Agentive versus non-agentive motions immediately influence event apprehension and description: an eye-tracking study in a VOS language

Manami Sato, Keiyu Niikuni, Amy J. Schafer, Masatoshi Koizumi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The embodied cognition hypothesis postulates that human cognition is fundamentally grounded in our experience of interacting with the physical world (Barsalou in Behav Brain Sci 22:577–609, 1999). Research has shown bi-directional associations between physical action and the processes of understanding language: language comprehension seems to activate implied visual and motor components (Zwaan and Taylor in J Exp Psychol Gen 135(1):1–11, 2006), and action behavior seems to facilitate the comprehension of associated action-language (Beilock et al. in Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 105:13269–13273, 2008). Although numerous research studies have reported a link between action and language comprehension, the exact nature of their association remains subject to debate (Chatterjee in Lang Cognit 2:79–116, 2010). Moreover, the role of action in the production of language is under-explored, as are general language production processes in Austronesian languages. The endangered Austronesian language Truku provides typological patterns that are both under-examined in psycholinguistic research and informative for questions of language production. Truku allows flexibility in the relative location of verbs versus arguments in sentence production, and uses a symmetrical voice system that marks the prominence of different participants in an event. Working with native speakers of Truku, we tested whether performing physical motions immediately affects the conceptual saliency of the components represented in a to-be-described event in ways that guide speakers’ visual attention and shape their utterance formulation. More specifically, we investigated whether speakers’ engagement as an agent or patient in a non-speech physical action affects initial eye-fixations on agent versus patient participants in a visual scene, as well as word order and grammatical voice choices in the speakers’ descriptions of simple transitive events. The results revealed significant effects of physical action on the relative location and prominence of agents in subsequent sentence formulation, and on online patterns of eye fixations. These results provide further support for language-action connections in cognitive processing, and shed light on the cross-linguistic patterns of sentence production.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)211-236
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of East Asian Linguistics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2020 May 1
Externally publishedYes


  • Conceptual saliency
  • Embodiment
  • Endangered language
  • Motion
  • Sentence production
  • Verb-initial language
  • Visual world paradigm

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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