image by axinia
That study could not leave me indifferent not only because of its amazing results, but also becasue the subject of languages is so dear to me. Apart from that I love theories – and their proof! – showing the unity, the general oneness of all human beings. The recent research at the University of Chicago gives a good illustration to that.
“Not surprisingly, speakers of different languages describe events using the word orders prescribed by their language. The surprise is that when the same speakers are asked to ‘speak’ with their hands and not their mouths, they ignore these orders – they all use exactly the same order when they gesture,” said Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Bearsdley Rum Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology.
For the study described in the paper, the team tested 40 speakers of four different languages: 10 English, 10 Mandarin Chinese, 10 Spanish and 10 Turkish speakers. They showed them simple video sequences of activities and asked them to describe the action first in speech and a second time using only gestures.
They also gave another 40 speakers of the same languages transparencies to assemble after watching the video sequences. Some of the videos portrayed real people and others animated toys that represented a variety of sentence types: a girl waves, a duck moves to a wheelbarrow, a woman twists a knob and a girl gives a flower to man.
When asked to describe the scenes in speech, the speakers used the word orders typical of their respective languages. English, Spanish, and Chinese speakers first produced the subject, followed by the verb, and then the object (woman twists knob). Turkish speakers first produced the subject, followed by the object, and then the verb (woman knob twists).
But when asked to describe the same scenes using only their hands, all of the adults, no matter what language they spoke, produced the same order –– subject, object, verb (woman knob twists). When asked to assemble the transparencies after watching the video sequences (another nonverbal task, but one that is not communicative), people also tended to follow the subject, object, verb ordering found in the gestures produced without speech.
The grammars of modern languages developed over time and are the result of very distant cultural considerations that are difficult for linguists to study. The diversity in the grammar of languages creates a special beauty of variety and – who knows? – may be it is makes us pay more attention to communication (not by chance knowing foreign languages is considered very important and is generally admired).
In terms of word-order I always wonder how they come to the “reverse” counting in German – I have to always think twice before saying “6+2” meaning actually “26” ! But here we are – it is the beauty of diversity 🙂 One universal grammar in our heads transforms into a bunch of all possible ways of expressing it in our mother-tongues…