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Language & Reality: Speaking the Same Language but Lost in Translation

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

By: Megan Sanchez

What is a language and how does it affect your thought processes?

Suriasumantri, an Indonesian neural scientist, defines language as the channel capable of expressing the infinite field of human understanding.

It is a means that transcends something intangible like the expression of symbols and concepts into something tangible like words.

Fundamentally, language is a tool that shapes and builds the reality surrounding you.

This is a notion that has been studied extensively in linguistics, dating back to the 1930s.

Prominent linguists and scientists such as Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf hypothesized that languages influence your thought processes, determine what is ‘logical’ or ‘illogical’ to you, and, therefore, shape how you perceive reality.

This stance met great enthusiasm throughout the 1950s, however, soon the interest would encounter disenchantment due to “near complete lack of evidence to support their claims” (Boroditsky, 2010).

Since the rise of the Information Age, the deepening of globalization and the access to more advanced technology, the Sapir-Whorfian hypothesis is being redignified thanks to newfound scientific evidence.

globalization and information age

Lera Boroditsky and her analysis on how Mandarin vs. English speakers perceive “space and time” provides insight to this.

This will be seen in the first section order to shed light on how different languages influence your perception of reality.

The second section, instead, will present a case study where English native-monolingual speakers will be compared to English speakers in international schools.

Boroditsky has demonstrated how speaking in different languages results in a different perception of reality.

The aim of this study is to go one step further.

The goal is to demonstrate how subjects who fundamentally speak the same language may still perceive reality differently.

Case study 1: Mandarin Speakers vs. English Speakers

example of Mandarin characters

Lera Boroditsky is an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD and Editor in Chief of “Frontiers” in Cultural Psychology.

In 2010, Boroditsky published a breakthrough study revealing how Mandarin speakers conceptualize time and space as opposed to English speakers.

The two groups were given a series of temporal sequences shown in pictures which they were supposed to distribute across a plane.

The Mandarin monolinguals showed that 30% of the time, they would distribute the pictures in vertical order across space.

Instead, their English counterparts never did so.

In a different set of experiments, Lera Boroditsky asked the two groups to arrange time by pointing to 3D space surrounding them.

The speakers were tested in their native language and results demonstrated that Mandarin speakers organized time on a vertical axis in 3D space 43.6% of the time whereas the English organized time vertically only 2.5% of the time.

In scientific terms, this behavior is called ‘vertical perception of time’ vs. ‘horizontal perception of time’.

transcribing study outcomes

It appears that the studies prove that English speaking peoples perceive time and space ‘horizontally’ whereas Mandarin speakers perceive time and space ‘vertically.’

What could account for this different perception of time, space and reality?

Regarding Boroditsky’s study, I can comment on her experiment from a structural linguistic point of view.

I believe it is interesting to note that in Mandarin verbs do not conjugate.

This means that verbs do not alter structural form in order to indicate a shift in time.

the infinite bond of time and space

Rather, speakers use spatial morphemes such as ‘qian’ (front) or ‘hou’ (back) to indicate whether the verb is describing an action in the future or in the past.

Further, they also use vertical morphemes to indicate past or future months.

The phrase ‘‘sha`ng ge yue`’’ translates to ‘last month’ where the unique word ‘shang’ means ‘up’.

It follows that a vertical shift in space ‘upwards’ corresponds in the mind of the Mandarin speaker to a ‘backward’ shift in time, hence the ‘last month.’

languages and perception of reality

It appears that even the structural linguistic analysis confirms both the Sapir-Whorfian hypothesis and Boroditsky’s cognitive experiments.

The language that the test subjects are experimented in demonstrates that it influences the perception of reality around them.

This segment shows the body of scientific evidence and quantitative data that were lacking prior to breakthrough experiments such as the one conducted by Lera Boroditsky.

English Native Speakers vs. English Speakers in International Schools

Let us now ask a different question.

What if you are speaking with a native English speaker who has been born and raised in an Anglo-Saxon country, while you have been raised in many different countries, but you’ve always been educated in English-speaking-schools?

You would both be communicating in English i.e, the same language, but there would still be, perhaps, some stark differences in the way you communicate with the native English speaker.

What could account for two people communicating in English but still being lost in translation?

One of the many answers includes, for example, what other languages at least one of the two subjects speaks in addition to English.

Let us hypothesize that one of the two speakers is also an Arabic speaker with one parent from Morocco.

A poem about love in Arabic

Arabic is a rich, unique language that reveals many things even by just observing its pattern of orthography.

Instead of writing from the left to the right, like English speakers, Arabic speakers organize their writing from right to left.

Patterns in orthography have been found to influence people’s representations of time and space from studies dating back to the 1990s by prominent individuals like Tversky (Ouellet et al., 2010; Tversky et al., 1991).

Hebrew speakers (who also read and write text arranged from right to left) likewise have been proven to arrange time from right to left and associate earlier times with the right side of space (ibidem).

By deductive reasoning, one can conclude that if an individual is capable of speaking Hebrew or Arabic, they innately are able to perceive time and space in more additional directions besides the left-right horizontal perception of time-space of English speakers.

Subsequently, one can conclude that if that same bilingual individual is communicating in English with a native English speaker, the two, may on occasion, perceive time and space differently even though they are communicating in the same language.

Below, a study conducted in November 2019 (9 questions) interviewed a sample of English speakers raised in international English schools with a majority of multilingual speakers.

The answers to question one support the hypothesis that speaking additional languages or being exposed to different cultures influences the way you communicate in English.

A whopping 88.89% believe that their English is influenced and changed in some way due to an international environment in their school.

The answers to question number 2 again support the idea that English speakers in international schools may start speaking English differently, especially if the speakers are living in a non-English speaking country.

The answers to question number 3 demonstrate that no matter what environment you are in (international or domestic) it will still influence and change the way you communicate in the language you are speaking in.

The answers to question number 4 demonstrate that a wholesome 100% of the interview sample population believes that culture and language are in nature intrinsic.

The answers to question number 5 still demonstrate a majority favoring YES (44.44%) when asked if they feel that the language they speak influences how they perceive reality.

NB: Subjects were not shown Lera Boroditsky’s studies nor findings, but still demonstrate the same positive outcomes.

All answers were based on individual reasoning processes (‘open-reasoning’).

The answers to question number 8 demonstrate that 88.89% of interviewees support this study’s hypothesis. English polyglots are believed to communicate very differently in the English language compared to English-native-monolinguals.

100% of participants feel that a language is not only tied to a culture, but also is capable of shaping your mindset, belief system and thought processes.

88.89% of participants believe that English non native multilingual speakers and English native monolingual speakers perceive reality differently even when they both communicate in the English language.

The last survey question highlights that 100% of test subjects feel that even though two persons may both communicate in English, ultimately their perceptions of reality may differ – especially if one of the two has been practicing English outside of “native culture”.


All in all, Lera Boroditsky’s studies have demonstrated that speaking a different language will correspond to a different perception of time-space and therefore of a diverse interpretation of reality.

The second half of this study builds on Lera’s studies and asks the question: can two speakers that are both communicating in English perceive reality differently?

The answer is yes if at least one of the two speakers is either bilingual or multilingual and has also had exposure to a multicultural-English environment, like in the case of English international schools.

What languages do you speak and how do you believe they affect your perception of reality?

“I know all those words, but that sentence makes no sense to me.” Matt Groening
“Meow” means “woof” in cat.” George Carlin
“Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words.” Rumi


Megan Sanchez is Founder and CEO of EVMO News. Her passion for linguistics began when she was raised abroad in 4 different countries, inspiring her to study 7 languages.

Her education has been conducted for the majority of the time in English speaking international schools across Europe and Eurasia.

This inspired her to dig deeper into the dynamics of the different expressions of the English language and how they differ.


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