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The linguistic and cognitive processing of space in signed and spoken language

Final Activity Report Summary - SPACESIGNSPOKEN (The linguistic and cognitive processing of space in signed and spoken language)

Languages differ greatly in the way information about the world is packaged into linguistic expressions. There is debate concerning the extent to which different properties of language mediate the interaction between language and other cognitive functions. This project investigates "thinking-for-speaking"-type effects across languages that differ in the modality of production (i.e. spoken vs. signed languages), as well as across languages that differ typologically (i.e. in the types of structures used to package information) within the same modality.

The specific effects we are interested in are related to the encoding of visualspatial information (particularly of object size and shape). Due to the affordances of the visual-spatial modality, signed languages have a greater potential for encoding visuospatial dimensions than do spoken languages. Thus, the main question that the project addresses is whether the habitual encoding of visuospatial dimensions in signed language leads to a higher sensitivity to such visuospatial dimensions in signers over speakers. This constitutes a cross-modality investigation of the effect of differences in the treatment of spatial semantic domains on visuospatial cognition. There exist spoken languages, however, which also systematically encode visuospatial information about objects, such that this information may have a similar salience in these spoken languages as in signed languages. This raises the issue of whether the assumption of modality effects in the spatial semantic domain is in fact confounding modality and typology. Therefore, the other main - and novel - question addressed in the project is to what extent modality vs. typology impacts the language-cognition interface, constituting a typologically-driven within-modality investigation of language effects in the spatial semantic domain. To establish the contribution of each of these two dimensions will allow us to gain a far greater understanding of how language (both ontogenetically and phylogenetically) takes advantage of other cognitive functions.