Running words together: The science behind cross-linguistic psychology

Mar 25, 2008

While communication may be recognized as a universal phenomenon, differences between languages -- ranging from word-order to semantics -- undoubtedly remain as they help to define culture and develop language. Yet, little is understood about similarities and differences in languages around the world and how they affect communication. Recently, however, two studies have emerged that aid in our understanding of cross-linguistic distinctions in language usage.

In a study examining the contrast in cross-cultural languages, known as cross-linguistics, researchers from CNRS and Université de Provence, and Harvard and Trento Universities found direct evidence to support word-order constraints during language production. Specifically, the way in which participants pronounced a set of words was dependent upon the preceding word as it varied across languages.

Psychologists Niels Janssen, F. Xavier Alario and Alfonso Caramazza presented French- and English-speaking individuals with colored objects and noted that, when the sounds were compatible, participants found color easier to pronounce than object names. For example, the object ‘rake’ in English was easier to pronounce when it was colored red than when it was colored blue, a finding that only held true for English speakers.

For French speakers, ‘râteau,’ meaning ‘rake,’ was as easy to pronounce in red as in blue, suggesting that the object-before-color syntax in French played a large part in language production.

These findings, which appear in the March 2008 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, provide insight into how word-order affects language production: “No matter how complex our thoughts, when we express them in speech, we produce them one by one,” explained Janssen. “And, the order in which these words should be uttered follows tight linguistic rules in many languages. As a result, each word is affected by its predecessor.”

However, language use is not only constrained by word-order but by meaning as well. In collaboration with researchers Mutsumi Imai, Eef Ameel, Naoaki Tsuda and Asifa Majid from universities in Japan, Belgium and The Netherlands, psychologists Barbara C. Malt from Lehigh University and Silvia Gennari from the University of York investigated whether participants speaking various languages identified two different words to distinguish between the acts of walking and running.

English-, Japanese-, Spanish- and Dutch-speaking individuals watched video clips of a student moving on a treadmill at different slopes and speeds. According to past research, English and Dutch verbs tend to express manner of motion, and Spanish and Japanese verbs tend to express direction of motion; these variations assure that any shared patterns in naming could not be attributed to structural similarities.

Despite the vast differences between the four languages, however, all participants used distinct words to describe when the student was walking and to identify precisely when she began running. These results, which also appear in the March 2008 issue of Psychological Science, indicate cross-linguistic commonalities in naming patterns for locomotion and help to support the notion of certain universal rules and constraints in all languages.

“We found that converging naming patterns reflect structure in the world, not only acts of construction by observers,” Malt stated. “On a broader level, the data reveal a shared aspect of human experience that is present across cultures and reflected in every language.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Explore further: Subconscious learning shapes pain responses

Related Stories

Wolfram's ID project launch touts ImageIdentify function

May 16, 2015

You see a picture but you cannot name it. "What animal is this?" "Hmm, sort of looks like a guitar, not a cello—what is this instrument?" The Wolfram Language Identification Project was launched on Wednesday ...

Thinking alike changes the conversation

May 19, 2015

As social creatures, we tend to mimic each other's posture, laughter, and other behaviors, including how we speak. Now a new study shows that people with similar views tend to more closely mirror, or align, ...

Recommended for you

Subconscious learning shapes pain responses

3 hours ago

In a new study led from Sweden's Karolinska Institutet, researchers report that people can be conditioned to associate images with particular pain responses – such as improved tolerance to pain – even ...

All sounds made equal in melancholy

5 hours ago

The room is loud with chatter. Glasses clink. Soft music, perhaps light jazz or strings, fills the air. Amidst all of these background sounds, it can be difficult to understand what an adjacent person is ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.