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The event integration theory in practice

Dr Jill Hohenstein and Xinyan Kou

Reader in Psychology and Language Development and PhD student, School of Education, Communication & Society, King's College London

28 June 2022

Researchers at the School of Education, Communication & Society at King’s recently held the Big Event to explore the latest developments in the linguistic event integration theory with experts from around the world. In this Q&A, Dr Jill Hohenstein and PhD student Xinyan Kou share some of the recent theoretical and empirical advancements that were discussed at the two sessions, and how they are transforming this thriving field of research.

To start with, what is the event integration theory?

Xinyan: The event integration theory is a cognitive linguistic theory formulated by Prof. Leonard Talmy from New York University at Buffalo, USA. It concerns how languages combine different types of information into single clauses. For example, I mopped the floor dry is a combination of an action (mopping) and the result of the action (the floor becoming dry).

Such combined expressions abound in many languages (like English and Mandarin Chinese), but not all (for example, Spanish and French). This contrast offers a classification framework that is applicable to world languages. But of course, there are exceptions: some languages cannot neatly fit into the current framework, and thus some scholars have been working on expanding the typology to accommodate more languages. In a sense, this is also what keeps this theoretical framework lively.

The significance of the event integration theory goes beyond a mere portrayal of how different languages develop their preferred ways of encoding events. Rather, it offers a path into the human mind, whereby the linguistic combination of information represents how people selectively attend to different components of an event and conceptualise them as interrelated.

Can you give examples of the event integration theory?

Xinyan: During the second session of The Big Event, we discussed how eye-tracking technology deepens the understanding between language and mind through the perspective of the event integration theory. Recent studies have shown that speakers of different languages have different eye movements when observing the same event, visually focusing on and gesturing about different event components expressed in those languages. For example, when viewing an event in which someone moves in a certain manner from one place to another, eye-tracking technique has shown that speakers of some languages tend to spend more time visually examining the path taken by the person (eg into a room, out of a building), while speakers of other languages might focus more on how the person moved (such as running or hopping) by spending more time looking at the body movements. When people visually pay more attention to the path, they also tend to mention path information when verbally describing the scene, which often helps them recall the path better at a later time.

Moreover, research has shown that people can acquire the preferred way of gesturing about motion events in a language just by becoming speakers of that language, as blind people gesture in the same way as their sighted counterparts. This shows that language does not only influence cognition, but also modulates physical behaviour.

Jill: Latest studies have demonstrated that the influence of language on cognition also dynamically develops as young language learners grow into adulthood. Research has shown that kids acquiring different languages start out observing events similarly, but gradually conform to the typical ways of observing events as they become more proficient in speech.

For example, when observing events in which someone or something moves in a certain manner along a certain path, children of different languages all tend to visually focus more on the path, regardless of whether manner is typically expressed in their mother tongue. As they grow older, however, they acquire the typical pattern of visual attention in their language, paying more attention to manner if it is typically expressed in that language. This is evidence of how language developmentally shapes cognition.

We have to understand that language is not a mere artefact of the mind; it actively influences how we observe, gesture about, and remember situations in the world.– Dr Jill Hohenstein, Reader in Psychology and Language Development, School of Education, Communication & Society

What are the real-life applications of the event integration theory?

Xinyan: One interesting application that was discussed at the event is in terms of how language influences our memory of events. We are gathering some preliminary evidence that memory of event outcomes could be influenced by how likely people believe the specific outcomes might happen. This could add to the vast body of research in psychology that language can impact memory.

A better understanding of how language does this could help raise awareness of the potential impact of language on memory, which could in turn help us detect when this happens in different social sectors, and whether this should be promoted (for example, when language aids memory), or whether it poses a problem (for example, when language is used to manipulate memory).

Some scholars have gone further, exploring the implications of language-specific features in legal contexts. They found that as one language gets translated into another language which expresses events in a different way, attention might be drawn to certain event components and impact the evaluation of the severity of the crime.

Jill: This is all still in embryo, but researchers are actively seeking new ways to implement the findings inspired by the event integration theory in the real world.

Another interesting direction is around exploring how the interaction between language and mind could be applied to second language teaching. Specifically, would it be pedagogically feasible to teach a way of talking about events typical in a language by training language learners to gesture about and visually view events in the way that native speakers of the language often do?

We are only beginning to see how the way that language impacts cognition could be leveraged in everyday life. We believe that this will become clearer as we gather more evidence and go deeper into the human mind through the lens of language.

In this story

Jill Hohenstein

Jill Hohenstein

Professor in Psychology and Language Development

Xinyan Kou

Xinyan Kou

PhD Candidate

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