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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Jul 6;107(27):12116-20. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0914044107. Epub 2010 Jun 25.

Evidence from an emerging sign language reveals that language supports spatial cognition.

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Psychology Department, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA 02481, USA.


Although spatial language and spatial cognition covary over development and across languages, determining the causal direction of this relationship presents a challenge. Here we show that mature human spatial cognition depends on the acquisition of specific aspects of spatial language. We tested two cohorts of deaf signers who acquired an emerging sign language in Nicaragua at the same age but during different time periods: the first cohort of signers acquired the language in its infancy, and 10 y later the second cohort of signers acquired the language in a more complex form. We found that the second-cohort signers, now in their 20s, used more consistent spatial language than the first-cohort signers, now in their 30s. Correspondingly, they outperformed the first cohort in spatially guided searches, both when they were disoriented and when an array was rotated. Consistent linguistic marking of left-right relations correlated with search performance under disorientation, whereas consistent marking of ground information correlated with search in rotated arrays. Human spatial cognition therefore is modulated by the acquisition of a rich language.

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