is a powerful metaphor. Although the accuracy of this metaphor is not absolute. In Neurological research, sign language has proven to neurologically function almost exactly the same as the brain activity in spoken languages, other physical activities haven't. In other words, different areas are being activated when we engage in conversation than when we engage in physical activity. Type of activity, fluency of skill and intention can probably change this equation quite significantly, but the general picture is that movement and language work a bit differently inside the brain.

I do believe though, that the learning process of language has a lot in common with the learning process of movement languages.

If you think about it, expressive movement is learnt in a similar pattern of expression to the way languages are being learnt. Small pieces that lead to more compound ideas that lead to the complexity of autonomous creation or deconstruction. And all of those are being contextualized into specificity. China, Hungary, Egypt and Nigeria all have languages that follow this learning process but sound very different. Karate, Volleyball, Yoga and Gymnastics are also all learnt in somewhat of similar breakdown, but the result is also very different. And despite the similarity in the structure of learning, speaking Hungarian doesn't influence the ability to speak Chinese and practicing Yoga doesn't have a direct translation to Volleyball technique.

But when we examine more carefully, we discover things are more nuanced and varied.

What if there is a central similarity hidden behind sound and form?

I propose that we overlook something that I call 'Inherent desire to express'.

A French philosophy professor will most likely not understand much if they sit in a philosophy lecture in Japanese, just like a world champion boxer would most likely have a hard time to translate their skills into learning a Ballet variation from the nutcracker.

UNLESS there is a genuine and 'personal' interest to look for connections between the different languages. Interest is a slippery term, we could think of it as a mix of liking something, being curious about something and being physically 'pulled' towards something. It is a common understanding that interest needs to appear (at some point) in the relationship that is being created between the learner and the content. And this interest is the key to finding connections between languages.

The 'interested' French professor might identify similar tones, emotional content and terms that have similar intentions in their own language but a different sound in Japanese. They might recognize names they learnt in their own language and make up some of the context they hear around them.

The boxer might realize that certain coordinations and moves need only to change their goal in order to fit the new context. They might learn that the use of certain familiar mechanics can be 'tuned' from fighting to dancing.

It is not difficult to conclude that interest is what separates those who see connections and those who don't but what does it teach us about languages and movement languages?

What if no language/movement language is 'universal' but all languages respond to similar human needs of expression?

Nurture and Nature

So what can explain it? Probably many things, depends on the professional lens that we use. This topic crosses too many disciplines and scientific fields so any attempt will be lacking at best and misleading at worst. But, I can try to share my perspective as an artist and teacher of various movement disciplines for over 15 years.

First, we must make a jump and agree that there is an interesting overlap between the universal need to express language and the universal need for movement. In both cases, this 'need' finds its form through the available access and stimuli, but its possible development goes much further than its supportive or limiting surroundings.

While in language this proposition is not revolutionary, in movement it can reveal something that is often overlooked.

Of course, 'movement language' is a concept that exists and is used through a variety of places. But I think that it is rarely or never exploited to its full potential.

Let's reframe then:

Movement is based on a universal human necessity to express. The need to use language is universal but there isn't a universal language as the language changes in different times and places. Likewise, the need for movement is universal but it develops differently in different contexts. On a personal level it means that we all possess a combination of the universal INTENTION to express confronted and supported by the personal circumstances of physiological makeup and life experience. The catch here is to consider the 'Inherent desire to express' as universal, it is given that a person will want to express themself, the tools of choice are circumstantial, and not vice versa.

In 1957 B.F. Skinner published 'Verbal Behaviour' a book which explains language and its learning process through the lens of behaviorist psychology. In this book, Skinner lays out the theory that when babies come into this world they are clean slates or 'tabula rasa' and they learn how to communicate with fellow human beings through failures and rewards. The baby has a desire - to eat, to drink or to describe a feeling. When it succeeds in the communicative act it is being 'rewarded' with understanding and satisfaction of the desire. If not, it continues trying until the function is successful.

Let's say the baby wants to eat a pear, it tries different combinations of sounds, once it hits the right one, their satisfied mother brings him a delicious pear and the communicative act of asking for pears has been learnt. This theory has dominated the theoretical foundations of learning until the 60's and many of our modern-day public education systems are based on this book and Skinner's behaviorist approach to learning.

In 1959 Noam Chomsky wrote a review to Skinner's book that changed how the world thought about language. Chomsky claimed that the speed and complexity that kids achieve in such a short time cannot be explained exclusively by trial and error and that it must be based on certain inherent tendencies which influence and interact with the trial and error that the child is going through. Chomsky wrote that despite the significant differences between the different languages of the world, almost all babies will learn how to communicate. This led him to propose the idea of Universal Grammar that is used to a certain level in all the languages in the world and is based on a genetic component.

Chomsky's work gained popularity and Skinner's refusal to participate in a debate eventually gave Chomsky's proposition the upper hand.

In my short research I've learnt that it is sometimes seen as a debate between the two sides of the 'Nature vs. Nurture' eternal question Where Chomsky represents Nature and Skinner represents Nurture.

In my opinion this is not precise, after reading Chomsky's review I didn't find criticism for the idea that language is learnt through stimulus but it is more towards Skinner's approach that language is EXCLUSIVELY learnt through stimulus. I interpret Chomsky's approach as an expression of awe towards the great achievements of language through both learning and inheritance and not a neglect of the stimulus.

Chomsky pushed the idea that the human language is a mixture of nature and nurture and not exclusively one or the other. Therefore, the existence of pre-existing potential and pattern is always in the background of any learning process.

Moving from past to present

How does all of this connect to movement?

Think about your experience of learning different ways of moving. Both as a child and as an adult.

In both, it is common to start learning through the classic 'monkey see monkey do'. This approach is based on the idea that when someone comes to learn anything movement - oriented (may it be sports, martial arts, dance or any other example), They have a desire to perform some actions and that through imitating an experienced teacher the learning process will take place. This method respects the thesis that movement needs to be experienced and feedbacked sensually just like language needs a good amount of external stimulus.

I think that the method of imitation is necessary, but nature plays another role underneath. The way we perceive the movement that we experience is also a consequence of our genetic and biological makeup. And this makeup is attracted towards communication and creation of human connections. Some of these have already been fulfilled in our lives but some haven't, depending on the individual and where they come from. This understanding affects the movements that we learn and succeed to express ourselves through. For some people these movements will be just alternative expressions and for others necessary ones.

If my necessity to express force or beauty is already being satisfied by language I might not feel a strong urge to dance flamenco. If for whatever reason I don't engage often in deep conversations I might learn Wrestling or Ballroom-Dance or Capoeira as if I was born to communicate in those forms. Examples are endless like people, languages and movement languages... But can we extract a principle here?

If I think about strict learning modalities, words like talent, focus and motivation come to my mind. If person X and person Y experienced the same movement, why are the results different? According to Skinner one of the two doesn't desire the movement enough or doesn't experience enough stimuli.

As I laid out before, the biological necessity and potential for expression in movement also plays a big part. So within the 'right' circumstances of development anyone can become extremely expressive.

And who is extremely expressive in language? Not necessarily the one knowing the largest number of words. Think of Poets, Rappers, Negotiators, Therapists, Salespeople, Storytellers, etc. Despite the need of learnt vocabulary in all of those activities, memorizing a dictionary will not create the necessary experience of becoming any of them.

Each has their own expanded capacity of expression based on the connections they make, and most likely, they need to LIKE their choice of using the language and making connections. Metaphorically, becoming expressive is inherent patterns and desire sailing through the endless ocean of learning.

Or as my Yoga Teacher Shimon Ben Avi used to say "You can bring the horse to the water, but you can't make it drink", if we remember that we need expression just like horses need water for their lives, this phrase underlines my point perfectly.

The intention to express

So where is the difference? If movement is an expression, why is it needed if we already have language?

Simply put, I believe that the potential to express is greater than the tools available to fulfill it. Movement can help us say what we can't say with words and vice versa. It just depends on finding the 'right' movement.

This understanding is very acceptable in artistic fields but less accepted in more 'concrete' or competitive circles. I don't think that the need for expression should necessarily replace other reasons for moving. I just think that is often neglected. Keeping in mind that it is not only connected to exposure but also to natural inherent patterns is a reminder that this potential is always there and can always be tapped into. I like to think that our inherent nature can pull us towards the circumstances that are right for us if we respect it. Just like all kids will learn their mother tongue but only some will also learn a second language or a musical instrument or painting. And in that sense every 'movement' is language that can become a personal art. If the intention is there, personal variations are endless.

Both language and movement should constantly be re-learned and help us to continue defining ourselves in relation to what we received at birth and what we determine and consequently expose ourselves to until our death.

Maybe instead of asking ourselves "What am I good at?" When thinking about movement we should try asking "What do I want to express?".

Asking this before a practice session, before going to the gym, before a rehearsal, before climbing a mountain, before a competition or before going for a walk in the forest.

Maybe this small shift of intention can bring us another way to connect the personal reasons with the universal ones. And isn't this connection the coherence we all are intimately looking for?

The Reason I Jump

After all this, how can we benefit from understanding that there is also an inherent underlying pattern?

The book 'The Reason I Jump' highlights this point. It follows Naoki Higashida who was diagnosed with severe autism when he was five. Higashida learned to communicate using a personal alphabet grid, handmade by his mother. He began to write, moving between poems, meditations and short stories. In his writings he expresses a very wide and deep understanding of human relationships and social complexity. This proves that people with autism are lacking the tools and not the capacity for all human emotions and intelligence that non-autistic people have. The focus on the 'forms' led to years of thinking that autism means inferior communication skills which is just not true. In reality, there is just a difference in the tools of expression that are accessible to different humans. This was revealed through the compassionate and patient search of Higashida's mother. People who read his stories never could imagine they were written by a 'non-verbal autistic writer' because of their complexity and grace. The book 'The Reason I jump' is a memoir that explains articulately and verbally all that was priorly unexplained about autistic behaviors, frustrations and perspectives. It is a beautiful and moving example of how the search for the right expression prevails insisting on a single expression. If Higashida's internal world would be examined through his 'normal' communication skills, we would never know how rich it is. The effort to find the special way in which he can express fluently revealed depth, wisdom, and empathy.

Just like that, when we teach and learn to express ourselves, we must remember that we need to patiently and compassionately look for the right language and the right movement.

Simply put, if we admit that our drive to learn and express are universal patterns, we can clearly see that underneath the forms we humans, are much more similar than different.

“The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you've gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can talk with him?” (Zuhangzi)


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