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Saying is perceiving
28 August 2012 — 30 August 2012
Does a Spanish speaker see the world in the same way as an English or Italian speaker?
Is understanding language dependent upon how our sensory systems perceive the world? Can robots learn a language?
These are some of the questions that the world’s most highly regarded linguistic and cognitive experts will try to answer when they arrive at Northumbria University next week.
The University is playing host to the fifth annual ‘Embodied and Situated Language Processing 2012’ conference from August 28-30, bringing together academics from around the world, including Australia, China, North America and Europe.
Professor Kenny Coventry, Director of the Cognition and Communication Research Centre at Northumbria University, is coordinating the conference with colleagues Dr Larry Taylor and Dr Paul Engelhardt.
He and fellow Northumbria colleagues will share their research into the way that language can affect people’s ways of interacting with and perceiving the world around them.
“Different languages carve the world up in different ways,” said Professor Coventry. “In English we use the word ‘this’ for objects that are close to us or in our hands, and ‘that’ for objects that are distant. Other languages make other distinctions. For example, in Sinhalese – spoken in Sri Lanka – there are two different types of ‘this’: one describing an object you can see and another for an object hidden from view.
“We wanted to find out whether a person’s language and how it is used to interact with the world, causes them to think in a different way to people with another language.”
The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, focused on the spatial demonstratives – words, like ‘this’ and ‘that’, which are associated with how far or near an object is to the speaker – and how they vary across languages.
In a series of experiments conducted in English and Spanish, Professor Coventry and his colleagues found that the different versions of ‘this’ and ‘that’ across languages reveal distinctions that are also important for how speakers use ‘this’ and ‘that’ in English.
They discovered that, in both languages, there was a strong association between an individual’s perception of where an object was positioned and their use of spatial demonstrative words.
Their findings were published in the journal, Cognition.
Professor Coventry said: “We discovered that even though languages are different, speakers describe spatial distinctions in similar ways and perceive them in the same way.
“The words people use to describe the proximity or distance of an object corresponds with their perceptions of where an object sits in a space.”
The Embodied and Situated Language Processing 2012 conference will focus on how languages are learned and whether robots could become intelligent enough to truly learn, and gain an understanding in, a language in the same way that a human does.
Conference attendees will include keynote speakers, Gerry Altmann, York University; Bernhard Hommel, University of Leiden, the Netherlands; and Jesse Snedeker, Harvard University, USA.