Do Spoken Language Differences Affect Project Thinking?

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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 increasing research that 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 (

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, categorize, 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 is 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 the project management profession. It requires a 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, we have looked at few key areas below to get some thinking going.

  1. Words and vocabulary

The volume and variety of words (vocabulary) differ across various spoken languages. A quick look at Wikipedia’s “List of dictionaries by the 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, the Oxford English dictionary contains more than 171,000 words. Whereas there are dictionaries with a total word count as low as 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 are 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 point 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 do tonal languages influence a 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 has people from low tonal languages, does it influence the project thinking of any of the groups involved in the project activity?

  1. Signs, gestures, and symbols

Signs, gestures, and symbols are 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 a small number/variety of signs, gestures, and symbols? Are the people with linguistic backgrounds that use a 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 a large volume and variety of impact-full words more effective in thinking and managing projects?

This is particularly important in the project management context, as projects are dedicated activities that 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.

What are your thoughts on how spoken languages influence thought process?


Jiwat Ram
Jiwat Ram
Jiwat is currently working as a Professor in Project management at Excelia Business School France. He did his Ph.D. from the University of South Australia and MBA in International Business from AIT Thailand. Jiwat has over 20 years experience of working in industry across banking, construction, service, and education sectors in an international setting. For the last more than 10 years, Jiwat has worked in academia teaching at Executive Education, Master’s, and bachelor’s levels. His teaching includes courses on Artificial Intelligence, project management, management, and research methodology. Jiwat has published his research work in top-tier, high-impact factor journals including the International Journal of Production Economics, the International Journal of Project Management, Computers in Human Behaviour, the Journal of Global Information Management, and Enterprise Information Systems, among others. Combining academic and non-academic work, he has published over 100 articles in journals, conferences and industry outlets. His published work has been well received and four of his published papers have ranked in the Top 25 most downloaded papers from ScienceDirect. His two papers have been ranked in the Top 25 Most Cited articles as well. Jiwat’s research is focused on the impacts of technologies such as Social Media, Big Data, and Artificial Intelligence on businesses and society. Jiwat likes to understand how we can leverage upon the use of innovative technologies for business growth and productivity. Jiwat regularly contributes towards the development of new thought and ideas in business and technology management. As such, he has a growing portfolio of publications on some of the contemporary issues in the management of projects and organizations. Jiwat also publishes his work on social media platform Linkedin to connect and reach out to other industry professionals. His work has received a good following with a significant number of posts cited as reaching top 1% engagement on Linkedin. Jiwat’s content on LinkedIn can be accessed at: #ideannovation_jiwat Please feel free to connect with Jiwat on LinkedIn by clicking on the Icon above.

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  1. This is a great subject, Jiwat Ram.

    I think you have at least three different concepts hiding in the article.

    One is whether the spoken language is this or that with all the body language that may be included with that language. Does it matter to project management whether we all speak English or German, for example?

    The second is if more than one language is spoken by people involved with a project and how it influences execution that some speak a language that is not their mother tongue. If so, does it matter if the foreign speakers come from a language family very different from the one they are asked to employ or one that is similar?

    The first thought your post brought up was along a third dimension: If we come from different professions and are collaborating on a mutual project, do we even take out the same meaning when we use the same words?
    In many organizational development initiatives, step one is to define a common conceptual framework exactly to assure that we all agree on what words mean. And in that process it is important to make it OK to ask for clarification when people with different backgrounds throw around their professional vocabulary.
    We often talk as if everybody should understand as obvious what took us years of study to learn.