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Development of Geocentric Spatial Language and CognitionReview - Development of Geocentric Spatial Language and Cognition
An Eco-cultural Perspective
by Pierre R. Dasen & Ramesh C. Mishra
Cambridge University Press, 2010
Review by Gustav Jahoda
Mar 1st 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 9)

These days a great deal of cross-cultural research is concerned with social-psychological issues such as values and attitudes across cultures or nations -- the two being often treated as more or less equivalent. The participants in such studies tend to consist of large samples of literate people, and while the findings are often interesting, they are rarely very surprising. The work reported in this book is totally different: it consists of highly intensive small-scale studies, with participants ranging from very young children to adults; and for most readers the results will be astonishing. The story is a rather complex one, and here only the broad outlines can be sketched.

Like most animals, humans move around in space. Unlike other animals (except bees), they are able to indicate directions to their fellows either verbally or by other means, such as pointing. When giving directions it feels natural to us in the West to do so in terms of, e.g. 'turn first right and then second left'.  This is technically known as an 'egocentric frame of reference' since it is relative to our own bodies.  However, in several other parts of the world the frame of reference [FoR] is 'geocentric', which means that it relates to features of the external world. For instance in Bali two of the main directional indicators are Kaja (to the mountain/upstream) and Kelod (to the sea/downstream), with other intermediate ones.

The existence of, for us, unusual modes of orienting in space raises a number of intriguing questions, such as the following: 1.What is the relationship between language and  spatial frame of reference ?  2. How do such frames develop in childhood?  3. Can people have more than one such frames ? 4. How are such frames related to ecological and cultural features? In order to answer these questions Dasen & Mishra carried out a series of careful studies in several locations in India and Nepal as well as in Bali, and in Geneva as a kind of control.  For their work with children they employed ingenious methods for administering spatial tasks in a manner that gave no clue as to what was expected.

Here is an example which, I hope, is not too hard to follow. The set-up consisted of two tables in parallel, with the child in between facing one of the tables. On that there were four objects forming an L, such that the long side of the L was parallel to the edge of the table and the short side of the L was to the child's left. The child was then made to turn around 180 degrees so as to face the other table and was given another set of the same four objects and asked to display them in the same way as they had been on the first table. How they did this was critical: if they arranged the objects so that the short side of the L was again at their left (which meant that the L was now upside down compared with that on the first table), their orientation was egocentric; if on the other hand they placed the L so that its short side was now on their right, so that anyone looking at both tables from above would see L and L, their frame of reference would have been geocentric.

This was of course only one of a variety of methods designed to study the frames of reference of both children and adults. Similarly, the results were complex and here only the answers to the questions listed above can be roughly summarized:

1.                 At the group level spatial language broadly corresponds to frames of reference, but at the individual level there is more variation of a kind that challenges linguistic relativism;

2.                 Somewhat differing patterns were found. In Bali, children of parents using geocentric language acquire the capacity before the age of four ; in India and  Nepal children do not master it until age 6-8, and some can use a geocentric FoR  in gestures before being able to express it verbally. Remarkably, all can use it inside a room as well as outside;

3.                 People who are bilingual, with one language egocentric and the other  geocentric, are able to master both; moreover, by appropriate encoding it is possible to induce 'egocentric' people such  as French to adopt a geocentric frame; hence everybody has the underlying competence;

4.                 Ecological settings influence the form taken by the geocentric FoR, and cultural factors affect the probability of one or other or both FoRs being present.

This unavoidably bare summary of course fails to do justice to the richness of the insights to be found in this volume.  The research was extremely thorough and unusually wide in terms of cultures covered. It is certainly one of the best, if not the best study of its kind undertaken in recent years.

 

© 2011 Gustav Jahoda

 

 

 

Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His main fields of interest are cross-cultural and social psychology, especially the development of social cognition. He is the author of A History of Social Psychology (Cambridge University Press).


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