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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