What Is The Real Problem We Have In Understanding Each Other?


Wednesday, 8.42pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Literacy. noun. The condition or quality of being literate, especially the ability to read and write.

We forget just how hard it is to learn something for the first time. That steep learning curve, the one that seems almost vertical. Is it even really worth attempting? If you have never played an instrument and decided to pick one up today how long do you think it would be before you gave up and went back to doing the things you know how to do? Not very long, probably.

Maybe this gives us a clue as to why people find it hard to understand one another. Maybe it comes down to language. We know that a person who speaks only English will find it hard to talk to someone who speaks only Tamil. They probably end up creating an intermediate language, a mix of signs and sounds that help them get across what they mean. Now, this might seem obvious when you think of real languages – but you often find that the same kind of issues crop up when people speak the same language, but differently.

For example, engineers, accountants and lawyers might look at the same situation and think and say very different things. One might talk in terms of lengths and volumes, another in terms of costs and allocations and the last in terms of risks and liabilities. They’re each saying things that are rich and meaningful to themselves and only a little better than gibberish to the others. And the reason for that is we’re not born knowing how to understand each other. We’re also not born into some kind of sinister society that wants to control how we think. We’re just in a situation where the inefficiencies of language show up in day to day misunderstandings.

I figured the way to explore this was to find papers that looked at the problems people face with language learning and came across one by Ferguson et al (2011) that looks at how English is the dominant language of academic publication and whether this disadvantages non-native speakers. Is it just because the English ruled over much of the world and is this a result of linguistic imperialism, the transfer of an oppressor’s language to everyone else?

Not really, the authors argue. The thing about any language is that just being a native speaker doesn’t mean you’re any good at using that language effectively. Literacy is much much more than speaking a language at home. It’s about reading, certainly, but it’s also about writing. And the ability to read and write well is not something innate – you get it through a formal education and by spending a lot of time practising.

And it’s this point that is probably the one that matters most. If you want to be good at something you have to stop and ask yourself just how much time you’ve spent learning and practising this thing. You will naturally do that if you’re talking about Tennis or playing the violin. No one expects to be good at those things immediately. But if you’re asked about strategy, or invited to work through a brainstorming session you think you can jump in and do as well as anyone else. After all, how many times have you watched the telly and thought you could do so much better than the numpties on there?

When it comes to academic papers a lack of language skills is rarely the problem – it’s the lack of academic skills that results in your work being rejected. If you haven’t designed your study well, can’t tell your story and don’t know what readers are looking for, then it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a native speaker or not. Your work is still rubbish and will stay rubbish until you get better – which comes with time and practice.

Now, what the authors also point out is that if you’re a non-native speaker you do face additional difficulties writing in a foreign language. Your ideas may be sound but your expression may need some work. In the 1995 film A Walk In The Clouds, the character Alberto Aragon says, “Just because I talk with an accent doesn’t mean I think with an accent.” It’s easy for native speakers, however, to focus on the errors and not on the substance of what someone is saying. Conversely, I’ve noticed that speakers of one language are much more conscious of “getting it right” and strain to produce sounds that they think are authentic rather than just having a go and trying to talk to each other.

The difficulties people face with communicating in the same language and different languages parallel the challenges that come up when we ask people to use a method or approach that we’ve devised. For example, I’m interested in Soft Systems Methodology and have developed a method to work through a problematic situation and gain an appreciation of what’s going on. There are other people who have come up with approaches to visual thinking that use different techniques and ideas. What we’ve created is a sort of language, one that models ideas and relationships – related in the sense that drawing is at the heart of both languages but different perhaps in our approaches to sense making using drawing.

We will have some difficulty getting our points across if we try and use our methods to explain rather than trying to see how the other person is doing the same job. But it’s worse for the participants who are trying to get their heads around the intricacies of the visual language and the ideas they are trying to explore. You can see how these situations can very quickly lead to confusion. “We need a common language,” someone will say eventually, and that’s one answer. But it’s not necessarily one that improves things. For example, you might say we need a common metric that an engineer and finance person can use to talk about a project – something like a discounted cash flow that lets you work out a net present value. “Good,” says the engineer, and computes one. “Ah,” says the accountant and asks what answer you really want, because the value can be anything you like if you mess around enough with the assumptions.

I think the takeaway here is something like this. If you come up with a way to do something, think about it as if you’ve invented your own language. Maybe it helps you think better but eventually if you want to work with someone else you need to translate your thoughts into a language you can both understand. Or, if you want to be really forward thinking about this, translate it into the other person’s native language. But whatever language you use the fact is that you’ll need to spend time and effort getting literate at it, first being able to read and write, and then being able to do both well. There are no shortcuts.

Now, the actual point of the paper was to ask whether the global dominance of English was a bad thing. The conclusion they head towards appears to be that you do need a common language for scientific discussion and English happens to already be that language. You might not like it and you might want to change it but it’s simply so embedded into the way everything works that it’s just going to keep being used. It’s not really going to be British English or American English but just English and some people will get exercised about whether you should keep a “u” in or out of a word but it won’t really matter either way.

What that means for visual thinkers and methodology creators and engineers and lawyers and finance professionals is that you can do your thinking in whatever way helps you think best. If others are willing to play with you using the language you prefer, then great – knock yourself out. When you explain it to others, however, just do it in plain English.


Karthik Suresh


Ferguson, G, Pérez‐Llantada, C, and Plo, R, “English as an international language of scientific publication: A study of attitudes,” World Englishes 30, pp. 41‐59 (2011).

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