The relationship between language and the way we think and behave



Hey everyone,

While browsing the Internet the other day, I came across this really interesting article on TEDtalk about how our language shapes the way we think and behave.

There a five examples that show us how our language can have an effect on how we think and behave:

The first example is about an Australian Aboriginal community. Here, the people do not differentiate between left or right as we (German or English speakers) do but they refer to objects as being north, south, east or west. What is remarkable is that researchers found that these people have a much better sense of direction and instinctively know in which direction they are facing compared to English or German speakers. The second example is about how we refer to certain incidents. In English, you would often say that someone broke something even if it happened by accident. In Japanese, however, you would indicate that it was an accident by pointing out that the object broke itself. The implication of this is that for example, in English speaking countries, the judicial system is focused more on punishing offenders rather than helping victims. The third example is related to the description of colors. In Russia, people have a much better sense for varying shades of a color than in English speaking countries. This is due to the fact that in the Russian language, there are more distinct words for these shades such as light blue or dark blue, whereas in English, there is only the word: blue. The fourth example revolves around languages that denote gender and those that do not. Finnish does not mark gender at all whereas Hebrew does in all cases. Researchers found that children growing up surrounded by Hebrew were aware of their own gender one year earlier than their cohort growing up in an English-speaking environment. The last example might have more economical implications and is related to future-oriented and present-oriented languages such as English (the first) and Chinese (the latter). As Chinese do not use different phrasing to refer to something that happens today or tomorrow as opposed to English speakers, Chinese are more likely to save money for the future. People prefer consumption now rather than later in the future but for Chinese speakers this future feels closer due to how they refer to it. Therefore, they are more likely to save. (TED Blog, 2013).

As we see here, the language we speak and grow up in has a substantial impact on our thinking patterns and the way we behave. I can imagine that these effects can be extended to organizational behavior as well. Last session we talked about resilience and how it can be fostered and how an individual or group can bounce back from traumatic events such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I think that the language we speak can also have an impact to what extend people are resilient and how they deal with difficult situations. For example, in class we found that in order to improve resilience, people should allow the expression of feelings. If language already incorporates such expressions of feelings through certain adaptations of verbs or prepositions for example, people that speak this language might be able to bounce back from traumatic events more easily. Another link that could be drawn to organizational behavior is through motivation. I can imagine that languages also have an impact on the way people can be motivated. Due to their native language they might perceive incentives, feedback and rewards differently. Managers, aware of these differences in perceptions, can tap on these. Thereby, motivation can be custom-fit to match exactly the respective employee’s desires/hopes/expectations etc. (in general, the things that motivate them).

These are just a few ideas from my part. I would like to know what you think about this topic and what other connecting points you might see 🙂

See you in class!


P.S.: Here’s a video of Keith Chen talking about how our language affects our saving behavior. Enjoy!




TED Blog, 2013:




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