Beyond Language Shift: Spatial Cognition among the Ixcatecs in Mexico

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture
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  • 1 CNRS, LACITO, 7 rue Guy Môquet, 94801 Villejuif, France
  • 2 CNRS, LLF-UMR 7110, Université Paris Diderot-Paris, Department of Psychology, Nanjing University, 7 Case 7031 – 5, rue Thomas Mann, 75205 Paris cedex 13, France
  • 3 *Corresponding author, e-mail:

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Recently there has been a renewed interest surrounding the role that language plays in the shaping of cognition based on the study of spatial relations with a particular attention to Mesoamerican languages. Since Brown and Levinson (), several studies have shown that speakers of Mesoamerican languages largely prefer non-egocentric strategies in the solution of nonverbal tasks and that this preference strongly aligns to the spatial expressions found in these languages. Moreover, it has been argued that contact with Spanish increases the use of egocentric responses. This paper engages in this discussion with new evidence from a Mexican community which has shifted from a Mesoamerican language, Ixcatec, to Spanish during the twentieth century. It presents three studies consisting of nonverbal, memorization tasks, conducted with a total of 52 monolingual Spanish speakers from the community of Santa María Ixcatlán. According to the neo-Whorfian approach, the residents of Santa María Ixcatlán should strongly favour the Spanish-related egocentric responses. Against this assumption, however, our study shows that the geocentric responses are predominant among the Ixcatecs. This result clearly indicates that frames of reference are culturally-defined and do not disappear in case of language shift but persist in cognitive representations among the members of a stable, rural community.

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