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Getting the ball rolling: the cross-linguistic conceptualization of caused motion*



Does the way we talk about events correspond to how we conceptualize them? Three experiments (N = 135) examined how Spanish and Swedish native speakers judge event similarity in the domain of caused motion (‘He rolled the tyre into the barn’). Spanish and Swedish motion descriptions regularly encode path (‘into’), but differ in how systematically they include manner information (‘roll’). We designed a similarity arrangement task which allowed participants to give varying weights to different dimensions when gauging event similarity. The three experiments progressively reduced the likelihood that speakers were using language to solve the task. We found that, as long as the use of language was possible (Experiments 1 and 2), Swedish speakers were more likely than Spanish speakers to base their similarity arrangements on object manner (rolling/sliding). However, when recruitment of language was hindered through verbal interference, cross-linguistic differences disappeared (Experiment 3). A compound analysis of all experiments further showed that (i) cross-linguistic differences were played out against a backdrop of commonly represented event components, and (ii) describing vs. not describing the events did not augment cross-linguistic differences, but instead had similar effects across languages. We interpret these findings as suggesting a dynamic role of language in event conceptualization.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Guillermo Montero-Melis, Centre for Research on Bilingualism, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm. e-mail:


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We thank Maya Hickmann and Henriette Hendriks for sharing their stimuli, Johannes Bjerva and Jaime Melis for programming help, and Maria Donoso and Arantxa Hurtado for data collection. We are grateful to Florian Jaeger, Guillaume Thierry, and an anonymous reviewer for valuable feedback on a previous version of this paper. Any remaining errors are entirely our own. The work for this paper was supported by the Swedish Research Council (grant no. 2015-01317).



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Getting the ball rolling: the cross-linguistic conceptualization of caused motion*



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