Communication is the interplay of language and body

Professor Lorenza Mondada’s research reveals human interaction as a complicated orchestration of talk, gaze, gestures and the body in action.

Professor Lorenza Mondada, selected to the Finland Distinguished Professor Programme (FiDiPro) by the Academy of Finland, is an innovative linguist interested in multimodality of social interaction.

For the following three years she will be leading her FiDiPro project at the University of Helsinki’s Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interaction in Intersubjectivity – a unit focused on intersubjective understanding of social interaction.

“What I am interested in is how when communicating with others you do not only talk but mobilize your entire body. Language has often been studied by linguistics as an autonomous realm, separated from gesture, gaze, and the body. Quite the opposite I believe there is a strong relation between social practices, language use, and embodiment,” Mondada states.

From observations to practice

Multimodality in a nutshell is an inter-disciplinary approach that understands communication to be much more than just about verbal language.

Mondada’s FiDiPro project aims to advance the study of interaction by situating language use in an embodied context, especially mobility situations like for example a couple walking on a street and talking.

The research material is collected in diverse settings, such as dinner conversations but also in institutional activities, like a team of surgeons operating on a patient, a group of architects working on plans or citizens participating to grassroots political meetings.

“We have filmed citizens debating about urban planning in participatory democracy meetings and then visiting the construction site of the project. This has been the occasion to study the way in which citizens manage to participate in planning and decision-taking. It has also revealed how they contribute to the creation of a new territory both in talk and in drawing. We observe them in brainstorming sessions, changing plans, as well as walking across the construction site and asking critical questions.” 

Giving feedback to the people involved in the research situations is an important part of Mondada’s research and binds it into practice.

For instance, for the organizers of participatory democracy meetings, reflecting on the communication of and with citizens can provide a way of enhancing their participation in the future.

Looking at the feet to understand the syntax

Mondada’s research lies heavily on using video cameras to document authentic social interactions.

Picture seeing a couple walking on a busy city street and talking intensively – and a camerawoman following their every move. You might think you have stepped onto a movie set, but in fact you might be following a real life research situation for Professor Mondada and her research group.

The aim of filming is to capture detailed bodily movements and the dynamics of talk of participants engaged in a conversation – taking into consideration how spoken language and the body are finely coordinated between and within the co-participants.

“When filming people walking and talking you begin to see a pattern in the pace of the walk. Stepping forward or stopping happens in the same rhythm as does the speech. People often slow down or stop entirely when they are about to make a point or begin a story, or when they complete a syntactical construction.”

Mondada and her team often use several video cameras at the same time to record the research participants’ gesture, gaze, head movements, and movements of the body.

With this method multiple cameras focus on different participants, their bodies, their movements, and the material objects they manipulate. Using several cameras makes it possible to conduct an accurate and detailed analysis of embodied talk.

The method allows researchers to develop innovative theoretical and empirical models of language and social interaction.

Developing new research insights

In her research, Mondada has developed new techniques and methodologies; the research is done in various natural settings and also aims at comparing several languages and the way the body is mobilized in similar situations across languages.

The empirical part of Mondada’s FiDiPro project focuses particularly on the coordination of joint activities. Mondada has a special interest for situations in which a person asks somebody else to do something.

“For example a trainer requesting a sportsperson to exert a movement or a cook directing her assistant in preparing a dish. These situations offer a glimpse in the way in which human action is collectively built through interaction.”

The collected video materials are closely scrutinized and carefully transcribed and annotated. Mondada’s team pays attention even to the slightest movements of the hands, heads, torsos, and legs of the participants – movements coordinated with each other and with the talk.

This offers fascinating insights about the synchronization, coordination and mutual elaboration of different conducts in interaction. The timing of human actions is particularly revealing.

On the basis of the empirical analyses, Mondada’s project discusses theoretical consequences like the conceptualisation of time in the finely tuned coordination of talk and social actions.

“The analyses open our eyes to the simultaneous and successive orchestration of talk, gesture, gaze and the body in action. And the progressivity of human interaction.”

Comparing multimodality across Europe

One of the focuses of Mondada’s FiDiPro research project is to compare multimodality – the interplay of language and the body – in different languages.

In her research Mondada compares languages such as French, Italian, Catalan, Portuguese, German, Swiss-German, and Finnish to mention a few.

The goal is to develop a model of human conduct in social interaction by integrating different languages and different ways of using the body in similar situations.

“For instance, how people buy a newspaper in a kiosk is a very simple action that can be nicely compared in several countries. Or, how people choose, point at, and taste a particular cheese in a cheese shop is apparently a simple but yet a highly variable cultural activity revealing very different linguistic and embodied practices across Europe.”

Leading a dual centric life

Thanks to the FiDiPro Mondada has been able to set up a new research team in Helsinki at the Centre of Excellence on Intersubjectivity.

She works now with two research teams. One in Helsinki, including two post-doctoral researchers, Teppo Jakonen and Kimmo Svinhufvud, and the other at the University of Basel – Mondada’s home university, where she is still based half of her time.

Basel, situated on the border of France, Germany and Switzerland provides a great location for linguistic comparison. In Helsinki the attraction is the high quality research done at the Centre of Excellence.

On top of being involved in research in Helsinki, Mondada uses the FiDiPro funding to include a group of young researchers across Europe to her project. Collaborating for comparative research has a wider impact on the academic community in general and on juniors in particular.

“One of the important aspects of my FiDiPro project is integrating the FiDiPro into the local research and building ties between my two universities. We will for example organise Finnish junior researchers chances to visiting Basel and vice versa during this Spring. It’s all about networking, attracting research and giving back to the university community.”

Mondada herself lives a highly mobile dual centric life spending six months in Helsinki and six months in Basel – and often travelling across Europe, the US and Japan.

“For me, living in different countries is an experiment in itself!

Lorenza Mondada's research project is funded by the Academy of Finland and is part of the Finland Distinguished Professor Programme (FiDiPro).