Some years ago I posted about Nicaraguan sign language; now a story in Discover magazine discusses “a new study led by Jennie Pyers from Wellesley College”:

By studying children who learned NSL at various stages of its development, Pyers has shown that the vocabulary they pick up affects the way they think. Specifically, those who learned NSL before it developed specific gestures for left and right perform more poorly on a spatial awareness test than children who grew up knowing how to sign those terms.[…]

Pyers explains, “The first-cohort signers find these tasks challenging because they do not have the language to encode the relevant aspects of the environment that would help them solve the spatial problem.” She added, “[They] did not have a consistent linguistic means to encode ‘left of’.”

This is a fascinating result, especially since the first group of adults were older and had been signing for a longer time. It’s clear evidence that our spatial reasoning skills depend, to an extent, on consistent spatial language. If we lack the right words, our mental abilities are limited in a way that extra life experience can’t fully compensate for.

It’s not the dreaded Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but it’s interesting stuff. Check it out. (Thanks, Aidan!)


  1. Kári Tulinius says

    People in general aren’t very good at recognizing the difference between left and right. I often ask people whether they innately know which is which without having to think about it, and I’ve run across only 2 people who’ve said they know the difference innately. Most people have memory-aids of some sort (mine is “on which hand would I be wearing a watch?”).
    That said, there’s more to it than just left/right, so I’m certainly not discounting the study. Really this is just a particular hobbyhorse of mine 🙂

  2. Bathrobe says

    I remember it by how I had to set the table as a kid. Knife on the right, fork on the left. With gestures (knife here, fork here) when I’m feeling particularly obtuse.

  3. I used to need to remember left vs. right (up until about 16) by the hand I used to bless myself, but I did eventually learn it innately.
    For committing medical factoids to memory I do end up using mnemonics, often ones that would not work for anyone else, e.g. gentamicin is an aminoglycoside, so vancomycin is a glycopeptide (despite that glycopeptide also has g!), the sensation of a curtain or wall coming down across one’s vision in the context of cerebrovascular pathology sounds like Mauer, one of the German words for wall, so it’s amaurosis fugax.
    I wish I could find a reasonably convincing essay that I read a few years ago, arguing that the wide dissemination of ideas like a metaphorical market, a mean, a median, GDP per capita, means that we’re better at reasoning about contexts that involve these ideas than our great-grandfathers.

  4. DG: With gestures
    Yeah, exactly. I still automatically look down at my right thigh when I need to choose right from left; it had a scar on it when I was about six, fifty years ago now.

  5. I wish I could find a reasonably convincing essay that I read a few years ago, arguing that the wide dissemination of ideas like a metaphorical market, a mean, a median, GDP per capita, means that we’re better at reasoning about contexts that involve these ideas than our great-grandfathers.

    Mark Liberman would argue that we still suck at thinking in terms of statistics and distributions.
    I’ve had two fingers crushed on my left hand. It sorta helps.

  6. It’ll never catch on, Sili.

  7. I caught (the skin of) my right wrist in a machine in a meat factory when I was seventeen, and still have a gnarly scar because of it. Never used that as a landmark, and I don’t particularly recommend that approach. (Though if you do go down that road, try to find an emergency department with better triage than mine had.)

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    This seems like an odd niche sort of situation, because the kids were apparently making up the language (or “language”; I don’t know enough about signing to know to what extent this is a metaphor rather than a description) on their own rather than learning it from an earlier generation, so not only did it lack certain lexical resources, the kids (assuming they’d not completely mastered Spanish, which may not be entirely accurate) apparently didn’t, as it were, know what they were missing. Is there a “regular” natural language (please please don’t let it be Piraha . . .) that is unusually impoverished in spatial vocabulary, or is the ability to verbally distinguish left from right, up from down, etc etc pretty much ubiquitous? A stripped-down pidgin wouldn’t really be a counterexample if its speakers were also native speakers of a lexically-richer tongue.

  9. Apparently, Kuuk Thaayorre uses absolute directions.
    Grammars of Space: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity seems to be a more or less self-contained survey with papers on interesting cases.
    Kári Tulinius may of course have higher standards for innateness than I am imagining, but I do not perceive any more need for mnemonics than for up and down. (And I’m well acquainted with the need for “no, the other left.”)

  10. michael farris says

    “”language”; I don’t know enough about signing to know to what extent this is a metaphor rather than a description”
    It’s a description. Sign Languages of the Nicarauguan type (properly ISN – Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua) are full languages.
    I worked for several years with the main sign language in Poland (PJM – polski język migowy) which (when I was working with it) didn’t seem to have distinct signs for left and right. There was a single sign, which might be glossed SIDE.
    Also, IME left and right aren’t important elements in the phonology of sign languages. Instead the contrast is ipsilateral and contralateral (the dominant hand in the signing process). And a person’s dominant signing hand is not necessarily their dominant hand in other kinds of tasks. Some signers, like my principal consultant when I was active in PJM, are ambidextrous(sp?) and switch dominant sides.
    Finally, for years I’d misinterpreted what’s interesting about ISN. I’d assumed that the school had started instruction using some kind of Signed Spanish (which wouldn’t be a full language) and the kids sensibly modified it in the direction of a natural sign language. That kind of scenario happens frequently. But I recently came across one source that indicated the school had been set up as ‘oral’ where the children were supposed to lipread and speak which makes the sign language there much more interesting.

  11. michael farris says

    Just to clarify. The common practice in Sign Linguistics is to use geographic acronyms of the American Sign language ASL, British Sign Language BSL kind. At present the international tendency is to use the acronym from the country of origin in any language.
    So ASL is the name of American Sign Language not only in English, but German, French etc. Similarly Polish Sign Language is PJM in English.

  12. Kerry NZ says

    I seem to recall hearing a podcast (ABC’s Lingua Franca, I think) which talked about an australian aboriginal tribe who didn’t have words for left, right, front, back but instead used North, South, East, West for everything. They seemed to have an enhanced sense of compass directions as a result.

  13. There’s a good discussion of absolute-direction languages in Dying Words. Actually, we should speak of “absolute-direction cultures”, because pointing gestures are interpreted in the same way: when someone says “You go into the shop and then it’s on this side” (pointing southward), you are supposed to look on the southward wall of the shop; but an Anglo may interpret this as “the rightward wall of the shop” and look in the wrong direction. Similarly, when telling a story in two different locations, Anglo deictic space will be relative to the speaker’s position at the time when the story occurred, whereas Aboriginal space will be absolute: the story will be accompanied with (from the Anglo perspective) entirely different gestures depending on the orientation of the speaker.

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