Language as mind tools: Learning how to think through speaking

Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (2009). Language as mind tools: Learning how to think through speaking. In J. Guo, E. V. Lieven, N. Budwig, S. Ervin-Tripp, K. Nakamura, & S. Ozcaliskan (Eds.), Crosslinguistic approaches to the psychology of language: Research in the traditions of Dan Slobin (pp. 451-464). New York: Psychology Press.
Speakers of the Mayan language Tzeltal use two frames of reference for spatial reckoning: an absolute system (based on the south/north axis abstracted from the overall slope of the land) and an intrinsic system utilizing spatial axes of the reference object to establish body parts. This paper examines the use of absolute, intrinsic, and landmark cues in descriptions of spatial relations by 22 pairs of Tzeltal children aged between 5 and 17. The data are drawn from interactive space games, where a Director describes a spatial layout in a photo and the Matcher reproduces it with toys. The paper distinguishes use of ad hoc landmarks ('Red Cliffs', 'the electricity post') from genuine absolute reference points ('uphill'/'downhill'/’across’), and shows that adults in this task use absolute ('cow uphill of horse'), intrinsic ('at the tree's side') and landmark ('cow facing Red Cliffs') descriptions to communicate the spatial relations depicted. The youngest children, however, do not use landmark cues at all but rely instead on deictics and on the absolute 'uphill/downhill' terms; landmark terms are still rare at age 8-10. Despite arguments that landmarks are a simpler, more natural, basis for spatial reckoning than absolute terms, there is no evidence for a developmental progression from landmark-based to absolute-based strategies. We relate these observations to Slobin’s ‘thinking for speaking’ argument.
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