Guest Column

Introducing the Distributed Language Group

By Paul J. Thibault

The Distributed Language Group (DLG) was inaugurated at a highly successful conference organised by Stephen Cowley (School of Psychology, University of Hertfordshire, UK) and held at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, England from 9th to 11th September 2005 ( The Cambridge conference brought together an international group of anthropologists, linguists, philosophers, computer scientists, psychologists and others who are interested in the cognitive dynamics of language. Taking an interdisciplinary perspective, the aim of the conference was to link a cognitive science focus on language dynamics with work in computational and game theoretical modelling and, specifically, symbol grounding. Given the interdisciplinary perspective of the DLG, the workshop was a further step towards the DLG's aim of breathing new life into the scientific study of language-behaviour. Stephen Cowley has edited a collection based on revised versions of the papers presented for a special edition of Language Sciences that appeared towards the end of 2006. A second meeting of the DLG was held at the University of Plymouth, England on 3-4 July 2006 ( The theme of this workshop was “external symbol grounding”, focusing on cognition as a combination of what happens in the head together with causal processes organised by historically rooted customs and artefacts.

What is Distributed Language and Cognition?: Understanding Language Dynamics and Cognition as Distributed across Body, Brain and World

In the distributed view of language, learning to talk means that infants need to discover efficient ways of coupling their behaviour (including vocalizations) with that of caregivers rather than having to ‘internalize’ a linguistic system. The study of language can accordingly be theorized in terms of dynamical models of embodied perception-action and cognition (Thelen and Smith 1994). Rather than assuming, for example, ‘intentions’ or static internal competences as a more basic level of explanation, what is important are real-time dynamics that are structured asymmetrically such that those of the infant depend, initially, on affect alone and those of the mother also depend on how she enacts her beliefs.

To pursue such issues one has to abandon the idea that a language is a determinate or closed system (Harris, 1995; Cowley, 2001; Thibault, 2004). In addition, one must recognise that nonverbal, vocal and other activity all contribute to the course of conversational events. Instead of describing dialogue in terms of structure, these forms of activity are seen as social constraints that interact with biologically-based abilities for exploiting utterance-activity. Grammatical aspects of language operate as normative constraints on how we ‘contextualize’. Many ways of contextualizing, then, depend neither on what we say nor on abstract aspects of ‘situation’: rather, they emerge as voices and bodies attune at an ‘embodiment level’ of cognition (Ballard et al, 1997). Moreover, just as this is true of adult talk, it also applies to early intersubjective behaviour and, remarkably, vocal behaviour in many species. Indeed, Owings and Morton (1998) argue that a wide range of species use vocal co-ordination as the basis for managing and assessing individuals and, equally, what is likely to happen next. To grasp the origins of semiosis, we need new ways of understanding the precursors of verbal communication (Cowley 2006; Cowley, Moodley and Fiori-Cowley, 2004;Thibault 2000, 2004, 2005).

The above considerations lead to the exploration of the following question: given that language is distributed between brain, body and world, how can it be grounded in action and perception in early infant semiosis? A developmental perspective on this question will therefore be an important focus, taking into account, for example, Tomasello’s (1999, 2003) intentionalist view of language ‘acquisition’ in contrast with the action-perception view of the emergence of language in of Cowley (1994, 2004, 2007) and Thibault (2003, 2004, 2005). The work of Clark (1997), Gibson (1966, 1979), Hutchins (1995), and others working on the distributed cognition and Bråten (1992) , Halliday (1975, 1993) on early infant semiosis is the point of departure for developing a new view of language development as being grounded in and emergent from, though not reducible to, perception and action, rather than the acquisition of a system of symbolic encodings of experience. However, rather than simply describing the developmental emergence of a language system in the child (cf. Halliday, 1975), it is important to develop an explanatory, and not merely descriptive, framework which can shed light on the distributed nature of cognition, the role of semiotic processes in this and the ways in which diverse time-scales are integrated in the infant’s semiotic-cognitive development (Lemke 2000; Thibault 2000).

In approaching the issues outlined above, cognition is seen as connecting events in the brain and body with causal processes using sociocultural practices, resources and artefacts. The aim then is to link a cognitive science focus on language dynamics with work in perception-action grounding. To pursue this question, it is important to examine and describe the ways in which embodied semiotic modalities such as vocalizations, gesture, gaze, posture, movement, facial expressions, touch, and so on directly participate in and are intrinsically part of the processes of higher order cognition and linguistic semiosis. Perception-action systems, embodied forms of sense-making, and external environments mesh in time-locked and distributed activity to yield solutions to cognitive tasks and problems and learning. The relevant questions to be investigated in the perspective of language as a distributed phenomenon on diverse time and place scales then become: (1) what is the nature of these cognitive tasks?; (2) how are they distributed across diverse space-time scales involving brain, body and world?; (3) how do embodied multimodal forms of interaction organise the cognitive landscape and in so doing integrate processes on a diversity of timescales?; and (5) how does the emergence of distributed language both within and across settings serve to highlight both intra- and inter-cultural variability in relation to the semiotic modalities used and the diverse space-time scales involved?

The work of researchers such as Clark, Gibson, Hutchins, and others has highlighted the importance of the external environment – the world beyond the body – including language, now seen as an externally grounded cognitive-semiotic resource, rather than an internal encoding of mental representations. The investigation of language dynamics as a distributed phenemonon seeks to extend and further develop this idea. It will seek to investigate how language and other embodied semiotic resources and perceptual modalities both enact and develop higher cognitive processes in and though forms of inter-individual, interpersonally coordinated meaning-making activity that are grounded in embodied perception-action systems in multi-agent multimodal interaction in the course of prelinguistic and early linguistic development, rather than being confined within the head of the individual. The centrality of emotion displays, feeling states of the body and value-systems is also highlighted.

Fine-grained empirically based multimodal interaction analysis is therefore important in order to investigate how higher cognitive processes are constructed in and through inter-individual patterns of multi-agent and embodied multimodal interaction. Some relevant questions that warrant investigation are: What is the role of embodied multimodal meaning-making in the creation of external representations that guide activity and awareness in various tasks and social practices? How do these resources function to select, connect and focus on cognitively salient aspects of the environment? How do interpersonally coordinated patterns of bodily activity enable agents to lock into environmental tasks, organise them, segment them into separate components, link their different parts into larger wholes, conceptualise them, and enable complex computational tasks to be handled as socially distributed and embodied ones (instead of individually internal and abstract mental ones) whereby the external world is harnessed and coordinated in and through inter-individual activity with embodied sense-making and perception in order to solve cognitive and computational tasks and problems.

The Symposium to be Held at Grimstad, Norway: Language Dynamics and the Phenomenology of Individual Experience

This Symposium aims to bring together researchers who are studying the cognitive dynamics of language as a distributed phenomenon that connects body, brain and world. The Symposium builds on the previous meeting of the Distributed language Group (DLG) at Cambridge, UK in September 2005 and at Plymouth, UK in July 2006. Participants who share the interdisciplinary perspectives of the DLG view language and cognition as connecting events in the brain and body with causal processes involving cultural activities and artefacts on multiple space and time scales beyond individual bodies and brains. The DLG takes the view that thinking about language and cognitive dynamics is better informed by this perspective, rather than being confined to processes that occur in the head of the individual. This leads us to view human phenomenology as an emergent and distributed process that draws on culturally embedded, embodied causal processes that use many different space-time scales. In its most dramatic form. it is associated with silently rehearsing ideas (thinking to oneself).

The theme of the Symposium to be held in May 2007 is “Language dynamics, and the phenomenology of individual experience”. Participants will debate the following: (i) how does our phenomenal experience of language derive from the cultural practices in which individuals participate; (ii) what role do language and other modalities of communication play in focusing consciousness from the unique embodied perspective of individuals against the cultural ‘background’ mentioned above; and (iii) in what ways is the phenomenology of subjective experience an emergent and distributed process dependent on causal processes operating over many different space-time scales in a given cultural system?

The scientific agenda of the Symposium is summed up in the following questions:

1. Can a distributed perspective on language clarify the nature of silent rehearsal?

2. In what ways does human phenomenology depend on linguistic experience?

3. How does the phenomenal-linguistic aspect of experience emerge in both evolution and development?

Mainly invited papers will address these issues (see below for Programme). Speakers will address and debate the Symposium theme from a range of disciplinary perspectives, including cognitive science, discourse analysis, linguistics, neurobiology, philosophy, psychology, robotics, and semiotics.

Taking an interdisciplinary perspective, the Symposium aims to link a cognitive science focus on language dynamics with work in: (i) the psychology and phenomenology of consciousness; (ii) language as a means of achieving consciousness in interpersonally coordinated, semiotically mediated activity; (iii) the embodied basis of cognition and social semiosis; and (iv) the socially and culturally situated nature of cognition.

During the Symposium to take place at Grimstad in May 2007, we seek to debate these issues before turning to how language is grounded in perception and action at a larger event planned for 2008. For the verbal aspect of language to be grounded –for us to come to believe in it –we must be able to separate it from the expressive aspect and be able to recognise that, in some contexts, for some functions, it is paramount. How does this happen? And, having done this, how does it become a shaping force – an enabling and constraining one – in what we do?

Participation and Inquiries

We have at this stage a limited number of places for listeners who would like to participate in the discussion. Ph.D. students are especially encouraged. All inquiries concerning participation and registration should be sent to Professor Paul J. Thibault, who is the main organizer of the symposium.

Paul J. Thibault (Faculty of Humanities, Agder University College, Kristiansand, Norway):



Thursday, 10th May

09.00 – 10.45

Arrival of participants

10.45 – 11.00


Per Linell (Department of Culture and Communication, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden)


Paul Thibault (Faculty of Humanities, Agder University College, Kristiansand, Norway)

11.00 – 12.00

Stephen Cowley, School of Psychology, University of Hertfordshire, UKThe magic of wordings

12.00 – 13.30


14.00 – 15.00

Derek Melser, Independent scholar, New Zealand Components of the thinking skill

15.00 – 16.00

Bert Hodges, Department of Psychology, Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts, USA Why metapragmatics isn’t

16.00 – 17.00

Peter Jones, Media and Communication, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK 'External speech' and 'inner speech' in Vygotsky: a critical appraisal and fresh perspectives'

17.00 – 17.30

Coffee/tea break

17.30 – 18.30

Nigel Love, Department of Linguistics, University of Cape Town, 7701 Rondebosch, South Africa Language and linguistic culture

18.30 – 19.00

Discussion: Per Linell



Friday, 11th May

09.00 – 10.00

Lois Holzman, East Side Institute for Group & Short Term Psychotherapy, New York NY, USA How Much of a Loss is the Loss of Self?: Understanding Vygotsky from a Social Therapeutic Perspective and Vice Versa

10.00 – 11.00

Robert Clowes, Department of Informatics and Centre for Research in Cognitive Science, University of Sussex, UK Transparency and agency in inner speech

11.00 – 11.30

Coffee/tea break

11.30 – 12.30

Richard Hirsch, Department of Culture and Communication, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden Courses of Development in Dialogue and Human Phenomenology

12.30 – 14.00


14.00 – 15.00

Lynne Cameron, Centre for Language and Communication, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK Metaphor in language dynamics: The symbolisation of simple physical actions

15.00 – 15.30

Jayne Mutiga, Department of Linguistics and Languages, University of Nairobi, Kenya Effects of Language Spread to a Peoples’ Phenomenology: The Case of Sheng’ in Kenya

15.30 – 16.00

Güler Ülkü, Department of Foreign Languages Education, Gazi Faculty of Education, Gazi University, Ankara, Turkey Under Whose Control is the Representation of Reality?: From Meaning Negotiation to Consensus

16.00 – 16.30

Coffee/tea break

16.30 – 17.30

Barbara Johnstone, Department of English, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, USA Experiencing Pittsburgh Speech: Local Identities, Indexical Layering, and the Linguistic Individual

17.30 – 18.30

Jay Lemke, School of Education, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA Towards a Phenomenology of Transmedia Meaning Effects

18.30 – 19.00

Discussion: Per Linell



Saturday, 12th May

09.00 – 10.00

Stein Bråten, Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo, Norway Participant Perception of Speech: Virtual Otherness in Conversation Partners and Infant Learners

10.00 – 11.00

Peter Naur, DIKU Datalogisk Institut, University of Copenhagen, Denmark The neural embodiment of the speech activity by the synapse-state theory

11.00 – 11.30

Coffee/tea break

11.30 – 12.00

Jesper Hermann, Department of General and Applied Linguistics, University of Copenhagen, Denmark “The word ’language’ as distracting us from ' what is really going on' ”

12.00 – 12.30

Ivar Ørstavik, The Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway How programming language influences interaction and culture

12.30 – 14.00


14.00 – 15.00

Tom Ziemke, School of Humanities & Informatics, University of Skovde, Sweden On the Role of Emotion in Embodied Cognition

15.00 – 16.00

Jordan Zlatev, Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University, Lund, Sweden From proto-mimesis to language: evidence from primatology and social neuroscience

|6.00 – 16.30

Coffee/tea + Final discussion: Peter Jones and Paul Thibault