Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

Institut für Deutsch als Fremdsprachenphilologie

Developmental and crosscultural aspects of action representation

Speaker: Christian Dobel

Affiliation: Institut für Biomagnetismus und Biosignalanalyse, Universität Münster,

Title: Developmental and crosscultural aspects of action representation


Several studies reported a bias for placing agents of scenes predominantly on the left of pictures. This was demonstrated in adult English and Italian speakers. Such a bias was also observed in Arabian speakers, but to a much lesser degree. In these subjects, the bias was more strongly expressed for placing agents on the right. Thus, it was concluded that there is an innate bias for agent-left placing which might be overlaid by cultural factors.

We investigated the agent-left bias in several adult groups speaking different languages, but also in preschoolers.

In our first study, we were able to confirm the above results in groups of Hebrew and German speaking adults, but we found no bias in Hebrew and German speaking preschoolers. In our second study, we investigated signers of German sign language. We hypothesized that the bias might be more strongly expressed in sign languages due to the spatial nature of the hypothesis. In contrast to the agent-left hypothesis, we found that signers preferred a direct mapping strategy, i.e. putting agents at the same position in space as in the signed message. Finally, we investigated adult speakers of Yucatec and Spanish. A bias to place agents left or right might be accounted for by a prevailing Subject-Verb-Object word order in a specific language. For this reason, Yucatec is an interesting case due to its predominant V-S-O word order. We found in this study neither in Yucatec nor in Spanish speakers a prevailing bias to place agents on the left or right. We assume that this result stems from the fact that none of the subjects received systematic teaching of reading and writing.

Taken together, our studies support the influence of cultural and specific, language-related factors as the origin of systematic spatial representations.