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Cognition. 2008 Jul;108(1):155-84. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2008.02.007. Epub 2008 Apr 18.

Does language guide event perception? Evidence from eye movements.

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Department of Psychology, University of Delaware, 108 Wolf Hall, Newark, DE 19716, USA.


Languages differ in how they encode motion. When describing bounded motion, English speakers typically use verbs that convey information about manner (e.g., slide, skip, walk) rather than path (e.g., approach, ascend), whereas Greek speakers do the opposite. We investigated whether this strong cross-language difference influences how people allocate attention during motion perception. We compared eye movements from Greek and English speakers as they viewed motion events while (a) preparing verbal descriptions or (b) memorizing the events. During the verbal description task, speakers' eyes rapidly focused on the event components typically encoded in their native language, generating significant cross-language differences even during the first second of motion onset. However, when freely inspecting ongoing events, as in the memorization task, people allocated attention similarly regardless of the language they speak. Differences between language groups arose only after the motion stopped, such that participants spontaneously studied those aspects of the scene that their language does not routinely encode in verbs. These findings offer a novel perspective on the relation between language and perceptual/cognitive processes. They indicate that attention allocation during event perception is not affected by the perceiver's native language; effects of language arise only when linguistic forms are recruited to achieve the task, such as when committing facts to memory.

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