Swinging in many tongues
26 November 2003
At The BA Festival of Science in Salford 2003, Dr Sotaro Kita of the Department of Experimental Psychology asked a group of English, Japanese and Turkish speakers to watch a cartoon featuring Sylvester the cat.
At The BA Festival of Science in Salford this year, Dr Sotaro Kita of the Department of Experimental Psychology asked a group of English, Japanese and Turkish speakers to watch a cartoon featuring Sylvester the cat and his elusive prey, Tweetie Pie. He then asked them to describe particular scenes and observed any gestures they made while speaking.
Kita found that the speakers of the three different languages used different gestures to depict the same event, and that these gestures appeared to reflect the way in which the structure of their languages expressed that event. For example, the participants described a scene in which Sylvester swings across a street on a rope to catch Tweetie. The English speakers predominantly used arc gestures to depict the swing motion, while the Japanese and Turkish speakers tended to use straight gestures.
Kita suggests that this is because Japanese and Turkish have no verb that corresponds to the English intransitive verb ‘to swing’, so they use the straight gesture because they cannot easily express the concept of movement with an arc. English speakers, on the other hand, used the arc gesture because the language can readily express the change of location and the arc-shaped trajectory.
Kita concluded that at the moment of speaking language influences spatial thinking, such that English speakers tend to think about manner and trajectory simultaneously while Japanese and Turkish speakers may think about them separately.