It goes without saying that language barriers can pose a challenge at meetings.
When attendees can’t speak to each other or don’t understand a specific educational session because there’s a language gap, the event quickly loses value. But did you ever stop to think about how different languages create different perceptions or cultural biases altogether?
In a recent Hidden Brain podcast, Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive science professor at the University of California, San Diego, explains how different languages shape how people think about time, navigation and gender. For instance, in several languages such as Spanish, nouns take on a feminine or masculine identity, which in turn reflects how Spanish speakers think of, say, a hotel. The masculine noun often encourages people to describe it with more masculine features such as “strong” or “tall.” In one Australian language, speakers don’t use the words “right” or “left” and instead are hyper aware of their directions, calling out things happening to the north or south of them.
A TED Talk about language and its effect on economic planning shows how languages force speakers of those languages to think about time differently. In English, for instance, you speak grammatically different when referring to the past, present and future, creating a very specific perception about time. In comparison, the Chinese language, doesn’t have these differences, and instead a Chinese speaker would say, “It rain tomorrow,” instead of the “It will rain tomorrow” English counterpart. Because this language difference requires the speakers to think differently about time, studies have shown that when it comes to economic planning, those who speak about the future as a distant thing oftentimes don’t plan ahead for their future self in the way that someone who speaks about the future as if it’s the same as the present.
These examples are just the beginning of how language can shape the perceptions of multilingual attendees. Listen to both podcasts to get a better understanding of language and how oftentimes not understanding the words in another language is just the beginning of how to address the language barrier when hosting attendees from all over the world.