July 21, 2008

How the Brain Orders Events

Photo of a man making the hand gesture for OK

Researchers have long wondered whether the language we speak affects the way we interpret the world. A new study shows that, regardless of their language, people tend to order events the same way when they’re not speaking about them.

Word order is one of the earliest things children learn about language. But the word order children learn depends on their language. An international team led by Dr. Susan Goldin-Meadow at the University of Chicago set out to see whether the way people learn to order words when speaking affects the way they construct ideas when they’re not speaking. The study, which was supported by NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), appeared in the July 8, 2008, issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers gave 2 nonverbal tasks to people who use 4 different languages that vary in their word order: English speakers in Chicago, Turkish speakers in Istanbul, Spanish speakers in Madrid and Mandarin Chinese speakers in Beijing. One of the tasks was communicative; the other was noncommunicative.

In the communicative test, 40 participants, 10 of each language, were asked to describe vignettes displayed on a computer using only their hands. The vignettes displayed 36 different motion events. They were ones children often talk about in the early stages of language learning—for example, a duck moves toward a wheelbarrow or a girl gives a flower to a man.

The other task was designed to reveal how the participants ordered things in their minds when there was no pressure to communicate. Another 40 people were shown a vignette of each event and then given transparencies with black line drawings of each element in the event—for example, a duck, a wheelbarrow and an arrow representing movement. They were asked to stack the transparencies onto a single peg to form a representation of the event. The final products looked the same no matter what order the participants used when stacking the transparencies, and the participants weren’t told that the order in which they stacked the transparencies was the focus of the study. In fact, the researcher made it clear that she was busy with other things while the participants performed their tasks.

The researchers had first tested how the participants used word order in their speech. Turkish speakers followed a subject-object-verb pattern, English and Spanish speakers followed a subject-verb-object pattern and Chinese speakers used both.

Despite this variation in language word order, the participants all performed similarly on both the hand gesture and transparency tasks. They made gestures, or picked up transparencies, for subjects before objects, and for objects before verbs. This subject–object–verb pattern is found in many languages of the world, including newly developing sign languages.

“There appears to be a natural order that humans use when asked to represent events nonverbally, and that order is not borrowed from language,” Goldin-Meadow says. “In fact, the influence may go in the other direction—the ordering we see in our nonverbal tasks may shape language in its emerging stages.”

The fact that many languages, including English, alter this natural subject–object–verb order likely reflects pressures on a language as it grows and becomes more complex. The nature of those pressures will be a subject for future research.

—by Harrison Wein, Ph.D.

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