From bodily co-regulation to language and thinking


  • Stephen J. Cowley University of Hertfordshire, UK & University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa



Cognition, Enactivism, Distributed language


Though amenable to formal analysis, unlike a man-made program, language colours experience. Recognising this Michael Tomasello and Derek Melser trace linguistic skills to bodily co-regulation. Applauding this, I contrast their mentalist and antimentalist approaches. While Melser traces language to co-action, Tomasello posits a competence in decoding intentions. While a parsimonious alternative to intention reading, Melser’s actional view fails to explain how children learn to hear words. In Tomasello’s terms, he offers no account of how concrete constructions come to sustain description in terms of (inner) intentions. While Tomasello posits that the problem is solved ‘in the head’, there is a simpler solution. Although conventions matter, children make things up: they learn as they act with expression. Were the problem of concrete constructions resolved, imagination would become crucial to the rise of thinking. Can we fill the gap? Melser separates action from biomechanics and Tomasello reduces language to convention. Both ignore real-time events. By contrast Love (2007) identifies first-order language with on-line sign-making. Using this idea, I link the strengths of Melser and Tomasello’s models. Once co-regulated, semiosis can shape action (including speech) around meanings (and adult goals). Babies orient to what caregivers hear as words. Without intention-reading, neural schema shape acting, speaking and understanding. Concrete constructions arise in the flow of co-action. In becoming a person, a baby makes things up, uses convention and gradually takes responsibility for what she says and thinks.

Author Biography

Stephen J. Cowley, University of Hertfordshire, UK & University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

Stephen Cowley is a Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, United Kingdom and an Honourary Research Fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Having obtained a Cambridge degree in English (1978), he taught in Italy, Sweden and Kosova. In the latter environment, his struggle to learn Albanian spurred him to build on his amaeur interest in languages by taking an MA in Linguistics at the University of Leeds in 1985. Later, this was followed by a PhD in Linguistics from Cambridge (1989-1993). After that, he lectured at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in the Departments of both Linguistics (1996–1999) and Psychology (2000-2003). More recently, he returned to the UK to a post in Social and Developmental Psychology at the University of Bradford. In 2004, he took up a Senior Lectureship at Hertfordshire.


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How to Cite

Cowley, S. J. (2010). From bodily co-regulation to language and thinking. Linguistics and the Human Sciences, 3(2), 137–164.