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Last Updated: Friday, 12 September, 2003, 13:20 GMT 14:20 UK
Cartoon cat in science study
Sylvester the cat
"Can you describe the pussy cat you saw?"
Researchers are using a cartoon featuring Sylvester the cat to study how language is reflected in the gestures people make.

Speakers of different languages not only describe the world differently - they think about it differently too, according to the study.

Dr Sotaro Kita of the University of Bristol's Department of Experimental Psychology, showed the cartoon to a group of native English, Japanese and Turkish speakers.

He then noted their gestures as they described the action they had seen, finding that speakers of different languages used different gestures to depict the same event.

Language influences spatial thinking at the moment of speaking"
Dr Sotaro Kita

This appeared to reflect the way the structure of their languages expressed that event.

For example, when describing a scene where Sylvester swings on a rope, the English speakers used gestures showing an arc.

The Japanese and Turkish speakers tended to use straight gestures showing the motion but not the arc.

Dr Kita suggests this is because Japanese and Turkish have no verb that corresponds to the English intransitive verb 'to swing'.

'Spatial images'

English speakers use the arc gesture as their language readily expresses the change of location and the arc-shaped trajectory.

But Japanese and Turkish speakers cannot as easily express the concept of movement with an arc trajectory, so they use the straight gesture, Dr Kita argues.

He adds that these differences can be explained by linguistic differences.

Dr Kita said: "My research suggests that speakers of different languages generate different spatial images of the same event in a way that matches the expressive possibilities of their particular language.

"In other words, language influences spatial thinking at the moment of speaking."

Scientists turn to baby talk
29 Jul 03  |  North West Wales

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