IPMA International Project Management Association
27 May 2019 / 9:00

Do the spoken language differences affect project thinking?

The number of languages spoken today across the globe is estimated to be over 7000 (based on various internet sources). Language is a powerful mechanism that enables people to connect, collaborate and co-evolve. In hindsight, languages play a pivotal role in bringing clarity of thoughts, actions and serve as a catalyst for people to move forward in every aspect of life.

The debate on the influence of languages on thoughts, actions and behaviors is not new. There is an increasing research which suggests that languages shape thinking patterns and behaviors. For instance, Keith Chen, an economist, claims that the language spoken by a person influences his/her economic choices including savings and smoking, among others (https://www.anderson.ucla.edu/faculty-and-research/strategy/faculty/chen). Similarly, other authors such as Benjamin Whorf and Eric Sapir through their seminal work have theorized the link between spoken language and the way people perceive, cognize and experience the world. Given this research, if the spoken language shapes our thinking, then one can argue that language differences will not only affect the way people perform on their jobs but will also influence the behavioral patterns observed across different professions.

Project management being a profession that is practiced in every segment of economic activity naturally involves people from different linguistic backgrounds. While the project team members may come from different linguistic backgrounds, they still have to work together applying common project management methods and processes to deliver project objectives. But, little seems to be known about the relationship between language differences and project thinking. The question is: whether spoken language differences affect project thinking or the way team members, from different linguistic backgrounds, approach project management?

The question seems to be very important given the economic implications of projects on the societies and also due to the inclusive nature of project management profession. It requires significant amount of research to find the answer to the above-stated question and certainly this article is not an attempt to achieve that. However, to help start thinking, we present below some preliminary thoughts which point to the potential areas or elements that could be considered to examine if there is any relationship between spoken language and project thinking or approach to management of projects.  Needless to say, the list of elements presented below is neither complete nor exhaustive and merely aimed at building some initial ideas.

  1. Words and vocabulary

The volume and variety of words (vocabulary) differ across various spoken language. A quick look at Wikipedia’s “List of dictionaries by number of words” shows that there is a significant variation in the total number of words (heardwords) included in the dictionaries of various spoken languages. For instance, Oxford English dictionary contains more than 171,000 words. Whereas there are dictionaries with a total word count as low as an approximately 16000 to as high as more than one million words.

This raises several questions. Does the volume or variety of words spoken across different languages affect project thinking? Is it possible to isolate and group the project thinking patterns based on various concentrations of similarly spoken languages? Is there any difference in project success ratio due to differing volume and variety of words spoken across various languages? How is project thinking shaped by the small or large quantity of root words (e.g. water can be a root-word which helps form other words such as watershed) available in a spoken language?  How learning and application of project management skills is affected by the differences in volume and variety of words in a spoken language?

Given the host of questions as highlighted above, the differences in vocabulary of languages and how such differences affect project behavioral patterns seems to be one of the potential starting points to examine the relationship between spoken languages and project thinking.

  1. Tones

A number of spoken languages include tonal variations resulting in different meaning for the same words. Such linguistic characteristics could influence the way people think. A number of questions could be examined. Whether tonal variations impact learning and application of project management skills and thus the project thinking? How does tonal languages influence project manager’s leadership style and his/her thinking patterns? Are there any differences in project thinking between people belonging to low versus high tonal languages? When the people belonging to high tonal languages work in an environment that predominantly have people from low tonal languages, does it influence project thinking of any of the groups involved in the project activity?

  1. Signs, gestures and symbols

Signs, gestures and symbols is one the key components of spoken languages. Often people use signs and gestures to express their views rather than speaking words. The use of signs and gestures varies across spoken languages. The question is how signs, gestures and symbols used in different languages influence thinking patterns? How project behaviors are shaped when people come together from linguistic backgrounds that use a large number/variety versus small number/variety of signs, gestures and symbols? Are the people with linguistic backgrounds that use large number/variety of signs, gestures and symbols in communication more effective at project management?

Project management is a time bound activity, which requires effective communication at all levels. As such, the use of signs, gestures and symbols could have some influence on the thinking patterns.

Therefore, examining what role (if any) signs, gestures and symbols play in shaping project thinking should be examined towards building a broad understanding of the impact of linguistic differences on project thinking.

  1. Synonyms and antonyms

Some languages are rich with synonyms and antonyms. It helps communication and could influence the way people think and behave. It could trigger thoughts and actions. Therefore, examining the influence of languages, that are rich versus those that are not so rich with these characteristics, on project thinking is another potential avenue.

  1. Impact-fullness of words

As the old adage goes, words are sharper than sword. Impact-fullness of spoken words is, therefore, a critical characteristic of any language. However, it is not clear how impact-fullness of words shape thinking patterns. Are the people speaking languages that have large volume and variety of impact-full words more effective in thinking and managing projects?

This is particularly important in project management context, as projects are dedicated activities which require optimization of all possible levers. Therefore, examining the role of languages rich in impact-full words versus not so rich in impact-full words is very important to build knowledge on linguistic difference and project thinking patterns.

Concluding thoughts:
One cannot over-emphasize the importance of spoken language in successful management of day-to-day lives and business activities. While some research is being done to build an understanding of the linguistic differences and thinking and actions in general human behavioral context, there seems to be little to no research on how linguistic differences affect project thinking.

Given the broader utility and application of project management for driving economic activities, it seems to be worth examining the relationship between spoken languages and project thinking. In fact, building such a knowledge could be very helpful in technological development of artificial intelligence products that could execute projects without people.

Authored by:

Professor Jiwat Ram

© 2019 Jiwat Ram, All Rights Reserved.

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Author of this post

Jiwat is a Professor in Project Management. He has considerable experience of working internationally in diverse cultures and business environments.

Jiwat is currently serving on the Editorial Board of International Journal of Project Management.

Jiwat actively contributes to project management community. His work has been published in top scientific journals and Four of his published papers have remained in Top25 most downloaded papers. Additionally, two of his papers have been ranked as the Most Cited article published since 2012. More recently, he has published a number of articles on some of the issues confronting project management in various industry based outlets.