Consequences of language on spatial representations among English-Mandarin Bilinguals

Toh, Wei Xing, and Suárez, Lidia (2015) Consequences of language on spatial representations among English-Mandarin Bilinguals. In: Presentations from the 10th International Symposium on Bilingualism, pp. 1-22. From: ISB10: 10th International Symposium on Bilingualism, 20-24 May 2015, New Jersey, NY, USA.

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The debate over the possible interactions between language and thought has been an enduring and controversial one till this day. From a relativistic standpoint, language modulate our perception and understanding of the world; contrarily, universalists advance that language effects have little to no bearing on our cognitive machinery which is deemed to be universal. While previous research has delved into a multitude of lexicogrammatical domains (e.g., grammatical gender), cross-linguistic variations in the differentiation of relative distances between objects remains as one area that has received scant empirical attention. In English, prepositions like above/on and beneath/below are often used to denote distal and proximal relationships (e.g., "the clouds are above the fields" versus "the ball is on the floor"). Conversely, such spatial discriminations are not obligatorily encoded in Mandarin where shang (上) encompasses both above and on, and xia (下) signifies beneath and below. In light of this, we investigated the prospect of such cross-linguistic inconsistencies contributing to cognitive dissimilarities amongst English-Mandarin bilinguals. Participants were assigned to either the English or Mandarin experiment which contained 96 trials each. In every trial for the English experiment, a sentence describing the spatial relationship between two objects using prepositional primes was first presented (see Table 1). Following which, a spatial decision task was attempted where participants were required to click on either a superior or inferior region relative to a blue object in the middle of the computer screen (see Figure 1). The Mandarin experiment was methodologically similar and comprised matched Mandarin sentences. The results revealed that the English primes affected responses on the spatial decision task: Primes conveying proximal (on, beneath) and distal (above, below) relationships induced participants to click on positions closer and further away from the blue object respectively. Contrastingly, such distinctions in spatial decisions were not mirrored for the Mandarin primes (shang, xia). The findings bear several notable implications. First, we argue that the asymmetric results across the English and Mandarin experiments represent an interaction between spatial language and cognition. In considering the results from previous studies (Munnich, Landau, & Dosher, 2001; Suárez, Koh, & Zhang, 2013) with our current findings, we posit that the spatial language-thought relationship is likely to be a dynamic one, where the influence of language on cognition is selective rather than exhaustive. Second, we demonstrated the priming effects of language nonlinguistically. Thus far, only two other studies have explored how prior linguistic exposure can induce conceptual thinking that perseverates even in contexts devoid of language (Boroditsky, Ham, & Ramscar, 2002; Holmes & Wolff, 2010). Third, while the vast majority of the literature illustrates bilinguals’ performance resembling those of L1 or L2 monolinguals or falling somewhere in-between, our findings suggest that bilinguals may adopt and rely on distinct L1 and L2 modes of thinking.

Item ID: 39122
Item Type: Conference Item (Presentation)
Keywords: linguistic relativity, bilingualism, spatial representation, cross-linguistic comparison
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Date Deposited: 08 Sep 2015 23:38
FoR Codes: 17 PSYCHOLOGY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCES > 1702 Cognitive Science > 170204 Linguistic Processes (incl Speech Production and Comprehension) @ 50%
17 PSYCHOLOGY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCES > 1701 Psychology > 170199 Psychology not elsewhere classified @ 50%
SEO Codes: 95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9599 Other Cultural Understanding > 959999 Cultural Understanding not elsewhere classified @ 30%
97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970117 Expanding Knowledge in Psychology and Cognitive Sciences @ 60%
97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970120 Expanding Knowledge in Language, Communication and Culture @ 10%
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