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Language and Conceptual Development: Role of Language Differencesand Bilingualism in the Development of Spatial Concepts Among Tzotzil Maya and Spanish Speaking Adults and Children


The present proposal addresses one of the most fascinating topics in the intersection of linguistics, anthropology, and psychology: Linguistic Relativity Theory—also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The PI proposes to explore adult spatial cognition and its developmental trajectory as it relates to language acquisition and language use. Attention will be paid to the role of bilingualism. The research addresses important shortcomings in previous research by (1) presenting the first cross-linguistic experiments within a controlled environment and (2) NOT treating language as an independent variable (see Medin, Ross et al., 2002; Ross, 2004, for a related argument for cross-cultural studies). In addition, it brings together methods and theories from different disciplines, allowing for the potential of breakthrough findings with respect to the relation of culture, language, and spatial cognition. (3) With the additional focus on bilingualism, the research will also chart new terrain and likely provide important data for our normative understanding of language in conceptual development, informing us at the same time about the ever more important issue of bilingual education in conceptual development. The proposed research is built around a set of experimental tasks exploring individuals’ non-linguistic spatial cognition. These tasks are embedded in qualitative ethnographic research. In addition, I propose to conduct ethnographic/experimental research to explore the role of non-language cultural factors in the development of spatial cognition. Experimental ethnographic research (see Ross, 2004 for this approach) brings anthropology to bear on the cognitive sciences, by allowing researchers to (1) explore the distribution of specific models within and across populations and (2) relate them causally to other phenomena (here spatial reasoning). The research builds on ongoing cross-cultural research in conceptual development and conceptual change by the PI and his research team. It takes advantage of an exceptional infrastructure created by the PI in the Tzotzil Maya community of Chenalho, including close collaboration with children, their parents, and local schools. This unique setting (see allows for effective research within an environment suitable for interviewing children (as young as three years!). It also provides the ideal space for student education and community services. The PI has over a decade of research experience in the Highlands of Chiapas and is fluent in both Tzotzil Maya and Spanish. In addition, he has a strong background in anthropology, anthropological linguistics, and the cognitive sciences. He currently holds a position in anthropology and psychology at Vanderbilt University. Broader impact on the community. The proposed research will improve understanding of the relation of language, culture, and cognition while informing our knowledge of bilingualism and conceptual development. This is of utmost importance for bilingual education (in Mexico and the U.S.). While this stands for the future, the proposed research project will also have a direct impact on the children of Chenalho. The project employs several local research assistants, and aims to improve their individual education according to their own goals (from learning how to read to attending a regional university). The proposal addresses relevant issues both for the sciences and for the collaboration between science and local populations in a manner that could serve as a model for years to come. At the same time, it might help settle the puzzle of linguistic relativity.