Returning the tables: language affects spatial reasoning

S. Levinson, S. Kita, Daniel Haun, B. Rasch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Li and Gleitman (Turning the tables: language and spatial reasoning. Cognition, in press) seek to undermine a large-scale cross-cultural comparison of spatial language and cognition which claims to have demonstrated that language and conceptual coding in the spatial domain covary (see, for example, Space in language and cognition: explorations in linguistic diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, in press; Language 74 (1998) 557): the most plausible interpretation is that different languages induce distinct conceptual codings. Arguing against this, Li and Gleitman attempt to show that in an American student population they can obtain any of the relevant conceptual codings just by varying spatial cues, holding language constant. They then argue that our findings are better interpreted in terms of ecologically-induced distinct cognitive styles reflected in language. Linguistic coding, they argue, has no causal effects on non-linguistic thinking – it simply reflects antecedently existing conceptual distinctions. We here show that Li and Gleitman did not make a crucial distinction between frames of spatial reference relevant to our line of research. We report a series of experiments designed to show that they have, as a consequence, misinterpreted the results of their own experiments, which are in fact in line with our hypothesis. Their attempts to reinterpret the large cross-cultural study, and to enlist support from animal and infant studies, fail for the same reasons. We further try to discern exactly what theory drives their presumption that language can have no cognitive efficacy, and conclude that their position is undermined by a wide range of considerations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)155-188
Number of pages34
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2002


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