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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: word order and the mind.
new study suggests that people naturally gesture in the order of
subject-object-verb, regardless of the rules of their spoken language.
Susan Goldin-Meadow is a psychology professor at the University of
SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "I did this study in part
because of the work that I have been doing on deaf children who are too
deaf to acquire spoken language. I've been studying in China and
America and in Turkey and now in Nicaragua, and in none of those places
have these particular children been exposed to sign language. So they
use gesture to make up their own languages.
"What we see in
the deaf children is they tend to indicate objects that are acted upon
before they gesture the actions. We might say 'beat the drum' but the
kid would produce a gesture for the drum before producing a gesture for
the beating action."
AA: "So kind of like 'drum beat.'"
SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "Yes, 'drum beat.'"
RS: "What they actually see -- I mean, the bigger object, the most important thing first, and then what action is occurring."
GOLDIN-MEADOW: "You could think about it either way. So we can have an
intuition that the most important thing to do is to get the object out
there and then to s ay the action. The other possibility, however, is
to think that if you have the action out there, then it tells you what
the object is doing and what role it's going to play, and therefore you
could sort of -- it almost sets the stage for the role that the object
is going to play."
AA: "And so these findings with deaf children
led you to explore how people gesture -- people who can speak and have
SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "Right, we wanted to force people to 'talk' in gesture and to see what would come out."
RS: "Why would you want to do that?"
GOLDIN-MEADOW: "Well, in part to see whether -- what we expected,
actually, was that the language I speak would influence the gestures
that I create. But what in fact we found is that people differ in the
spoken language they use, but they don't differ in the gestured
languages they use. And what it suggests is that this sort of order
that you find in gesture is, first of all, not influenced by language.
secondly, it looks like it's a pretty basic and robust pattern that's
found across all speakers independent of the language that you use. So
it suggests that maybe there's a cognitive underpinning to it -- that
maybe we think about the world in this particular way, despite the fact
that we talk about it in different ways."
RS: "So the same thing that you found with deaf children you found in English, Mandarin, Spanish and Turkish speakers."
SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "For the most part, yes."
AA: "Let me ask you about the standard structure in English, we know, is subject-verb-object."
SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "Right."
AA: "Now what about the other languages you studied."
SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "So in Spanish it's the same. In Turkish it's subject-object-verb."
AA: "So for example?"
SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "'Girl drum beat,' as opposed to 'girl beat drum.'"
AA: "And Mandarin?"
GOLDIN-MEADOW: "In Mandarin it actually varies as a function of whether
the action crosses space or not. So I might say 'girl drum beat,' but
'girl give drum to boy.' So it might be S-O-V when you're talking about
an action in place, but S-V-O when you're talking about moving an
object to another place. What I've heard is that Mandarin is changing
in its word order, and consequently you find variability. So in our
speakers, they were more variable than either the Turkish speakers or
the English or Spanish speakers."
RS: "Do you think this gives people around the world new hope that they can communicate?"
"Well, let me ask you, with the Olympics going on, do you imagine that
this sort of hard-wired, default subject-object-verb sentence structure
is helping people communicate at the Games in Beijing?"
GOLDIN-MEADOW: "Well, it's hard to know. I don't know whether this is
hard-wired, so let's start with that assumption. It may be something
that we develop, so I don't know whether it's hard-wired or not. But I
do think it's robust, and in that sense it might make it easier for all
of us to think in these ways.
"And consequently, if people are
trying to communicate by gesture, maybe it'd be better for them to just
not talk at all, and gesture. [Laughter] Because when you're gesturing,
well, if you think about it, when you're gesturing along with your
talk, your gestures fit the talk, so we gesture differently.
mean, initially we started to do this study and we've shown already
that people gesture differently when they talk English, than when they
talk Spanish and when they talk Turkish. There are differences in how
we gesture. So it might be easier for people at the Olympics to get
along if they stopped talking and just gestured!"
have more on this topic of gestures and spoken language next week with
Susan Goldin-Meadow from the University of Chicago. And that's all for
WORDMASTER this week. Archives are at voanews.com/wordmaster. With
Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.