Special Session Summary Language and Flexibility in Thought

Nader T. Tavassoli, MIT Sloan School of Management
[ to cite ]:
Nader T. Tavassoli (2002) ,"Special Session Summary Language and Flexibility in Thought", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 185-187.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 185-187



Nader T. Tavassoli, MIT Sloan School of Management

Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that linguistic factors influence the way in which "we cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significance" (Whorf, 1940). Earlier tests of the Whorfian hypothesis focused on the idea that differences in language map onto differences in perception. For example, it was proposed that a language’s inventory of words for colors influences the perception of colors. The idea that language could affect perception has drawn sharp criticism, however, and it has been argued that the deep structure of grammar is universal (Chomsky, 1986) and that we share a universal "mentalese" (Pinker, 1994). This position assumes that language does not affect thought; that consumers learn about and evaluate products using similar mental processes globally.

Recently, the Whorfian Hypothesis has been re-conceptualized in terms of how linguistic forms affect the process of conception (Hunt & Agnoli, 1991). Consumer research has been one of the most productive research areas in terms of understanding how language affects conception and the three presentations in this session extend this idea, but also emphasize that consumers are flexible in this respect by examining bilingual language processing in particular.

Tavassoli and Han examine how language interacts with nonverbal images and sounds using native Chinese speakers and native English speakers, Chinese-English bilinguals, and consumers who are efficient within a single language, Korean, at reading both alphabetic and logographic scripts. Zhang and Schmitt examine the processing of Chinese and English by bilingual Chinese consumers in the context of brand name evaluations. Zhang nd Schmitt show that consumers are flexible in terms of sound-based processing and meaning-based processing based on factors under the marketer’s control. Luna and Peracchio examine the processing of words in terms of their consistency with nonverbal elements. Using English-Spanish bilinguals, they focus on the link established between a word and its stored meaning in the mental lexicon during first and second language processing.

To summarize, the three papers address linguistic effects that speak to the core of consumer behavior models of memory, attitudes, and affective experiences. Collectively, they make a strong case for the idea that language affects thought and that a verbal processing is flexible for bilinguals. All three papers also address the interaction between different stimuli: the interaction of word with sounds and images; the interaction of Chinese and English names based on their sound and meaning; and the interaction of words with images that are congruent or incongruent in their meaning.


Chomsky, N. (1986). Knowledge of Language: Origin, Nature and Use. New York, NY: Praeger.

Hunt, E., & Agnoli, F. (1991). The Whorfian hypothesis: A cognitive psychology perspective. Psychological Review, 98, 377-389.

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. New York: Harper Perennial.

Whorf, B. (1956). Language, thought and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. J. B. Carroll (Ed.), Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.



Nader T. Tavassoli, MIT Sloan School of Management

Jin K. Han, Singapore Management University

It is well established that reading alphabetic words is dominated by phonological (sound-based) processes, whereas phonological processes do not appear to dominate the processing of Chinese logographs, where visual processes are more pronounced (for reviews, see Tavassoli, in press; Zhou & Marslen-Wilson, 1999). Most previous demonstrations of these linguistic differences have relied on low-level processes that potentially do not involve short-term memory. For example, they have attempted to assess differences in the speed (measured in milliseconds) by which phonological and semantic information get activated in the brain. Our research adds to a growing stream of consumer behavior research that has shown these low-level processing differences to have profound implications for higher-order processes such as recall and attitude formation (Pan & Schmitt 1996; Schmitt, Pan & Tavassoli 1994; Tavassoli 1999, 2001). Specifically, we examine the interactive processing of words with sounds and images, and the flexibility bilingual and biscriptal consumers show in their processing styles (Tavassoli & Han, 2001; Tavassoli & Han, 2002).

In experiment 1, we examine interference from nonverbal information. We propose that auditory distractors should interfere more with the processing of an alphabetic script because this relies primarily on phonological processes, whereas visual distractors should interfere more with the processing of a logographic script because this relies more on visual mental processes. We presented the same words written either in the alphabetic Hangul or the logographic Hancha, two scripts that can be used interchangeably for a large subset ofKorean words. Each word was preceded and followed by sounds or simple graphics. Participants were asked to remember the words and the distractors. We found that auditory distractors impaired memory performance for Hangul more than for Hancha, whereas visual distractors showed the reverse pattern. This suggests that consumers’ processing differs based on the writing system used and that, for example, irrelevant background music would be relatively more distracting in Hangul (English) ads, whereas irrelevant graphics would be more distracting in Hancha (Chinese) ads.

In the next 3 experiments, we examined the integration in memory of words with nonverbal information which is the reciprocal effect of interference (Tavassoli, 1998). In contrast to interference, integration should be stronger the greater the processing overlap. We tested this prediction by presenting alphabetic Hangul or logographic Hancha words paired either with brand logos or with auditory icons, similar to the MGM lion’s roar. We found that memory for pairings with auditory icons was better when these were paired with brand names written in Hangul. In contrast, we found that memory for pairings with visual logos was better when these were paired with brand names written in Hancha. We replicated this interaction effect with native speakers of English and Mandarin, and bilingual speakers of English and Cantonese. In other words, the integration of verbal with non-verbal information differs based on the writing system used to present the same information by the same consumer.

In summary, this paper extends previous research on the processing of words to the interactive processing of words with nonverbal sounds and images. Moreover, it demonstrates that differences in processing language are flexible and a single bilingual or biscriptal consumer can exhibit contrasting processing styles in ways similar to native speakers of different languages.


Pan, Y., & Schmitt, B. (1996). Language and brand attitudes: Impact of script and sound matching in Chinese and English. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 5, 263-277.

Schmitt, B. H., Pan, Y., & Tavassoli, N. T. (1994). Language and consumer memory: The impact of linguistic differences between Chinese and English. Journal of Consumer Research, 21, 419-431.

Tavassoli, N. T. (1998). Language in multimedia: Interaction of spoken and written information. Journal of Consumer Research, 25, 26-37.

Tavassoli. N. T. (1999). Temporal and associative memory in Chinese and English. Journal of Consumer Research, 26, 170-181.

Tavassoli, N. T., & Han, J. K. (2001). Scripted thought: Processing Korean Hancha and Hangul in a multimedia context. Journal of Consumer Research, 28 (December).

Tavassoli, N. T., & Han, J. K. (2002). Auditory and visual brand identifiers in Chinese and English. Journal of International Marketing, forthcoming.

Tavassoli, N. T. (2001). Color memory and evaluations for alphabetic and logographic brand names. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 7 (June), 104B111.

Zhou, X., & Marslen-Wilson, W. (1999). Phonology, orthography, and semantic activation in reading Chinese. Journal of Memory and Language, 41, 579-606.



Shi Zhang, UCLA

Bernd H. Schmitt, Columbia University

Whenever U.S. brands enter foreign markets such as China, where the local writing system is different from that of English, brand name translation methods are an important entry decision. The most interesting and challenging translation situation involves original brand names that are non-words (e.g., Avon, Dell, or Morgan Stanley). Non-words lack denotative meaning and translating them is equivalent to a new brand name creation process (e.g., Sligman 1986).

Existing research on branding and naming does not directly deal with name translations that involve different language writing systems. Within the limited research on brand naming in English, it has been suggested that a brand name in an international market should meet the criterion of "transferability" across cultures (e.g. Keller 1998). Names that are created as meaningful (e.g., PicturePerfect Television) should be more effective than names that are non-meaningful (e.g. Emporium Television) (Keller, Heckler and Houston 1998; Meyers-Levy 1989).

We examined methods where a local Chinese name is created by adding product-relevant meaning, preserving the original sound, or preserving sound while adding meaning. We contrasted these methods in the context of a dual-name approach where both the English and Chinese names are used, as is typical in the Chinese market. We build on the idea that the names would be evaluated interactively and that the bilingual consumers can be made flexible in their processing styles (Zhang & Schmitt, 2001).

In Experiment 1, native Chinese subjects with English knowledge were presented with dual names across a number of product categories in a between-subjects design of 3 (translation method: sound, meaning, or both) x 2 (language emphasis: English or Chinese). Translations based on sound were rated higher when the English language was emphasized, whereas translations based on meaning and on meaning-plus-sound were rated similarly high regardless of which language was emphasized. We suggest that native Chinese speakers are habitually tuned towards meaning-oriented processing, and that they are only sensitized to phonetic similarity when primed by the emphasis of the English brand name. We tested this idea in Experiment 2.

In Experiment 2, subjects were presented with dual names across a number of product categories in a between-subjects design of 2 (meaning component of the name: good or bad) x 2 (sound component of the name: good or bad) x 2 (language emphasis: English or Chinese). As expected, in the English emphasis condition, good phonetic translations were evaluated higher regardless of whether the meaning component of the Chinese name was good or bad. By contrast, when Chinese was emphasized, translations that were good in meaning were evaluated higher regardless of whether the phonetic component of the name was good or bad.

In Experiment 3 we used a different prime than language emphasis, namely the translation method of the first foreign entrant into the category which is often copied by newcomers (e.g., Napster was followed by Macster and Aimester). We used a 3 (translation method of the prior entry brand: sound, meaning or both) x 3 (name of the target brand: translated by sound, by meaning or both) mixed design. As expected, subjects evaluated new names higher when their translation method matched the first foreign entrant’s method.

Finally, we conducted a field study (data under analysis) through proper sampling of stores and product categories to collect real dual names in the Chinese market. Data on linguistic characteristics, market entry order and prior brand translation methods, as well as language emphasis conditions will be used to further empirically validate our experimental results.


Keller, K. L. (1998). Strategic Brand Management. NJ: Prentince-Hall.

Keller, K. L., Heckler, S. E., & Houston, M. J. (1998). The effects of brand name suggestiveness on advertising recall. Journal of Marketing. 48-57.

Meyers-Levy, J. (1989).The influence of a brand name’s association set size and word frequency on brand memory. Journal of Consumer Research, 16, 197-207.

Sligman, S. D. (1986). Translating your trade mark into Chinese. The China Business Review. Nov.-Dec., 14-16.

Zhang, S., & Schmitt, B. H. (2001). Creating local brands in multilingual international markets. Journal of Marketing Research, 38 (August).



David Luna, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Laura A. Peracchio, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Approximately 77% of all web sites are presented solely in English (Boutlin 2000). Because of the web’s global nature as a medium for communication, it is important to understand how international visitors process English-language web sites (Samiee 1998). In this research, we begin to examine the impact of web site language and visual cues on the attitudes and site navigation experiences of international visitors to English-language web sites. We propose that consumers differ in their processing of verbal information based on whether this is presented in their first language (L1) or second language (L2).

Based on a model of bilingual language processing that specifies that L1 stimuli are generally easier to process than L2 stimuli (Kroll and de Groot 1997), we examine the interactive effect of language and graphics on web site evaluations. In an empirical study, bilingual subjects from Spain navigated and evaluated the web site of a camera retailer. We found that when the web site was in English (subjects’ L2), graphics only enhanced the site evaluations when they were highly congruent with the verbal content of the site. Congruent graphics facilitated the ability to process L2 words leading to the highest L2 evaluations in a high graphics-text congruity conditions as compared to a low congruity and a no graphics conditions.

For sites in Spanish (subjects’ L1), however, evaluations peaked in low graphics-text congruity conditions relative to high congruity and no graphics conditions. The redundancy of the graphics in the high congruity condition was tedious for L1 subjects, whereas the low graphics-text congruity stimulated further processing over the no-graphics condition.

Subjects were asked to list their thoughts about the web site. Analyses of these thought protocols confirmed that the observed results were due to information elaboration asymmetries in L1 versus L2 sites (as measured by the total number of thoughts produced by participants) and that when the sites provide an opportunity for extensive processing (i.e., L1-congruent sites), they result in a higher proportion of negative to positive thoughts.

We replicated these results in a second experiment conducted with bilingual individuals in the US. Together, these findings suggest that the interaction of verbal and visual information is processed differently by consumers depending on whether the verbal information is in their first versus second language.

In both studies, we also explored how the interaction of visual (web site graphics) and verbal (L1 versus L2) information impact the site navigation experience of consumers. An optimal navigation experience, or flow (Hoffman and Novak 1996), is generally desirable since it is thought to result in "sticky" sites. We found that attitudes towardthe site mediate the effect of site characteristics on the achievement of flow by consumers.

Our results extend previous research on the memory processes of bilingual consumers (Luna and Peracchio, in press) and suggest that language processing by bilinguals can also have an impact on affective-experiential responses. In addition, we also investigate the process by which bilingual individuals navigate the web site and develop evaluations. Among other findings, we show that visual cues can enhance or diminish bilinguals’ evaluations depending on the language of the stimulus. A revised and refined model of bilingual language processing emerges from this research and previous research by the authors.


Boutlin, P. (2000). 1.6 billion served. Wired, December, 118-120.

Hoffman, Donna and Thomas Novak (1996), "Marketing in Hypermedia Computer-Mediated Environments: Conceptual Foundations," Journal of Marketing, 60 (July), 50-68.

Kroll, J.F. & A. de Groot (1997). Lexical and conceptual memory in the bilingual: Mapping form to meaning in two languages. In Tutorials in Bilingualism: Psycholinguistic Perspectives, A. de Groot & J. F. Kroll (Eds.), Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 169-199.

Luna, D., & Peracchio, L. A. (2001). Moderators of language effects in advertising to bilinguals: A psycholinguistic approach," Journal of Consumer Research, 28 (September).

Samiee, S. (1998). The Internet and international marketing: Is there a fit? Journal of Interactive Marketing, 12 (4), 5-21.