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Differences in mental rotation strategies for native speakers of Chinese and English and how they vary as a function of sex and college major.

Does the native language you speak bias the manner in which you cognitively process information? According to Whorf (1956), one's native language, with its unique sound patterns and linguistic processing requirements, defines how a native speaker of a given language perceives, analyzes, and mentally represents his or her world experiences. Although empirical support for this strong Whorfian view is mixed, several studies have suggested that the native language one acquires can exert considerable influence on one's cognition and thinking. For example, in the field of color perception, it was discovered that native speakers of Tarahumara, a Mexican indigenous language in which green and blue colors are categorized together as one, showed no perception of color changes across the blue-green spectral boundary (Kay & Kempton, 1984). Miller, Smith, Zhu, and Zhang (1995) found that the systematic and simple manner in which numbers are linguistically represented in Chinese (e.g., the number 11 is represented by the linguistic combination of "ten-one," the number 12 is represented as "ten-two") contributes to Chinese preschoolers' advanced acquisition of the number system compared to English-speaking preschoolers, who are required to learn a much more complex linguistic labeling system for their numbers (e.g., "eleven," "twelve"). Similarly, Gordon (2004) found that the lack of an extensive counting system in native speakers of Piraha, the language of an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe of the Amazon in which all numbers are represented as "one," "two," or "many" resulted in impaired performance by native adult speakers solving numerical problems involving values greater than 3.

In the domain of spatial perception, Levinson (1996) reported that the frame of reference for defining spatial relations in a given language (i.e., linguistically emphasizing a geocentric coordinate system with north/south/east/west used to represent spatial relations, compared to a language that accentuates an egocentric perspective, with left/right/front/back used to code spatial relations) can influence performance on a variety of spatial tasks. For instance, when the Tenejapan Mayan people (native speakers of Tseltal who primarily use a geocentric spatial coordinate system) and native Dutch speakers (who primarily use an egocentric representational system) were shown pictures of objects and then asked to select the identical picture from a set of four pictures rotated 180 degrees relative to their body, each group chose different pictures: Specifically, they chose the one that best mapped on to the spatial representational system emphasized by their respective languages (Majid, Bowerman, Kita, Huan, & Levinson, 2004). Interestingly, P. Li, Abarbanell, and Papafragou (2005) found that native speakers of Tseltal can conceptually reason about left/right positioning despite the fact that their native language does not contain corresponding words for this relational system. Note that the latter capability argues against an overly strong linguistic relatively position.

In the domain of time perception, Boroditsky (2001) reported that native English speakers tend to think about time "horizontally" (i.e., often using the terms "before" and "after" in describing time relations), while native Chinese speakers tend to think about time both "horizontally" and "vertically" (i.e., using the terms up and down somewhat more frequently than before and after to represent temporal relations). This linguistic difference has a behavioral consequence, as native Chinese speakers have been shown to respond more quickly to yes/no questions concerning time relationships (e.g., "Does August come later than June?") after vertical primes (e.g., "X is above Y") than after horizontal primes (e.g., "X is behind Y"). In contrast, native English speakers respond quicker to time relationship questions after horizontal primes as compared to vertical ones.

Although many studies have investigated how specific semantic terms in different languages affect the perception of color, number, space, and time, few studies have been designed to investigate how the acquisition and long-term use of a given native language, with its unique linguistic processing characteristics, may shape higher order cognition or bias one toward the use of a particular information-processing strategy (but see Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001 for a review of the emerging relationship between culture and systems of thought). In the present article, our aim was to investigate how native speakers of Chinese and English may differ in terms of their overall spatial ability, and what strategies they employ when mentally rotating objects in imagined space.

Neural and Linguistic Differences Between Native English and Chinese Speakers

English and Chinese are two qualitatively distinct languages. In spoken form, English is a nontonal language and its phonological characteristics are processed primarily by the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain (Lieberman, 2000). In contrast, Chinese has a four-tone phonological system, with different tones indicating different words and imparting different semantic meanings (e.g., "meng" indicates being "brave" if emphasis is placed on the third tone, but indicates "dream" if emphasis is placed on the fourth tone). This additional sound representation (and differentiation) makes Chinese a more difficult language to process compared to the phonological analyses necessary for processing English. Although the analysis of tone in a given language, even a tonal one like Mandarin Chinese, is primarily mediated by the left hemisphere (Van Lancker & Fromkin, 1973), the right hemisphere (and its specialized visuospatial capacity; see Springer & Deutsch, 1998) also seems to play a crucial role in processing Chinese, especially at the early stages of word recognition (Greenwald, 2002; Luo. Ni, & Li, 2006).

Note that in written form, the letters constituting English words roughly correspond to phonemes and/or syllables, and it is well known that the phonological information contained in English words is key to accessing their syntactic aspects and semantic meaning (Lieberman, 2000). In Chinese, however, words are constructed through a combination of phonologic segments and complex logographic (shape) icons, and research has shown that this combined visual-orthographic information rapidly and more directly activates semantic meaning in proficient Chinese speakers/readers, which suggests important contributions by both the left (verbal/phonologic) and right (visuospatial) hemispheres when processing their native language (Wu, Shu, Zhou, & Shi, 1998; Yan, Richter, Shu, & Kliegl, 2009); this in contrast to the processing of English, which is predominantly left-hemisphere mediated. Additional neurological research has also implicated an unusual degree of right-hemisphere (spatial) mediation for the processing of spoken and written Chinese (Smith & Jonides, 1998; Tan, Liu, Perfetti, Spinks, & Fox, 2001; Tan, Spinks, & Gao, 2000), a fact that may contribute to a number of structural differences found in the brains of native Chinese speakers compared to those who are native speakers of English (see Kochunov et al., 2003, for details).

Given that Chinese requires extensive spatial processing (as reflected in the heightened activation of the right cerebral hemisphere and its specialized capacity for processing spatial information), it follows that native speakers of Chinese may exhibit enhanced spatial abilities as a by product of the acquisition and long-term use of their highly spatial native language, at least as compared to native speakers of English. By way of illustration of how the processing characteristics of a given language can affect cognition, consider the American Sign Language (ASI) of the deaf. The latter is a hand-/gesture-mediated linguistic system that requires extensive spatial processing. Of particular relevance to the present study is the fact that ASL signers demonstrate heightened image-generation capability, increased ability at detecting mirror-image reversals (Emmorey, Kosslyn, & Bellugi, 1993), superior spatial working memory (West & Bauer, 1999; Wilson & Emmorey, 2000; Wilson, Bettger, Niculae, & Klima, 1997), and often enhanced mental rotation abilities (Emmorey, Klima, & Hickok, 1998; Talbot & Haude, 1993). Thus, in a parallel sense, given that the processing of Chinese (particularly the analysis of its complex written characters) involves considerable spatially mediated/right-hemisphere functioning, it may be that the acquisition and long-term use of Chinese will result in a concomitant enhancement of spatial ability in those speakers, as compared to native English speakers, the latter being a language that does not emphasize spatial processing. Note that such a relationship has been partially supported by previous research wherein native Chinese speakers have been found to outperform monolingual English speakers on the Piagetian water-level task (C. Li, Nuttall, & Zhao, 1999), the nine-dot problem (C. Li, 1991; C. Li & Shallcross, 1992), and several other tests of image generation and spatial manipulation (C. Li & Zhu, 1999). In the present study we investigate how the experience of acquiring Mandarin Chinese (as compared to English) as one's native language affects MR ability level and how it influences the type of strategy that individuals of the two language groups employ when solving MR problems.

Sex, College Major, and Mental Rotation

MR is a core index of spatial ability and, interestingly, produces a small but reliable sex difference favoring males (Kimura, 1999). According to Gluck and Fitting (2003), MR can be performed using different cognitive strategies, which can be classified into one of three types: (1) a spatial/holistic strategy (i.e., holistically rotating an imagined object in the minds' eye), (2) a verbal/analytic strategy (i.e., linguistically labeling object parts and analyzing the relational properties among the features that overlap between target and test stimuli without necessarily creating a mental image), and (3) a combined strategy (i.e., one that involves intermittently using both spatial/holistic and verbal/analytic processes).

One well-established finding is that males generally outperform females in a variety of visuospatial tasks, particularly when they involve MR (Colom, Contreras, Arend, Leal, & Santacreu, 2004; Halpern, 2000; Olson, Diehm, & Elfner, 1965). Note that this sex difference emerges early in life, with the male advantage in MR being reported in human infants as young as 4 months old (D. Moore & Johnson, 2008; Quinn & Liben, 2008), which suggests that such a difference may have an inherent property. Notably, a sex difference favoring males in spatial functioning has also been reported for congenitally blind individuals performing spatial working memory tasks. For example, blind males are superior to blind females in the tactile same/different discrimination of objects that have been rotated in space (Vecchi, 2001). A similar sex difference has been confirmed in animal studies, with male rodents outperforming female rodents on several spatial tasks, including the Morris Water maze. In the latter, male meadow voles are better than female voles at remembering the spatial location of an ever-changing underwater platform (Galea, Kavaliers, Ossenkopp, & Hampson, 1995).

The aforementioned sex differences may be attributable to different mental strategy preferences when performing tasks that require visuospatial analysis. In particular, the use of a spatial/holistic strategy is thought to be superior to a verbal/analytic strategy when performing MR (Gluck & Fitting, 2003; Linn & Peterson, 1985). In keeping with such theorizing, a number of studies have shown that among native English speakers, males outperform females when doing MR because they are more likely to rely on the use of a spatial/holistic strategy, whereas females tend to favor a verbal/analytic or combined MR strategy (Gill & O'Boyle, 1997, 2003; M. Moody, 1998; K. Moore, 2003). In light of this fact, the present study includes both male and female participants of both native languages to determine whether the sex difference found in native English speakers extends to native Chinese speakers.

Another factor relating MR and spatial ability is college major. Krutetskii (1976) has argued that high-level spatial abilities are required to be a successful physical science major (e.g., physics, engineering, chemistry). Some studies have shown that college students who major in the physical sciences tend to have higher than average spatial ability, and their performance on various visuospatial tests (including MR) is often superior to that of students majoring in the social science (e.g., English, history, philosophy; see Casey & Brabeck, 1989; Martino & Winner, 1995). A similar pattern emerges when comparing students of different college majors performing the Piagetian water-level task, which is considered a reliable index of spatial ability (Kalichman, 1986). Importantly, a small number of studies suggest that individuals majoring in the physical sciences rely on a different mental strategy to perform MR as compared to social science majors; though not unanimously so, the majority of college students majoring in the physical sciences utilize a spatial/holistic strategy, whereas those majoring in the social sciences employ either a verbal/analytic or combined (i.e., verbal/analytic and spatial/holistic) MR strategy (Casey, Winner, & Benbow, 1993; Lavach, 1991; Y. Li & O'Boyle, 2008; Zegas, 1976). Thus, the present study includes two groups of college majors to explore whether the strategy differences found between physical and social science majors who are native speakers of English extend to native speakers of Chinese.

The Present Study

In the present study, a dual-task paradigm was employed. Specifically, the Vandenberg and Kuse (1978) Mental Rotation Test (MRT) was performed while participants maintained a concurrent verbal or spatial memory load. By using a dual-task paradigm, the priming effect of a concurrent memory load on MR performance can be compared to performance in the absence of a memory requirement. Thus, the underlying MR strategy used by a given participant (or group of participants) can be inferred, as it is assumed that in the dual-task situation, a concurrent memory load that is similar in nature to the processing used to perform MR (be it spatial/holistic or verbal/analytic) will enhance, or "prime," MRT performance. And while one might speculate that maintaining a concurrent memory load could impair (rather than enhance) performance on a given primary task, particularly if the two tasks require the use of similar processing strategies (Pelligrino, Siegal, & Dhawan, 1975; Warren, 1977), there is considerable research demonstrating that a relatively low demand secondary concurrent activity actually primes performance on a primary task. The latter enhancement is thought to be related to the fact that processing a concurrent memory load increases cognitive arousal (i.e., doing two things at once rather than focusing on just one), which in turn provides additional processing resources that are subsequently allocated to performance of the primary task (Hellige, 1993; Hellige & Cox, 1976; Kinsbourne, 1973, 1975; Kinsbourne & Cook, 1971; Kinsbourne & Hicks, 1978a, 1978b; O'Boyle, Van Wyhe-Lawler, & Miller, 1987). In the present study, the processing required to maintain the low-demand concurrent memory load (be it verbal or spatial) was expected to enhance performance on the primary MRT rather than impair it when the two types of processes were similar in nature.

On the basis of this logic and the results of a previous study conducted using the same paradigm (Y. Li & O'Boyle, 2008), we hypothesized that if participants are employing a spatial/holistic MR strategy, their MRT accuracy while maintaining a concurrent spatial load will be significantly better than in either a no-load or a concurrent verbal memory load condition. In contrast, if a given participant is utilizing a verbal/analytic MR strategy during the MRT, his or her accuracy will be best when maintaining a concurrent verbal/analytic memory load, as compared to a no-load or concurrent spatial memory load. Note that if a given participant is engaged in a combined (or mixed) MR strategy, it is anticipated that his or her MRT accuracy will be enhanced by both types of memory load, and that the accuracy level of each of these conditions will be significantly better than in a no-load (unprimed) condition.



Fifty-three native English speakers (45 from the original Y. Li and O'Boyle [2008] study and 8 new participants) from Texas Tech University (mean age = 24.83 years, SD = 7.97) and 60 native Chinese speakers from South China Normal University (mean age = 18.8 years, SD = 0.61) were recruited as participants. Among the native English speakers, 10 males and 18 females were majoring in social science and 10 males and 15 females were majoring in physical science. For the native Chinese speakers, 15 males and 15 females were majoring in social science and 15 males and 15 females were majoring in physical science. Note that of the 113 total participants; all but 10 were right-handed, as evidenced by responses to a modified version of the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory (Oldfield, 1973). All left-handers were native English speakers; 5 were female social science majors, 2 were female physical science majors, 1 was a male social science major, and 2 were male physical science majors.


The mental rotation problems employed were the 20 items from the Y. Li and O'Boyle (2008) study, originally adapted from the Vandenberg and Kuse (1978) MRT. Each MRT item consisted of a target block figure flanked by four comparison figures. Participants were asked to point to the two comparison figures that matched the target figure when mentally rotated in space (see Figure 1).


The concurrent verbal memory load for native English speakers consisted of five sets of six low-imagery English nouns; the Chinese translation of these same words served as the verbal memory load for the native Chinese speakers. For the English words, each noun of the set was six to eight letters long and had a mean (low) imagery rating of approximately 2.75 (Paivio, Yulle, & Madigan, 1968). For the written Chinese equivalents, each noun of the set consisted of two complex Chinese characters (see Figure 2). The concurrent spatial load for both English - and Chinese-speaking participants consisted of five "exploded" 24-point Vanderplas and Garvin (1959) forms (for details see Y. Li & O'Boyle, 2008; O'Boyle et al., 1987). These random shapes have a segmented quality to them such that the original intact form is split into quadrants, separated by approximately 5 cm (see Figure 3). Participants were shown an "exploded" form on a 3 cm x 3 cm index card and asked to imagine what the intact form would look like if the four parts were pulled together at the middle to form a whole (i.e., joined at the center as it was before being separated into quadrants). Participants were asked to point to the intact form as they imagined it from a set of 30 intact forms presented on a 17cm x 12cm card.




Prior to testing, participants were seated at a table and asked to complete the handedness questionnaire and a demographic survey. They were provided with written instructions describing the MRT and subsequently asked to complete three practice problems. They then performed the MRT under three experimental conditions: with no concurrent memory load, with a concurrent verbal memory load, and with a concurrent spatial memory load. The order of the three conditions was randomized across participants.

In the no-load condition, 20 MRT problems were presented one at a time and participants were given 20 s to solve each problem. In the verbal load condition, an index card with the six nouns printed in either English or their Chinese equivalents was presented for 60 s and participants were asked to memorize the list of items. They then completed a block of four MRT problems as above. Participants were subsequently asked to orally report (in English or Chinese) the six nouns they had memorized. This memorize-test-report sequence was repeated 5 times. In the spatial load condition, participants were given 10 s to memorize an "exploded" random form and then asked to complete a block of four MRT problems. Subsequent to their four-item MRT performance, they were asked to point to the imagined intact form as displayed on a card of 30 similar intact forms. This memorize-test-report sequence was repeated 5 times.

For each MRT problem, participants received 1 point if they correctly identified both of the comparison shapes that matched the rotated target shape and 0 points otherwise (i.e., if they identified only one or none of the rotated shapes as a match). Thus, the total score on the MRT could range from 0 to 20 points. Performance on the concurrent verbal and spatial memory tasks was also monitored, and participants received 1 point for each word they reported or for each imagined form they correctly identified. Thus, concurrent memory task scores ranged from 0 to 30 points for words and 0 to 5 points for imagined forms.


Because of the small number of left-handed participants (n = 10) and the fact that a preliminary ANOVA showed no main effects or interactions involving hand preference, the data were collapsed across right- and left-handed participants. A mixed-design repeated measure ANOVA was performed on MRT accuracy with native language (English/Chinese), sex (male/ female), and college major (physical/social sciences) as between-subjects factors, and memory load (no/verbal/spatial) as a within-subjects factor. Corresponding means (and standard deviations) for each condition are displayed in Table 1.
Table 1

Mean MRT Accuracy (max = 20) and Standard Deviation (SD) as a Function
of Language, Sex and College Major for Each of the Three Experimental

                           No           Verbal        Spatial
                           load         load          load

                           M      SD    M       SD    M        SD

         Female  Social     9.47  2.50   10.13  1.69    10.13  1.96

Chinese          Physical   8.93  4.11   10.33  3.81    11.67  4.07

         Male    Social    10.73  2.96    10.6  2.26    11.00  2.73

                 Physical  10.00  2.20   12.73  2.52    12.67  3.27

         Female  Social     7.33  3.41    8.56  3.84     8.33  4.31

English          Physical  10.47  2.64   11.33  4.20    11.13  3.46

         Male    Social     8.30  3.40   11.80  4.16     9.10  4.18

                 Physical  12.80  3.23   11.60  4.65    15.30  3.16

For the between-subjects variables, the analysis yielded a significant main effect for sex, F(1, 105) = 7.76, p < .01, partial eta squared = .07, with male MRT performance being better than female performance. There was also a significant main effect for college major, F(1, 105) = 12.09, p < .01, partial eta squared = .10, with the MRT performance of physical science majors being significantly better than that of social science majors. There was no main effect for native language, F(1, 105) = .12, p =.73, partial eta squared = .001. However, a significant two-way language x major interaction was found, F(1, 105) = 4.9, p < .05, partial eta squared = .05, with post hoc analysis revealing that Chinese-speaking social science majors outperformed English-speaking social science majors in all three experimental conditions, F(1, 56) = 4.92, p < .05, partial eta squared = .08; no significant difference between the two language groups was found for physical science majors. A significant main effect was also obtained for concurrent memory load, F(2, 210) = 15.59, p < .001, partial eta squared = .13, with post hoc comparisons revealing that MRT performance was better in the concurrent verbal and spatial memory load conditions compared to the no-load condition, t(112) = 4.25, p < .001, and t(112) = 4.46, p < .001, respectively. Note that MRT performance during the concurrent verbal and spatial memory load conditions was not significantly different. Three additional interactions were statistically reliable: a significant two-way load x major interaction, F(2, 210) = 6.48, p < .01, partial eta squared = .06; a significant three-way load x language x major interaction, F(2, 210) = 8.38, p < .001, partial eta squared = .07; and a significant four-way load x language x major x sex interaction, F(2, 210) - 8.11, p< -001, partial eta squared = .07. To further evaluate these complex relationships, two separate three-way (major x sex x load) ANOVAs were conducted on MRT accuracy for native English speakers and for native Chinese speakers.

Native English Speakers

A three-way ANOVA revealed significant main effects for sex, F(1, 49) = 4.43, p < .05, partial eta squared = .08, with males outperforming females, and for college major, F(1, 49) = 11.86, p < .01, partial eta squared = .20, with physical science majors outperforming social science majors. A significant main effect for load was also found, F(2, 98) = 4.54, p < .05, partial eta squared = .09, showing that MRT performance in the concurrent verbal and spatial memory load conditions was better than in the no-load condition, t(52) = 2.41, p < .05, and t(52) = 2.31 p < .05, respectively. Additionally, there was a significant load x major interaction, F(2, 98) = 7.05, p < .01, partial eta squared = .13, along with a significant load x sex x major interaction, F(2, 98) = 6.53, p < .01, partial eta squared = .12. Post hoc analyses of the later three-way interaction revealed that for native-English-speaking females, those who were physical science majors outperformed their social science counterparts, F(l, 31) = 7.12, p < .05, partial eta squared = .06, and that regardless of college major, MRT performance for native-English-speaking females did not differ across the three experimental conditions. For English-speaking males, those majoring in the physical sciences performed the MRT better than those majoring in the social sciences, F(l, 18) = 4.89, p < .05, partial eta squared = .21. And for these English-speaking male participants, those majoring in the physical sciences showed a different "priming" effect compared to those majoring in the social sciences. Specifically, their MRT performance was significantly better when primed by a concurrent spatial memory load as compared to the no-load, t(9) = 3.36, p < .01, or the verbal memory load, t(9) = 3.62, p < .01, condition. For males majoring in the social sciences, however, the opposite was true; that is, their MRT performance was significantly better when primed by a concurrent verbal memory load, as compared to the no-load, t(9) = 6.71, p < .001, or the spatial load, t(9) = 5.22, p < .01, condition (see Figure 4).


Native Chinese Speakers

A three-way ANOVA conducted on MRT accuracy for native Chinese speakers revealed a main effect for load, F(2, 112) = 13.94, p < .001, partial eta squared = .20, with MRT performance in the concurrent verbal and spatial memory load conditions being better than in the no-load condition, t(59) = 3.82, p < .001, and t(59) = 4.13, p < .001, respectively. The load x major interaction was also found to be significant, F(2, 112) = 7.26, p <.01, partial eta squared = .12, with native Chinese speakers majoring in physical science exhibiting MRT performance that was significantly primed by both the concurrent verbal and concurrent spatial memory loads relative to the no-load condition, t(29) = 4.6, p < .001, and t(29) = 4.9, p < .001, respectively; MRT performance during the concurrent verbal and spatial memory tasks did not differ significantly from each other. For native Chinese-speaking social science majors, MRT performance in the concurrent verbal and spatial memory load conditions did not differ significantly from the no-load condition, t(29) = 0.76, p = .45; t(29) = 1.02, p = .32, respectively (see Figure 4).

Concurrent Memory Load Performance

As a check to see if the concurrent memory tasks were equally well performed by each group, two separate three-way ANOVAs (language x sex x major) were performed on the accuracy data from the concurrent verbal and spatial tasks. The mean number correct (standard deviations) for each type of concurrent load appears in Table 2. Only one main effect was found involving language, F(1, 105) = 18.43, p < .001, with Chinese speakers recalling significantly more words in the concurrent verbal task than native English speakers, although both groups of participants were well above chance-level recall.
Table 2

Mean Number Correct (SD) on the Concurrent Verbal and Spatial Tasks
as a Function of Language, Sex, and College Major

                                   Verbal task        Spatial

                                   M            SD    M          SD

                                   [max = 30]         [max = 5]

         Female  Social science    28.53        1.92  2.47       1.25

Chinese          Physical science  27.33        3.02  3.13       1.25

         Male    Social science    28.00        1.93  2.13       1.51

                 Physical science  27.53        3.31  2.93       1.16

         Female  Social science    24.56        3.01  2.67       1.24

English          Physical science  26.53        3.54  3.47       1.41

         Male    Social science    25.60        3.21  3.50       1.08

                 Physical science  24.70        4.24  2.60       1.65

Total                              26.67        3.27  2.84       1.35


The present study reveals several interesting findings regarding the influence of native language, sex, and college major on MRT performance and the types of strategies employed by each subgroup. Our hypothesis concerning the potential superiority of native Chinese speakers at MR was only partially supported: Chinese-speaking social science majors did outperform their English-speaking social science counterparts in all three experimental conditions (no load, verbal load, and spatial load), an effect that may be related to an inherent benefit derived from the acquisition and long-term use of highly visuospatial language like Mandarin Chinese. Curiously, however, this same benefit did not manifest itself in Chinese-speaking physical science majors whose MRT performance did not differ from their English-speaking physical science counterparts. One possible explanation for this fact may have been a partial ceiling effect; that is, both of the latter two groups obtained very high scores on the MRT. Alternatively, it may be that Chinese- and English-speaking physical science majors are both biased toward (and quite good at) using a spatial/holistic MR strategy because of the highly similar spatially oriented experiences that being a physical science major provides for speakers of both languages. It is worth mentioning that college students who prefer (and rely upon) spatial/holistic MR strategies may also have a natural tendency to choose to be a physical science rather than a social science major, a fact that complicates any interpretation.

Native-English-speaking participants exhibited a significant sex difference in MRT performance favoring males, a finding frequently reported in the literature (Halpern, 2000). Furthermore, there was a significant effect of college major, with native English speakers majoring in physical science outperforming those majoring in social science. These findings are in accordance with our previous results (Y. Li & O'Boyle, 2008) using a similar methodology and solely native-English-speaking participants. In contrast to native English speakers, however, for native Chinese speakers there were no significant differences in MRT performance between men and women, or between physical and social science majors. This equivalence in MRT performance across all four subgroups is consistent with the notion that the acquisition and long-term use of a highly visuospatial language like Mandarin Chinese may contribute to more uniform success in MRT, irrespective of one's sex or college major.

Interestingly, reliable biases in preferred MR strategies within and between language groups as a function of sex and college major were also revealed. Specifically, native-English-speaking men majoring in physical science rely on the use of a spatial/holistic strategy, while those majoring in social science rely on a verbal/analytic strategy. In contrast, Chinese-speaking physical science majors (be they male or female) had their MRT performance primed by both the concurrent verbal and spatial memory loads. By way of interpretation, this pattern of result suggests two possible alternatives. The first is that Chinese-speaking physical science majors, who may already be biased toward the use of a spatial holistic MR strategy by virtue of acquiring a highly visuospatial language like Mandarin Chinese, benefit from the priming of both types of concurrent memory loads. This might be explained by the fact that the Chinese characters (words) constituting the concurrent verbal memory load not only have a verbal/analytic (linguistic) aspect to them but also involve a highly complex spatial/holistic processing component. Thus, both types of memory loads may have in actuality been "spatial" in nature (one directly, the other indirectly), and thus both primed MRT accuracy for individuals engaged in the use of a spatial/holistic MR strategy. A second possibility is that Chinese speakers, be they physical or social science majors, are biased toward the use of a combined verbal/analytic and spatial/holistic MR strategy, which may account for why they are primed equivalently by both a verbal and spatial concurrent memory load. Further research is required to determine which of these two (or some other) alternatives is the more viable. One such future study might involve native-Chinese-speaking participants performing the MRT while maintaining a concurrent memory load comprising pinyin words (i.e., a Romanization of Chinese that is used widely in China but does not share the inherent "spatial" characteristics of normal logographic Mandarin writing). The outcome of such a study could provide significant insight into the origins and nature of the underlying processing differences observed between the two language groups.

Somewhat surprisingly, MRT performance of Chinese-speaking social science majors, be they male or female, was generally unaffected by either of the current memory loads. Their MRT accuracy in the two concurrent memory load conditions was equivalent and showed no significant difference from that of the no-load condition. Notably, this lack of priming by either type of memory load was also manifest in English-speaking female social science majors. The reasons for this remain unclear, however; it is noteworthy that this pattern stands in direct contrast to English-speaking male social science majors, who relied on the use of a verbal/analytic MR strategy, as evidenced by the fact that their performance was primed solely by a concurrent verbal memory load. Again, further research is required to shed light on this apparent difference in MRT performance between social science majors of each language group.

As mentioned earlier, Gluck and Fitting (2003) defined the strategies used during MR as part of a processing continuum, with one end anchored by the spatial/holistic strategies and the other by verbal/analytic strategies. As previously mentioned, a spatial/holistic strategy is thought to be superior to a verbal/analytic strategy for performing MR (Gluck & Fitting, 2003; Linn & Peterson, 1985). Despite this suggestion, however, we found no overarching MRT advantage for native Chinese speakers compared to native English speakers, even though the former would be expected to be biased toward the use of a spatial/holistic strategy as a by-product of the extensive spatial processing requirements of their native language. Notably, Chinese-speaking social science majors did outperform their English-speaking social science counterparts on the MRT in all three experimental conditions (no/verbal/spatial memory loads), a finding that does provide some support for the idea that the acquisition of a highly visuospatial language and a resultant bias toward the use of a spatial/holistic MR strategy are beneficial to the performance of spatial tasks like the MRT.

In a recent book by Nisbett (2003), a comparison of ancient Chinese and Greek history suggested the potential for a fundamental divergence in how the two cultures have shaped the development of their higher order cognitive processes. Specifically, they hypothesize that immersion in Chinese culture may bias cognition toward holistic thinking, while the ancient Greek culture may bias one's cognition toward analytic thinking. Given that language is an integral part of one's culture, our results regarding Chinese-speaking social science majors, who were as good at MR as their physical science counterparts, and who exhibited superiority in MR performance compared to English-speaking social science majors, are consistent with the idea of a bias toward "holistic" thinking in Chinese individuals.

One limitation of the present study is that intelligence level for each subgroup of participants was not directly measured. As such, one might speculate that any observed differences in MRT performance, as well as any strategic differences between the subgroups, may be related to a higher/lower IQ or perhaps greater/lesser fluid intelligence. While in theory this is possible, the fact that all participants were University qualified and were randomly selected would seem to minimize this potentiality. Had they been formally tested, we anticipate that all participants would meet (or exceed) a minimum college entrance exam score. Moreover, there appears to be no a priori reason why a participant with an exceptionally high/low IQ would be more or less likely to be a native English or native Chinese speaker, be male or female, or be a physical rather than a social science major. It is also worth noting that although spatial ability measures are known to strongly correlate with MRT performance, there is no consensus in the literature regarding the extent to which composite IQ scores are predictive of, or directly related to, MR performance per se.

In summary, few previous studies have explored the impact of native language on spatial ability in general and MRT performance in particular. Even fewer studies have investigated a potential bias in the type of cognitive strategy used by different language groups when performing MR or, potentially, other spatial tasks. The results of the present investigation suggest that given the inherent emphasis on spatial processing of their language, some native Chinese speakers are biased toward the use of a spatial/holistic information-processing strategy and thus may derive a collateral benefit when it comes to MRT performance, and presumably (but speculatively) when performing other spatial-ability-related tasks. More research, however, is needed to verify such theorizing. It might be particularly informative to conduct studies using brain imaging techniques (e.g., fMRI) to identify potential differences in brain activity between various languages groups during MR performance or other spatial tasks, which in turn may reflect particular processing or strategic biases at the cognitive level.


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The authors wish to thank Ms. Hui Jin and Ms. Yan Wang of South China Normal University for their assistance in recruiting participants and collecting data from the native Chinese-speakers.

Send reprint requests to Michael W. O'Boyle, Ph.D., Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX 79409-1230, E-mail:

Yingli Li and Michael W. O'Boyle

Department of Human Development and Family Studies

Texas Tech University
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Author:Li, Yingli; O'Boyle, Michael W.
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Date:Jan 1, 2011
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