Kaplan's Thought Patterns & Intercultural Communication

Instructor: Sudha Aravindan

Sudha has a Doctor of Education degree in math education and is currently working as a Information Technology Specialist.

Have you had difficulty understanding your ESL language friend? Kaplan in a 1966 research study about cultural thought processes explains how language is a reflection of the way people think. This helps us understand how culture impacts intercultural communication in a globalized world.

Multicultural Communication

Ann is an ESL (or English as a Second Language) teacher. She has a number of students from all over the world in her class who don't speak English as their first language. The principal of Ann's school recommends that she study Kaplan's work to understand more about cultural thought patterns.

Kaplan's Cultural Thought Patterns

Robert E. Kaplan in 1966 wrote an article 'Cultural Thought Patterns in Inter-Cultural Education'. His reasoning is that each language of the world is influenced by a thought pattern that's unique to the culture or the collective customs and beliefs of the people. This thought pattern is visible in the way the sentences in a paragraph are ordered and structured. Each language has a distinctive way in which sentences in a paragraph are written, that is, reflective of the thought process.


English can be indicated by a straight line. The communication is direct and linear, doesn't go off-topic, and stays close to the main subject or topic of interest.

An example is this excerpt from Kaplan's research: 'If the king notified his pleasure that a briefless lawyer should be made a judge or that a libertine baronet should be made a peer, the gravest counselors, after a little murmuring, submitted.'

The thought process is linear, meaning that it's to-the-point and direct. The main statement and supporting statements follow in a hierarchical arrangement.

Germanic languages move in a linear progression

Semitic languages including Hebrew and Arabic:

Arabic and other Semitic languages can be indicated by a zig-zag line. The sentences are expressed as parallel propositions or statements. Oftentimes there are embedded stories, and the thoughts may not progress in a hierarchical progression.

Where we hear Semitic languages

There are different kinds of parallelisms. For example, in synonymous parallelism the first part of the sentence is balanced by the statement or idea presented in the second part. The example from Kaplan's work reads: 'His descendants will be mighty in the land, and the generation of the upright will be blessed'.

In antithesis parallelism, the idea expressed in the first part of the sentence is contrasted in the second part to make more emphasis for the first part. Kaplan provides this example: 'For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall perish'.

Oriental languages or Languages of East Asia:

Oriental languages are best represented as a spiral. The communication is indirect. A topic isn't explained in a straight forward way but viewed from different perspectives and often times goes around the central point.

As example from Kaplan is a writing about the Definition of College Education by a Korean student. He starts off by defining what a college is: 'College is an institution of an higher learning that gives degrees'. And the next sentence is about the importance of college: 'All of us needed culture and education in life'. And at the end of the paragraph after 4-5 sentences none of which directly addresses the definition of college education, he finishes off with the sentence 'so college education is a very important thing'.

Latin Romance Languages - French, Italian, Romanian, and Spanish

This can be indicated as a zig-zag line but with the lines not being parallel to each other. Communication in these languages often times digresses, or moves away from the main point. In addition, extra ideas are introduced to add to the richness of the central idea.

From Kaplan's work, a native Latin American Spanish speaker when writing about American children starts off with talking about their perspective of children in America: 'In America, the American children are brought up differently from the rest of the children in other countries'. But in the following sentence digresses to talk about their upbringing: 'I am Spanish, and I was brought up differently than the children in America'.

Because of the digressions the reader or listener will have to hear out or follow the entire argument till its conclusion to fully understand what is being communicated.


The Russian language can also be represented by non-parallel zig-zag lines, but with even more digressions which can be better indicated with a dashed or broken line pattern.

Kaplan's example is from a translation from Russian attempting to capture the original structure without sacrificing meaning. The first sentence of the paragraph states the main idea in a simple sentence: 'On the 14th of October, Kruschev left the stag of history'.

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