Does Language influence Data Analysis and Visualization

Optical Illusion

I came across an interesting article in the WSJ that discussed the role of language and its influence on the way people see the world. The argument being that language effects our perceptions and interactions. An extreme example quoted was “The Piraha, a tribe in the Amazon in Brazil, whose language eschews number words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quantities.”

This got me thinking. What is the impact of this research on data analysis and data visualization, and subsequently on the vendors that develop these software solutions?

The point made in the article was that significant differences in language (even amongst economically developed nations) impact on the way people understand and interpret the world. For example reading from left to right versus right to left will determine the way in which people prefer to view the direction of plotted timelines (an impact on time series analysis). And it is not just time but spatial understanding as well.

"About a third of the world’s languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes. They perform navigational feats scientists once thought were beyond human capabilities. This is a big difference, a fundamentally different way of conceptualizing space, trained by language.

Differences in how people think about space don’t end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build many other more complex or abstract representations including time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality and emotions," and it does not stop there, "In addition to space and time, languages also shape how we understand causality. "

Not that I have any deeper insights but certainly it’s an interesting perspective when considering the dominant theories of data visualization and their mono-cultural viewpoint. Maybe the future of data visualization will incorporate new and diverse ideas based on how other cultures view and visualize the world of data.

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