Cognitive Sciences 2015CS15-001

How language shapes perception and cognition: A contrastive study of space and evidentiality in German and Korean

How language shapes perception and cognition: A contrastive study of space and...
Principal Investigator:
Co-Principal Investigator(s):
Soonja Choi (University of Vienna)
Completed (01.06.2016 – 30.09.2021)
Funding volume:
€ 599,900

Our objectives are:

  • To show that language-specific grammar at various levels – semantics, syntax and morphology – raises/lowers the speakers’ level of attention to the language-relevant features during tasks involving visual perception, memory and inference.  However, the influence interacts with pragmatic contexts such as typicality and prominence of cause-effect relation in real life.
  • To trace the developmental pattern of the influence, which can provide essential evidence on the extent to which possible universal cognitive options remain constant or get shaped by language.
  • To contribute to the crosslinguistic database in the field by examining two languages, German and Korean, which have not been directly compared before.

State of the art

The long-standing question of whether language shapes perception and cognition – what we pay attention to, representations and memories of events – continues in heated debates across disciplines (e.g., linguistics, psychology, education) and has become a core matter in Cognitive Science involving interdisciplinary collaboration. On the one hand, there is a revival of a version of Whorf's hypothesis claiming that language significantly influences the way we perceive and categorize the world. On the other hand, the 'modular' theory claims that cognition is universal, independent from language, and thus is unaffected by language-specific grammar. According to the latter view, any influence of language on perceptual or cognitive tasks is due to the use of language during the tasks.

Although both theories recognize that there is some type of interaction between the two components, the common question so far has typically been whether language does or does not uniformly influence nonverbal cognition.
Our research seeks common ground between the two camps. Our hypothesis is that language and cognition interact in a complex way, depending differentially on the linguistic domain and on the cognitive task at hand. We also hypothesise that while the underlying cognitive abilities of a particular domain are present in all speakers, language-specific grammar influences the relative strengths of those abilities.

Methodological approach

Our research project concerns detailing the relationship between language and cognition, and more specifically, identifying the extent to which language-specific grammar influences human perception and cognition. We compare German and Korean, two languages that have seldom  been compared  and two domains - Space and Evidentiality - that have not been considered at the same time.

The recording and analysis of behavioral data (verbal description, manual reaction times etc.) and eye movement behavior (using video-based eyetrackers) is of central relevance to our research methods. We also test some assumptions using electrophysiology (EEG/ERPs).

Scientific disciplines: Psycholinguistics (40%) | Cognitive psychology (40%) | Developmental psychology (20%)

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