Motion Perception Can Be Influenced by Grammar


Even when you aren’t talking, the grammar of your native language may influence how you perceive motion events, a new study from the Max Planck Institute shows.

In a phenomenon known as linguistic relativity, different languages can have tenuously different effects on how we think about and apprehend our experience.

Languages diverge in how they represent motion events.

For example, given a motion event, the grammar of English points attention to the trajectory and endpoint of the motion event equally. We say “a woman is walking along the road/towards a building”).

A German, in contrast, would highlight the endpoints, saying “a woman walks to a building”.

EEG Experiment

To understand if grammatical patterns can influence the way people perceive motion events, researcher Monique Flecken from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and colleagues employed differences between the two languages in an EEG experiment.

The sudy involved measuring the extent to which German and English participants gave attention to trajectory and endpoint of motion events in a task in which they did not have to speak.

Participants were shown short animations of a dot travelling along a trajectory towards a geometrical shape, or endpoint. That was followed by a picture symbolising the event.

The relationship between animation and picture was manipulated such that there were different kinds of matches.

In other words, sometimes the endpoint was of the same shape, sometimes the trajectory, and sometimes both. So it was seen whether speakers of different languages reacted differently to these matches, measured by differences in brain response.

Brain Waves Differences

German participants, in the initial experiment, showed a more pronounced P300 brain wave in the endpoint match condition, compared to the trajectory match condition. English participants showed no P300 amplitude difference between these conditions.

This demonstrated that German participants paid more attention to endpoints than English speakers, in accordance with the grammatical patterns of their language.

Earlier studies suggested that linguistic relativity effects may only occur when people are speaking or planning to speak. Flecken’s team were able to show that this was improbable, in a second experiment.

Flecken said:

“Prior EEG studies have mainly focused on static domains like colour and location. Our work offers one of the clearest demonstrations yet that linguistic relativity extends to the domain of non-verbal motion perception.”

Even in a non-verbal context, therefore, the grammatical properties of a language do influence the way people perceive and attend to motion events.

  1. Monique Fleckena, Panos Athanasopoulos, Jan Rouke Kuipers, Guillaume Thierry. On the road to somewhere: Brain potentials reflect language effects on motion event perception. Cognition, Volume 141, August 2015, Pages 41–51, doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.04.006

Last Updated on January 3, 2024