Does Language and Culture Affect Search Techniques?

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Betty Birner at the Linguistic Society of America discusses how some linguists feel that the language you speak, and your cultural background, affects the way you think. While there is no discussion of search engines, if this hypothesis is true, your background likely affects the way you search – and possibly your success at it. A study of linguistics and search techniques could be the key to successful semantic search engines.

For example, there’s a mention of a language called Guugu Yimithirr, which is spoken in North Queensland, Australia. It does not have words for left, right, front or back, and instead uses the equivalent of north, south, east and west to describe the same thing.

Then there are words that are pluralized in English but not in other languages. Or there are nuances of state, such as multiple words for types of snow in some Native Canadian cultures. In India, depending on where you are, there’s a difference in wording for rice depending on whether it’s cooked or not – but not in all parts of the country. As well, there are different words for the relationships between family members dependent on their relative age to their own siblings.

Now that’s not to say there isn’t a term for certain words in English. Rather, in English, we might use a compound form instead. Birner concludes that learning another language will probably not change the way you think. I disagree, both from firsthand experience as a multilingual and from observing other English-speaking multilinguals of various ages and cultures.

Still, even if I’m wrong and my observations are a fluke, it’s possible that when we’re talking semantic search, an English-speaking searcher may expect/ accept different search results depending on their non-English backgrounds. As such, a welcome personalization feature in a semantical search engine might be a choice of culture. This might especially be true for voice-based search engines, since we tend to be less formal in voice conversations than in print. Thoughts?

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  • Jordan McCollum

    As a trained linguist and speaker of 3 languages, I actually agree with Birner’s statement. Learning a language is more than learning words, it’s learning concepts (which I think you do a great job of explaining here). Learning another language after the ‘critical period’ is often difficult because no two languages have concepts that “translate” on a 1-to-1 basis. Despite studying Spanish since I was 12, I have yet to master the subjunctive mood and map the exact usages of prepositions in every day speech–because these language concepts are so different from my own native language’s.

    (Spanish is great because you can spend five years learning it and think you have it down pretty good and then realize you know nothing.)

    Growing up bilingual, on the other hand, is different.

  • Jordan McCollum

    Oh, and as for if/how it affects your searching:

    Depends. Most queries are conceptually based. What if you’re using a search engine that was originally designed for another language’s set of concepts? Or not searching in your native language? Will the search engine understand? Will you?

    I think that most true semantic search engines (2nd and 3rd tier) are based around single languages–for native speakers, by native speakers. It will be a while before they really have to worry about cross-language issues.

  • Raj Dash

    Jordan: Did you learn other languages after the age of 5 or before? I.e., did you grow up multilingual?

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    Google talked about several of those things at their searchology event in May where they announced the universal search.

    See video (2+ hours)

    search engines do consider those differences, but they do it today more by geographic than culture. That might change with the personalized search. I am also looking forward to the cross language search that they demonstrated and talked about, especially in combination with personalized search.

    Language is a reflection of culture and thus causes different ways of thinking by people from different cultures. It’s not only the language, but also the values and priorities and what is considered more relevant than something else.

    While the differences (in general) between the first world countries in Europe and North America are relatively small, do exist huge gaps between the thinking of people from the “civilized” world and people from what is referred to the 3rd world.

    It’s an interesting problem and every search engine that serves customers beyond a single region or country has to considers this stuff or will lose relevance and customers because of it.

  • Raj Dash

    Thanks, Carsten. I didn’t know that Google was working on cross-language search. That will be interesting.

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    See Google Blog and Techcrunch

    Interesting stuff.

  • domy drewniane

    Really nice article.Greatings

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    Check out this Google Translate Beta.
    It’s the thing I mentioned in action.

    It’s pretty nice. I played around with it a bit for the English to German search and back translation.