This semester I’m taking an independent study Chinese course. The course is an extension of my previous Language, Culture, and Cognition course, where we proposed a design for a linguistic study. This semester I actually attempted to conduct the study that a proposed. The study I proposed was a linguistic relativity study looking at the differences between Chinese and English. Linguistic Relativity is the theory that the language we speak actually influences the way we think. For example, other researchers have found that the orientation of our writing influences how we visualize scenes, and what part of scenes we pay most attention to. English speakers tend to notice more from the upper left corner of a scene because our text starts there. Taiwanese Mandarin speakers, however, still often read texts that go from top to bottom and then right to left, and they have been found to notice more from the upper right corner.
The study I proposed looked at something a little bit similar to this- the difference between Chinese and English punctuation. Chinese speakers tend to use a lot more commas and fewer periods than English speakers. It’s normal for half a page of text to have maybe only 2 or 3 periods. I wanted to see if this difference in punctuation was reflected in how people parsed long sequences of events in their mind. My method for testing this involved having people arrange pictures that represented a very long sequence of events to see how they broke them down into lines. I only managed to complete a pilot study this semester, but hope to complete a full study in the future. The pilot study only had 15 participants, but there were some interesting results. For one, the Chinese speakers tended to make longer lines with the pictures than the English speakers. This may actually support my hypothesis that how information is parsed in language affects how it is parsed in the mind. Chinese tends to have longer sentences than English, so we might expect that they would break the pictures into longer segments. Another interesting observation was that there was much more variation between English speakers than Chinese speakers in how they arranged the pictures. The Chinese speakers all meticulously arranged the pictures in the order I had intended, while several English speakers put them in a completely different order.
These results aren’t very meaningful at the moment, since it was just a small pilot study using methodology that needs major improvement. I just thought it would be interesting to share because I still find the idea of linguistic relativity really fascinating.