My current research agenda is focused on the interaction between spatial reasoning and linguistic resources as measured crosslinguistically, with particular focus on factors that may influence a speaker’s choice of linguistic spatial reference frame strategies. Such factors that may influence spatial frame of reference choice may include age, first language, as well as a participant’s ambient environment. The experimental nature of this work lends itself well to collaborations within the psychological and cognitive sciences.
Dissertation research: Spatial language across cultures
There is substantial, cross-linguistic evidence that speakers of a particular language employ the same spatial references to solve linguistic tasks as they do for nonlinguistic tasks (Carlson-Radvansky & Irwin, 1993; Levinson, 1996; Levinson, 2002; Levinson, 2003; Majid, et al., 2004; Pederson, et al., 1998; Wassman & Dasen, 1998). A correspondence of spatial reference use between simultaneous speech (linguistic use) and gesture (nonlinguistic use) has also been found in several studies (Danziger, 2010; Haviland, 1993; Levinson, 2003; McNeill, 1992). A correlation between the way space is described linguistically by speakers, and the way space is navigated nonlinguistically by speakers may suggest that the language one speaks may shape perception, memory, reasoning, i.e., cognition.
However, there is controversy stemming from the implications of linguistic and cognitive alignment with regard to spatial reasoning. Detractors would submit that there is a universally available conceptual inventory available to all humans, and a speaker may pull from that inventory with the resulting linguistic output reflecting that selection (Fodor, 1975; Gleitman & Papafragou, 2005). In a study designed to provide evidence against the hypothesis that a speaker’s language is a predictor for the use of specific spatial frame of reference categories, Li and Gleitman claim that there were testing confounds present in previous spatial frame of reference studies that feature nonlinguistic tasks (2002). Based on their results, Li and Gleitman find that the environmental cues of the nonlinguistic tasks, alone, can provoke speakers to choose a spatial frame of reference that best applies (2002), and additionally that speakers who live in a mutually familiar area must use mutually-agreed upon spatial references. An implication that falls out from that assertion is that ambient environment may also influences speakers‘ spatial reference choices (2002). However, in a recent spatial cognition study with signers of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), researchers found no evidence that a mutually-shared space or a mutual culture supported commonalities in spatial cognition (Pyers, et al., 2010). Pyers and colleagues compared the spatial performance of two cohorts of signers – one set who learned NSL while it was still in its developmental infancy, and another set who acquired the language more recently. They found that the type and quality of linguistic resources available may be the most salient factor in determining a signer’s (or speaker’s) successful spatial reasoning strategies, as well as may provide critical support for spatial cognition, in general.
It is from within the context of the spatial language and cognition debate that my dissertation research emerged. Using a combination of elicitation, paired referential communication tasks, and a nonlinguistic spatial reasoning task (all developed by Bohnemeyer, 2008), I compared the linguistic and nonlinguistic spatial reference frame strategies employed by speakers of three language cohorts: Sumu-Mayangna, an indigenous Misumalpan language of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region of Nicaragua; Nicaraguan Spanish, and Peninsular Spanish. Both Sumu-Mayangna and Nicaraguan Spanish are spoken within the same geographic region and are languages in contact – speakers of these languages share a mutually-shared ambient environment. Meanwhile, Nicaraguan Spanish and Barcelonan Spanish are, obviously, the same language, sharing the same structure and to a large degree, the same lexicon. Pitting the performance of these three language cohorts against each other was strategic in that in the first case, if Sumu-Mayangna speakers were found to perform more like Nicaraguan Spanish speakers, this could be taken as evidence supporting claims made by Li & Gleitman (2002) that a mutually-shared environment is a dominant factor driving the choice of spatial reference frame strategies for a given group. In contrast, if the spatial task performance of Nicaraguan Spanish speakers was found to be more like that of Barcelonan Spanish speakers, as well as dissimilar to the spatial performance observed for the Sumu-Mayangna cohort, this could be taken as evidence that a language’s linguistic resources are a dominant factor in the choice of spatial reference frame strategies.
Using a general logistic mixed regression model, results from the three language cohorts showed that language was a predictor for spatial reference frame strategy. Moreover, the varieties of Spanish further distinguished each other, with Nicaraguan Spanish speakers showing a somewhat increased use of allocentric strategies than their Barcelonan Spanish counterparts. Additionally, the spatial linguistic performance profiles of each language cohort were found to align with their nonlinguistic spatial reasoning performance as evidenced by a nonlinguistic spatial alignment task.
Other major findings of this study included the observation that while, overall, Sumu-Mayangna speakers employ allocentric strategies in a higher proportion than do their Spanish-speaking counterparts, the proportion of allocentric usage is in a direct relationship with age, such that younger speakers show little access to this spatial strategy. An increased use of egocentric reference frames may be an artifact of the increased social pressure of Nicaraguan Spanish, whose speakers preferentially use egocentric spatial strategies. Additionally, non-egocentric strategies appear to be supported by an increased salience of and attention to object geometry, as predicted by Bohnemeyer (2008).
Future research: Gesture and spatial reasoning
Future directions for my research include pursuing further experimental studies with regard to the development of spatial reasoning in children, and in particular the degree to which spatial reasoning performance can be impacted by gesture within this group. Allocentric reference frame strategies among the Sumu-Mayangna cohort often co-occurred with gesture, suggesting that gesture may provide critical support for spatial reasoning. Attention to object geometry and angular information was also observed in connection to the usage of allocentric spatial reference strategies, and as such may readily lend itself to further study with the aid of eye-tracking equipment.
I have been fortunate to be a member of a large, collaborative, experimental research project: Spatial language and cognition in Mesoamerica, also known as MesoSpace, since 2008. This novel macro-project, headed by Dr. Jürgen Bohnemeyer as PI, seeks to identify the preferred spatial reference strategies among speakers of Mesoamerican languages; while also measuring the degree to which spatial linguistic strategies align with nonlinguistic spatial reasoning performance, and the scope of the project does not end there. Data from Sumu-Mayangna, one of the language cohorts of my dissertation research provided one of the indigenous control languages for this study, as it is not a Mesoamerican language. Data that I collected and coded from Nicaraguan Spanish and Barcelonan Spanish has also provided additional European language controls for the project. Several productive presentation and publication opportunities have arisen from this collaboration, with more planned in the future.
Indigenous & Endangered Languages Lab
I have been a member of the IEL Lab, headed by my major professor, Dr. Elena Benedicto, since 2007. During that time, I have transcribed and coded spoken language data, as well as collaborated in the development of a trilingual Sumu-Mayangna—Spanish—English dictionary, which ultimately was made available in both digital and hard-copy formats to the Sumu-Mayangna communities and schools for which it was designed. I also participated and periodically lead weekly lab meetings and discussion papers.
Bohnemeyer, J. 2008. Elicitation task: frames of reference in discourse – the Ball & Chair pictures. In: G. Pérez Báez, G. (Ed.), MesoSpace: Spatial language and cognition in Mesoamerica: 2008 Field Manual. Manuscript, University at Buffalo – SUNY (http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~jb77/MesoSpaceManual2008.pdf).
Carlson-Radvansky, L. A., Irwin, D. E., 1993. Frames of reference in vision and language: Where is above? Cognition 46, 223-244.
Danziger, E., 2010. Deixis, gesture, and cognition in spatial Frame of Reference typology. Studies in Language 34 (1), 167-185.
Fodor, J. A., 1975. The Language of Thought. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.
Gleitman, L., & Papafragou, A. (2005). Language and thought. In K. Holyoak & R. Morrison (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of thinking and reasoning (pp. 633–661). Cambridge, UK:Cambridge University Press.
Haviland, J. B., 1993. Anchoring, iconicity, and orientation in Guugu Yimithirr pointing gestures. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 3 (1), 3-45.
Levinson, S. C., 1996. Frames of reference and Molyneux’s Question: Crosslinguistic evidence. In: Bloom, P., Peterson, M. A., Nadel, L., Garrett, M. F. (Eds.), Language and space. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp. 109-169.
— 1997. Language and cognition: The cognitive consequences of spatial description in Guugu Yimithirr. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 7, 98-131.
— 2002. Returning the tables: Language affects spatial reasoning. Cognition 84, 155-188.
— 2003. Space in language and cognition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Majid, A., Bowerman, M., Kita, S., Haun, D. B. M., Levinson, S. C., 2004. Can language restructure cognition? The case for space. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8 (3), 108-114.
McNeill, D., 1992. Hand and mind: What gestures reveal about thought. Chicago University Press, Chicago.
Pederson, E., Danziger, E., Wilkins, D. P., Levinson, S. C., Kita, S., Senft, G., 1998. Semantic typology and spatial conceptualization. Language 74 (3), 557-589.
Pyers, J., Schusterman, A., Senghas, A., Spelke, E., Emmorey, K., 2010. Evidence from an emerging sign language reveals that language supports spatial cognition. PNAS 107 (27), 12116-12120.
Wassmann, J., Dasen, P. R., 1998. Balinese spatial orientation: some empirical evidence of moderate linguistic relativity. JRAI 4, 689-711.