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Cognitive Linguistics

Editor-in-Chief: Divjak, Dagmar

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Volume 23, Issue 4


Linguistic versus cultural relativity: On Japanese-Chinese differences in picture description and recall

Yayoi Tajima, / Nigel Duffield,
  • Department of English Literature and Language, Konan University, 8-9-1 Okamoto, Higashinada-ku, Kobe 658-8501, Japan
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Published Online: 2012-11-06 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cog-2012-0021


This study examines whether the sentence structure of particular languages predisposes speakers to particular attentional patterns. We hypothesized that the holistic attentional bias of Japanese participants observed in a previous study (Masuda and Nisbett 2001), attributed in that paper to pan-Asian cultural factors, is better interpreted as a consequence of specific linguistic properties of Japanese: namely, sentence structure. In experiments involving Japanese, English and Chinese native speakers, it was found that Japanese participants reported more Ground information before mentioning Figure information, mentioned more background details overall, and remembered background elements in a subsequent recall task significantly more accurately than either English or Chinese participants. The “Asian response” was thus split, as predicted by the grammatical typology of Japanese and Chinese. Our results therefore support a linguistic interpretation of Japanese-English differences, and run counter to the previous explanation in terms of culture.

Keywords: figure; ground; attention; linguistic relativity; cultural relativity; word order

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Published Online: 2012-11-06

Published in Print: 2012-11-27

Citation Information: , Volume 23, Issue 4, Pages 675–709, ISSN (Online) 1613-3641, ISSN (Print) 0936-5907, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cog-2012-0021.

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