English-speaking researchers studying other English speakers

Friday, October 21st, 2022

The cognitive sciences have been dominated by English-speaking researchers studying other English speakers, has led to an underestimation of the centrality of language to cognition at large:

Among spoken languages, English shares some features with many languages (e.g., it does not rely on tones to distinguish between words, as around 40% of all languages do) and other features with fewer (e.g., it allows complex sequences of three or more consonants before a vowel within syllables, something that less than one-third of languages permit). Such differences in the repertoires of speech sounds are reflected in the brain, as experience with specific speech sounds affects auditory sensory memory [9.] and speech encoding [10.]. Spoken language exposure impacts musical cognition as well [11.,12.]. English speakers, for example, are particularly sensitive to rhythm and mistuning of pitch, but less so to melodic discrimination; the opposite trend is found among speakers of tonal languages, like Mandarin Chinese [11.].

Biases brought by English

Speech sounds and phonetic features sometimes elicit specific percepts and meanings across languages [13.,14.], as demonstrated by the well-known preference across languages for associating the labels bouba and kiki with round and spiky shapes, respectively [15.]. However, the source of these associations remains unclear, despite the abundant supporting behavioral and linguistic evidence for such mappings [13.,16.]. For example, English speakers associate higher pitch sounds with higher altitudes, potentially reflecting an evolutionary adaptation to auditory scene statistics [17.]. However, Farsi and Turkish speakers, who do not describe pitch using a high–low metaphor, do not show robust high–low space-pitch mappings in nonlinguistic tasks [18.,19.], suggesting language itself is an important arbiter of these associations (Figure 2).

Unlike roughly 40% of the world’s languages, English has a developed writing system [4.]. English is alphabetic but only partly phonetic: a set of letters represents both vowels and consonants. By contrast, the vast majority of readers worldwide learn non-alphabetic scripts, such as abjads (where only consonants are represented, e.g., Arabic), abugidas (where consonants and vowels are represented within a single graphic unit, e.g., Hindi), or morphosyllabaries (where units stand for morphemes or syllables, e.g., Chinese [20.]). Despite this, English is massively over-represented in reading research, even in comparison with other European languages, and accounts for the vast majority of eye-tracking research [21.], even though evidence points to tight associations between script type and reading-related cognitive processes [22.].

English has been dubbed an ‘outlier’ with regard to its orthography, with rare features both quantitatively and qualitatively [23.]. Unlike other alphabetic writing systems, English generally has an irregular letter-phoneme mapping, so it is more difficult to learn and results in higher rates of diagnosed dyslexia, other things being equal [23.]. Phonological awareness – deemed essential for learning to read (from an English perspective) – is not required for other languages, where syllabic awareness is more important initially [20.]. So models of reading derived from English, and their accompanying intervention recommendations, are hampering broader progress in the field [20.].

Mastering the English writing system involves acquiring mirrored graphs (e.g., b vs. d, p vs. q), but most scripts do not require lateral mirror invariance. Tamil, for example, is expressed in an abugida script and has more complex written characters than English, but these do not have mirror relations to each other [24.]. Individuals exposed to an alphabetic system like English show a differential mirror cost in contrast to users of languages like Tamil [25.]: when asked to determine whether two shapes are the same regardless of orientation, they take longer when shapes are mirror transformed (b vs. d) than when they are strictly the same (b vs. b) (Figure 2). The symmetries present in a writing system like English influence visuospatial abilities and offer a backdoor for language to influence ostensibly nonverbal measures of intelligence, like Raven’s Progressive Matrices [26.].

Finally, English is written from left-to-right, but Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew are written right-to-left and a handful of other written languages use both or a different cardinal axis (e.g., Mongolian is written top-to-bottom). Writing direction affects memory, learning, and attention [27.]. Learning (nonlinguistic) sequences of visual stimuli is facilitated when presented in accordance with the written system people use [28.]. Moreover, writing direction predicts reaction times when experimental participants are asked to determine if a given visual image is part of a recently observed sequence, as if individuals are going over the memorized sequence following the convention of their writing system [29.]. Additionally, writing directions influence visual aesthetic preferences [30.], including the preferred order in which agents and patients are linearly arranged: English speakers prefer events where the agent is on the left of the patient, Arabic speakers prefer events with the opposite arrangement [31.,32.], and illiterate speakers of Spanish and Yucatec Maya (Mexico) do not display any preference [31.]. In fact, studies with nonliterate communities show no clear directional biases for number, time, or events [33.,34.], despite claims of an innate preference for a left-to-right mapping (e.g., [35.,36.]). These induced biases are not confined to the visual modality; in auditory tests, speakers of left-to-right systems conceptualize time as flowing in that direction too [37.] (Figure 2).


  1. Bomag says:

    Yes, the language you learn influences how you view the world.

    I’m currently being taught how to speak. Everything is in terms of past slavery and oppression; the heroes look and act like George Floyd; and any lack of material wealth is because Congress did not put large enough numbers on spending bills. I look forward to a happy life where I don’t have to do anything myself, just blame other people for my problems and lack.

  2. Lu An Li says:

    I was taught that English along with Bulgarian were the two languages that were described as synthetic. All others are analytical.

    In English word order is a must for what you are saying to be understood. Noun, action, direct object only in that order. Man hit the ball.

    Other languages that is not a must.

Leave a Reply