Skip to main content Skip to section menu

Where, whither, whence? Spatial language and its acquisition in a Mayan society

Penelope Brown, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Spatial cognition plays a crucial part in normal practical and social life, and children have to rapidly learn the nature of their spatial world and how to talk about where things are and how animates move about in it. A fundamental question is this: To what degree is the task of learning spatial vocabulary influenced by the nature of the particular language children are learning, or by the cultural shaping of interactions involving talk about space? Research on the acquisition of spatial language has tended to stress universals, for example the distinction between ‘what’ vs. ‘where’ systems, and children’s predisposition to presume certain kinds of spatial meanings (e.g. UP/DOWN, FRONT/BACK/LEFT/RIGHT] guided by properties of the physical world (e.g. gravity) and of the human body.

This talk examines how Tzeltal Mayan children learn a system of spatial description that differs markedly from those in familiar European languages in at least two ways. First, the predominant frame of reference for locating things at all scales is an absolute (‘geocentric’) spatial frame of reference based on the uphill/downhill slope of the land, and second, there is a richly spatialized vocabulary of relational nouns, positional verbs, and placement verbs that encode shape, orientation, and other spatial properties of objects being located, placed or moved.

I will present an overview of Tzeltal spatial language used in locative and motion constructions, and show how Mayan children learn these terms, highlighting the language specificity of their acquisition patterns and the importance of interactional routines in what and how they learn. Drawing on longitudinal corpora, elicited interactions between children, and natural adult-child interactions, I conclude that Tzeltal children by the age of 6 or 7 have indeed acquired major elements of a ‘cognitive style’ coloured by the characteristics of Tzeltal language and culture.

Site footer