25 June 2018

Correct grammar is important, but not as important as making oneself understood. And we make ourselves understood much better than we think, by using our bodies, according to linguistics professor Leelo Keevallik.

Body language Photo credit: Izabela HaburProfessor Keevallik gets up and closes the window of her office, so the noise from the construction site outside won’t disturb our conversation. She may study how people make themselves understood, using language and the body, but in this situation, body language alone won’t work.

“Spoken language on its own doesn’t work either. It’s very rare that people use only spoken language”, she says.
Leelo Keevallik recently published an opinion piece in the journal “Research on Language and Social Interaction”, where she argues that the traditional way of looking at grammar has to change, and that grammar and language are woven together with body movements in interaction.

Dancing Photo credit: Iakov Filimonov (JackF)“We learn language so we can communicate with those around us. I argue that the real language is found in relation to situations and to other people. Language would have no meaning if no one was listening”, she says.

So the spoken language would not be intelligible if it wasn’t backed up by our body language and if it didn’t consider context. Furthermore, there must be interplay between people, and we interpret each others’ actions based on their exact timing.

What is a language?

Linguistics is strongly polarised between two camps. One camp believes that language is primarily a complex structure in the brain. The other sees language mainly as a communicative tool, and that it evolves together with society.

Leelo Keevallik is firmly positioned in the second camp.

“There are lots of theories that language is structured in the brain. People often argue that the important thing is the individual language that exists in our brains, almost like computer programming or algorithms. The alternative theory focusses on the structure that exists between speakers, as a result of the fact that we always relate to each other. For example, we use certain grammatical forms to answer a question, and others to ask someone to do something. For me, language is real when it is grounded in a relationship. If we were alone, we wouldn’t need language.”

As a linguistics researcher, writing opinion pieces isn’t something you often do, which is exactly why Leelo Keevallik enjoyed doing it.

“I rarely get the chance to be provocative.”

But Leelo Keevallik has not always studied language from her current perspective. When she started her training in her native Tartu, Estonia, the individual was at the centre of language. Some of the first things she investigated were dialects and old words.

“Back then I studied one person at a time, and tried to coax the language out of them. Now I never do that. Now I look at how people communicate with each other in various situations. When they dance, or do yoga, or act in a play or clean up a sheep stall.”

Moaning, groaning and grunting

In her research, Leelo Keevallik works close to people, and often uses a video camera. The settings she studies are often ones that have not previously been studied. She recently looked at the language of people who work together in a sheep shed, because “there is loads of research about what happens in business meetings”.

“At the kitchen table, silence is not normally good, but if you’re shovelling droppings in a sheep shed, being silent is accepted, as is grunting and swearing. That’s interesting.”

Leelo Keevallik is also interested in the sounds that are not actual words. In a sheep shed, grunting can be used as communication with a friend about how a particular job is going.

“If two of you are going to lift something, grunting can be used to signal where in the lifting process you are, so you can work better together. For instance we can use these subtle sounds to convey that we’re losing our grip, even if we don’t necessarily realise we’re making them. But when you record people, as I do, you discover that they utter vast amounts of communicative sounds that aren’t normal language.”

Most important is to be understood

Construction site Photo credit: ILKER CELIKIn a future research project, Leelo Keevallik will study how much of a language is required for communication across language boundaries in physical work. The project has received funding from Östersjöstiftelsen (the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies).

“How much Swedish do Polish or Estonian guest workers need, when much of their communication is based on gestures, eye contact and other body language?”

She points to the construction site outside, where the new Student Building is taking form.

“Language is tied to specific situations. If you’re building something, you have to communicate using the documentation for the project. I’m professor of linguistics and I think grammar is important, but making yourself understood is more important than finding the correct verb form.”

So the best way to learn a language might not be reeling off verb forms. Instruction could be more focussed on specific situations that the learners need in their day-to-day lives.

Leelo Keevallik’s own situation is that she works in a number of languages, without fully mastering them. She says she speaks “only” Swedish, English and Estonian. But in Zurich her German is sufficient to teach students and her French is enough to comment on doctoral theses. She has lived in Finland, and Finnish is close to her Estonian, her mother tongue. And when she went to school in Estonia there was instruction in Russian.

“We should speak more languages than we do today. You don’t have to be perfect. We should think about that when we try to make ourselves understood, and when someone else tries to make themselves understood to us.”

Translation Martin Mirko

What Does Embodied Interaction Tell Us About Grammar? Leelo Keevallik, Journal of Research of Language and Social Interaction. Volume 51, 2018 - Issue 1. Published online 9 March 2018.

Blog post in ROLSI


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