Surveys are often fielded globally across many countries. The same survey is frequently translated into many different languages for respondents living in different countries. Even within the U.S., surveys are often fielded in both English and Spanish to capture the Hispanic audience.

People perceive the world in many different ways based on how their language interprets it, according to research from Lera Boroditsky, cognitive science professor at the University of California, San Diego. The differences shown in her research are surprising, ranging from varied perceptions of color, time and size to larger concepts like gender, intentions, and blame. And the implications for market research are significant.

We learn from Boroditsky’s research that when it comes to surveys, it’s not just a matter of translating a survey- but understanding how different words, topics or even survey design will be interpreted by different language speakers.

And on the back end, language and cultural differences must be taken into account when interpreting survey responses. This is particularly important when interpreting responses to open-ended questions where respondents are able to reply in their own words.

Language differences can have a powerful impact on how respondents describe objects, products or brands on surveys. Whether a language assigns a gender to a particular object has a strong impact on how people view that object. For example, in English, inanimate objects do not have an associated gender. However, in languages like Spanish and German, words can be masculine or feminine. Boroditsky’s research found that the way people often describe objects correlates with the object’s gender in their language. The word “bridge” is feminine in German and often described as “beautiful” and “elegant”. Yet, in Spanish, “bridge” is masculine and often described as “study” and “strong”.

Colors are seen and noticed in different ways by speakers of different languages. In English, there are many different shades that are defined as the color “blue” including teal, turquoise, light blue and dark blue. Other languages group colors differently, some with fewer names and some with more names. People who speak languages with more distinct color names are better at identifying distinct shades. For example, Russian has distinct words for light blue and dark blue. In brain scans, Russian speakers were much faster at identifying light blue and dark blue when shown different color shades than English speakers.

Grammatical structure is also impacted by language differences, with variation in the area of focus within a sentence. In English, subjects in a sentence are the focus because they do the acting. However, in Spanish, people use the passive form of the verb far more often. Because of this difference, Spanish speakers tend to notice what happened in a given situation while English speakers tend to focus on the actors involved. These differences impact both how respondents interpret a survey question as well as how they respond.