Does the language we speak shape the way we think?

This week I have been looking a bit into whether language(s) we speak, shape the way we think? Being raised up bi-lingual from the age of 8, where I spoke mostly Bosnian and Norwegian with a good addition of English, this is quite an interesting topic for me personally. Inspired by a talk from Lera Boroditsky from TEDWomen 2017, who had done a lot of experiments on this, here is what I found out. If you find this interesting, I encourage you to take a look at the presentation, many examples that I mention here are taken from her talk.

7000 languages, different way of thinking?
There are about 7000 languages, each different from one another, in many ways, different sounds, different vocabularies, not at least different structures, to mention a few differences. Whether a language affect how we think has been debated throughout the centuries. "To have a second language is to have a second soul", stated Charlemagne, which is quite a bold statement suggesting that language is quite important to how we think. On the other hand Juliet states in Shakespeare's play, "What's in a name? A rose by any other name, would smell as sweet." suggesting that maybe language does not craft reality.

Until recently scientist did not have any significant data that would support either the one or the other suggestion. Now they suggest that it does shape how we think in many different ways. Here are some examples of that;

No words for left and right
Aboriginals, Kuuk Thaayorre, for example do not have words for "left" or "right", instead they use cardinal directions, north, south, east, west, for literally everything. Groups of people who have this in their language and culture can almost at any point show you which direction for example is south-west, while we, who have background in the western culture and language, will probably be quite bad at showing the direction.

Organize time from east to west
There are also big differences in how people think about time, if we take an example from Kuuk Thaayorre again, they organize time from east to west, so if asked to organize pictures of people from youngest to oldest, their items will be placed according to which way they face. If facing north, the youngest will be furthest to the right (east), while oldest furthest to the left (west). If facing south, it will be opposite, youngest will be on the left, while oldest to the right. If facing east, then they will place these on a straight line away from them selves, with the youngest most far away, and the oldest closest to them selves. In Western cultures, this will be from left to right, no matter which cardinal direction you face, as we see this task from another "angle", and are very self-centric in the way we organize time.

"Time is money"
In other cultures, for example American or Americanized western cultures, "time is money", meaning that everything related to time is very strict and sacred. If you have an appointment with someone at 14:00, it means 14:00, not 14:05 or earlier/later. All time that is "lost" in waiting, is wasted. While in other cultures the view on time is more relaxed, meaning coming to an appointment minutes later, or even hours, will not be an issue. Even the time which is considered "wasted" in western culture, is considered well spent in others. An interesting example is how bus time tables are organized in Madagascar. The buses do not leave according to a time table, as perhaps most of us is used to, but they rather leave when they are full. The situation triggers the event, in stead of time triggering the event. This arrangement in for example New York, Oslo, or other similar places would be unimaginable.
Goluboy & Siniy
Languages also differ in how they divide up the color spectrum, the visual world. Some have lots of words for colors, some very few. In English you have a word for color Blue, which cover all kinds of "blue", light blue, dark blue, different shades of blue, but in Russian for example, there is no single word for blue. It could be light blue, "goluboy" which cover the light blue specter, or dark blue "siniy" which cover the dark blue specter. This is something that Russians are learned from a young age, and experiments show that Russian speakers are faster to determine difference between a light and dark blue, than English speakers. Showing different shades of blue to a Russian speaker triggers a surprise response when the specter goes from light blue to dark blue, as there are clear distinctions in the language, but for English speakers, no surprise reaction was triggered when shifting from light to dark blue, as the English speakers do not differentiate these in any way, everything is "blue".

Nøtter and koštunjavo voće
Another example of words that do not exist or are used very seldom, from my own experience. In Norwegian you have the word "nøtter" or "nuts" in English, a common word for all kind of nuts, and it is commonly used in the daily life, while in Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian, there is no single word for this. There is a word for the group of nuts "koštunjavo voće" but it is more of "fruits with shell" kind of translation to it, it is never used, and it is way too long to use in the daily life. Just imagine saying "fruits with shell" in stead of "nuts". In stead, you need to specify whether it is peanuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, or what ever nuts you are referring to in specific. In practice this could mean that when I look at a bowl filled with nuts, with Norwegian mind set and language, I see a bowl of nuts, which is a bowl with one entity in it, but if a friend of mine who only speak Bosnian, or if I see it with Bosnian mind set and language, I see the same bowl, with walnuts, peanuts, cashew nuts, one bowl with several entities.

Who broke the vase?
Another interesting distinction in languages, which will influence you how to think and remember, is how the sentences are constructed. In English, if a man breaks a vase accidentally, you would say "He broke the vase", emphasizing that "he" broke it even if it was an accident. In Spanish however, you would say "the vase broke", not emphasizing who did it. This leads to, depending on which language you speak, you will most likely pay attention to different things; English speakers will better remember who did it, as the language requires you to state "he" broke the vase, while Spanish speakers will better remember that it was an accident, as "the vase broke itself".

The beautiful and strong bridge
Language can also lead you to see things differently as they have different genders in different languages. In German a bridge is a feminine word, "eine Brücke", while in Spanish it is a masculine word, "un puente". This leads to that the German speakers are more likely to say that the bridge is beautiful, or elegant, as these words are stereotypical feminine words, while Spanish speakers will describe the bridge as strong, robust, or big, words that are stereotypical masculine words.

How can this influence testing?
All these examples lead to that you will have different perception of the same events, based on which language you know, speak and think in, as the languages shape your way of thinking and interpreting different events. In the software testing industry it is important to remember this, as not everyone is native in, or even fluent in English, and English is most likely to be the common and default language in many international companies. So even though we witness the same events, look at the same things, read the same specifications, discuss same stories, we can understand them quite differently, basing our assumptions on how we understand the events from a linguistic perception.

Keep this in mind, and discuss these differences in order to reveal some hidden, and perhaps linguistical, assumptions.



  1. I'm becoming convinced that language is highly important in the way you suggest. Recent experience here in the UK regarding our position in Europe and the world suggests that the whole Brexit thing may have come down to our knowledge of other languages affecting our outlook. Brexiteers are looking forward to "trading on the world stage", which when you examine their positions more closely, ends up meaning predominantly "the Anglosphere".

    This whole subject comes down to something called the Worf-Sapir Hypothesis (which is something of a misnomer, as Worf and Sapir didn't work on it together, and never put forward a hypothesis; but never mind), which is the underlying concept behind this question of language determining mindset. This was the subject of the recent science fiction film "Arrival" and the short story it was sourced from, Ted Chiang's "Story of your life". There, learning a wholly alien language which originated with a race with a different, non-linear, perception of time, conferred a similar ability on the first person to fully learn that language.

    Unusually for the bulk of Brits, I have three languages (English, French and German), and have some degree of knowledge of most of the Indo-European family (though my Finnish and Hungarian are pretty weak!). I find that I get perspectives from that which others don't have. Perhaps one skill for a good tester would be another spoken language?

    There are also broader cultural issues as well, though. For instance, I was once working on a project which involved geographical locations within the UK with an offshore team based in Chisinau, Moldova. They were a very good and talented team, and there were surprisingly few communication problems between us (though this was mainly because their English was way better than my Romanian!). But I did have to bring myself up short when I realised that I should not make assumptions about the level of understanding the concept of a geographical zone defined as "within M25" (M25 being the London outer orbital motorway) and what that means to real-world users when Moldova doesn't have any motorways at all.

    On another occasion, working with a different remote team, I kept raising a bug because agreements were expiring a day early; and the devs kept coming back, saying "cannot replicate". Eventually, I found that it wasn't a software bug, but a definition one. In US law, when something expires, it expires at 00:01 on the day of expiry - the expiry date is the FIRST day that the thing is NOT valid. IN UK law, though, when something expires, it expires at 23:59 on the day of expiry - the expiry date is the LAST day that the thing IS valid. The devs I was working with were an international team and no-one had ever pointed this out to them - so they were taking the US legal definition as the default.

    1. Thanks for the very interesting comment and examples Robert. I was not aware of the last example that you gave regarding when the law is set to be valid / invalid, that is interesting.

      Another, perhaps quite famous, example is the Mars Orbiter issue where both English and metric units were used -


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