Cross-linguistic study of figure-ground effects: from language to cognition


The aim of Gathercole’s visit is to strengthen the dialogue and further our understanding of multilingualism within the “Multilingual Trajectories and Practices” network. We will collaborate on a new research project, and Gathercole will interact with staff and students and present at least three guest lectures.
Our new collaborative project will address the question of the interaction of language and cognition, especially the extent to which one’s language affects what humans pay attention to and remember. We will examine an aspect of motion events that has not gained much attention: the linguistic and cognitive processing of the objects themselves in motion events –the extent to which a language requires attention to WHICH object is moving in a motion event. We will explore cognitive effects of the presence/absence of a mandatory linguistic differentiation concerning which object is moving in a motion event; the level of differentiation varies across three languages of interest, Dutch, English, and Spanish.
The study will involve several cross-linguistic experimental studies of speakers of these three languages. This is in line with considerable cross-linguistic research on the expression of motion, drawing heavily on Talmy's (1985, 2000a,b) pioneering work on motion events. Previous studies have primarily concerned the linguistic expression of PATH and MANNER and possible consequences for cognition or have focused on the goal of the movement (Berman & Slobin, 1994, i.a.). Our focus has to do, instead, with whether the language requires that the particular object moving (=FIGURE) in a motion event be made explicit in the construction of the sentence.
We address three questions: (a) What is the extent of cross-linguistic variation in the explicit expression of FIGURES/GROUNDS? (b) Are there covert cognitive effects of the linguistic differences on attention and memory for events? (c) Do monolingual and bilingual speakers differ when the bilinguals’ two languages differ in how they encode F-G differences? Participants will engage in two major tasks. The first is a Linguistic Elicitation task, in which participants will be shown videos involving two hands holding two objects, and then moving one of the objects in position relative to the other. Participants will be asked to describe what they see. (Prediction: Speakers of the distinct languages will differ in the linguistic encoding of F and G.) The second is a Memory task, in which participants will be asked to determine whether or not they had seen a set of videos in the linguistic elicitation task. These videos will include positives (videos they had seen before), false positives (similar to those they had seen before, but with a different object acting as the Figure), and negatives (videos dissimilar to anything they had seen before). The prediction is that speakers will show more accurate memory of events if their language distinguishes which object acts as the Figure (i.e., Dutch and English speakers better than Spanish speakers), but bilinguals' performance will reflect that of their dominant language, or, if they are balanced bilinguals, the pattern consistent with the more differentiating language.





Dr. M.C. Parafita Couto

Verbonden aan

Universiteit Leiden, Faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen, Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL)


01/08/2019 tot 31/12/2019