Carving conceptual space: into rivers and blocks

This is about how we carve up conceptual space, but first it’s about language. In my case, teaching English as a second language (ESL). Why did my Mexican students have so much trouble with run-on sentences, whereas this was not an issue for my German students? Don’t get me wrong. Every student has their problems. But this difference really stood out. Sure, the German language is in some ways more closely related to English, but German word order and sentence structure can also be quite different than in English. But comma splices and run-on sentences seem to be something of a national pastime in Mexico – four, five, or six complete English sentences joined only with commas or with nothing at all. If we did an exercise, they could all grasp the concept of how to punctuate correctly with periods. But then in the midst of writing or speaking, they would revert to the endless flow without periods.

I concluded, based on my zero hours of training in psycholinguistics, that I was up against their intuition. And their intuition in this case was their way of carving up conceptual space. I tried to compare to my experience watching films in German and Spanish. I’m intermediate in German and upper intermediate in Spanish, but I can follow German dialogue better. Why? Because German is more like English? Yes, but only in a specific way. I definitely have a larger vocabulary in Spanish than in German. But the Germans pronounce every word, with clear edges at beginning and end, whereas the spoken language in Spanish flows like a river. Spanish subtitles can tell me that I know 90% of the words, but I understand 10% in the oral flow. I never know where one word ends and the next begins.

Coupled with my Mexican students’ style of writing full paragraphs with only commas along the way, I decided this is not just a speaking style. It’s the way they carve up conceptual space. Conceptual space is like a flowing river for them, whereas conceptual space for Germans is arranged into building blocks. And you can hear it in the oral flow of the language. Based on the way sentences are arranged into building blocks for paragraphs, English speakers would seem to carve up conceptual space as Germans do, into building blocks. The oral flow of English, however, may strike second language speakers differently than German, as there are so many more pronunciation peculiarities in English. I actually don’t know – I am too “at home” in English – but if any ESL speakers or psycholinguists out there want to chime in, I’m all ears.

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21 thoughts on “Carving conceptual space: into rivers and blocks

  1. This is interesting! I hadn’t thought of conceptual space in terms of language before but it makes sense. I have been trying to become fluent in Spanish for years but I don’t practice enough, and I’ll never be as fluid in speech as someone who is at home in the language. It’s a beautiful, flowing river of a language as you say. I loved it from the first time I heard it and it’s why I chose it. I love saying phrases in Spanish or singing songs — that makes the flow easier for sure. But wow, compared to learning Mandarin, of which I currently know only one song (Tóng Huà) and a bunch of basic words. It is so different. Thinking conceptual space and Mandarin, I’d say that maybe it could be described as building blocks that are made with massive pieces and very small ones. Even the tiniest inflection can change the meaning of an entire sentence. It’s really beautiful though. Thanks for the thought food, Gary. Have a great week! =) ♥.

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  2. For what it’s worth, as an English-speaker who has worked at Spanish, my sense is that one factor making it more challenging to sort out the speech flow of Spanish is that it’s a vowel-centric language while English is a consonant-centric one. We depend more on consonants to mark syllable and word boundaries, where Spanish speakers (in some dialects more than others) tend to soften and attenuate their consonants. It’s not the whole picture, undoubtedly, but reflects my impressions and experience. Not sure it sheds any light on the run-on sentence issue though.

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    • Excellent point about vowels and consonants. I often have to train my Spanish-speaking students to jam their consonants together in English 🙂 . But I hadn’t quite put that together with my impromptu thesis in this blog entry 🙂 . There’s still the chicken-and-egg problem. Does one’s cultural way of carving up conceptual space lead to the language characteristics or vice versa? (Probably a give-and-take dynamic.) Another I noticed is that Latinos from some countries/regions speak with a rhythm that is more staccato and less flowing, which brings me to the particle-wave theory … OK, I’ll shut up now 🙂

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      • Hah! Good points. I’d like to think more about these matters. I’m impressed by the distance between the Castilian spoken by my Catalan grandkids and, say, the Cuban Spanish I’ve been exposed to.

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        • Hahaha. Yeah, last year I went hitchhiking around Spain to practice my Spanish. Problem was, nobody spoke Spanish. In Valencia, they spoke Valencian, in Barcelona Catalan, in the north, Basque or Galician, and I still haven’t figured out what language the trucker was speaking who picked me up near the Portugeuse border. OK, they seemed to speak Spanish in Madrid and Granada, but still …

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  3. No question about that I am still struggling to come to terms with the intricacies of the English language. Fortunately, unfortunately, having considerable Celtic, German, French-roman roots English is far more flexible in absorbing other language influences than those more structured Blocks as you describe it. I prefer English before my native tongue because of its poetic abilities and the above-mentioned qualities.

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