Literacy shapes thought: the case of event representation in different cultures

Front Psychol. 2014 Apr 16;5:290. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00290. eCollection 2014.


There has been a lively debate whether conceptual representations of actions or scenes follow a left-to-right spatial transient when participants depict such events or scenes. It was even suggested that conceptualizing the agent on the left side represents a universal. We review the current literature with an emphasis on event representation and on cross-cultural studies. While there is quite some evidence for spatial bias for representations of events and scenes in diverse cultures, their extent and direction depend on task demands, one's native language, and importantly, on reading and writing direction. Whether transients arise only in subject-verb-object languages, due to their linear sentential position of event participants, is still an open issue. We investigated a group of illiterate speakers of Yucatec Maya, a language with a predominant verb-object-subject structure. They were compared to illiterate native speakers of Spanish. Neither group displayed a spatial transient. Given the current literature, we argue that learning to read and write has a strong impact on representations of actions and scenes. Thus, while it is still under debate whether language shapes thought, there is firm evidence that literacy does.

Keywords: Yucatec Maya; action representation; conceptual processes.