What are you saying?

October 21st, 2011  |  The Thinking Mechanism

The week began with a lively conference call between the tech teams in New York and London about multi-lingual website development strategies. A call that would end up infusing the whole week with language themes.

Later in the week, while working, we had an ongoing conversation about which language should a baby be exposed to, and even taught, beyond English. Someone suggested Chinese, which was then quickly broken down into Mandarin and Cantonese, with the observation that New York is apparently full of pre-schools that are run exclusively in Mandarin.

I suggested English, Mandarin and Spanish. The first, the almost de facto language of business, the second, spoken by the largest amount of people on Earth (and possibly the forthcoming language of business as well) and the third, spoken in the largest amount of countries.

I shared a recent article from the New York Times on how babies tell languages apart:

Recently, researchers at the University of Washington used measures of electrical brain responses to compare so-called monolingual infants, from homes in which one language was spoken, to bilingual infants exposed to two languages. Of course, since the subjects of the study, adorable in their infant-size EEG caps, ranged from 6 months to 12 months of age, they weren’t producing many words in any language.

Still, the researchers found that at 6 months, the monolingual infants could discriminate between phonetic sounds, whether they were uttered in the language they were used to hearing or in another language not spoken in their homes. By 10 to 12 months, however, monolingual babies were no longer detecting sounds in the second language, only in the language they usually heard.

The researchers suggested that this represents a process of “neural commitment,” in which the infant brain wires itself to understand one language and its sounds.

In contrast, the bilingual infants followed a different developmental trajectory. At 6 to 9 months, they did not detect differences in phonetic sounds in either language, but when they were older — 10 to 12 months — they were able to discriminate sounds in both.

“What the study demonstrates is that the variability in bilingual babies’ experience keeps them open,” said Dr. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington and one of the authors of the study. “They do not show the perceptual narrowing as soon as monolingual babies do. It’s another piece of evidence that what you experience shapes the brain.”

The learning of language — and the effects on the brain of the language we hear — may begin even earlier than 6 months of age.

Then there is music, a kind of universal language, with it’s ability to contain complex math and human emotion all at once. Exposing babies to music could help facilitate the learning of foreign languages, particularly musical languages. There is a classic Radiolab program on that theme that is a must-listen.

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The truth however, is the internet has lead everyone to create hybrids of languages that are specific to the audiences begin engaged. I speak to my family in Spanglish, using words in whichever language would best carry the message. I send SMS messages to my friends in an even more fine-tuned version of English that is also peppered with the ubiquitous acronyms of the web, a kind of global English, Globlish.

From The Economist:

Bit by bit, English displaced French from diplomacy and German from science. The reason for this was America’s rise and the lasting bonds created by the British empire. But the elastic, forgiving nature of the language itself was another. English allows plenty of sub-variants, from Singlish in Singapore to Estglish in Estonia: the main words are familiar, but plenty of new ones dot the lexicon, along with idiosyncratic grammar and syntax.

But languages aren’t only restricted to the realm of words. Today programming languages are as relevant as any spoken language and we should get comfortable with the idea of comprehending and translating from Javascriptglish, HTML5glish, Unixglish, ObjectiveCglish, looking at a bit of code and understanding it like we are in The Matrix.

Which brings us to translation.

Let’s not forget about data. No matter which language we use to collect it, data is the principal language of the 21st Century. Vast amounts of data when presented visually transcend language to convey simple truths. All one has to do is visit Information is Beautiful to understand.

When we develop brands, websites and apps we are in essence creating a new language, a new collection of icons, glyphs and interconnected relationships to share a very specific message, each project a new world of communication.

So, what are you saying? Because the 80/20 rule applies here. People comprehend you 20% on what you say and 80% on how you say it.

 

The Thinking Mechanism is a series of weekly posts, published on Fridays, covering the ideas The Mechanism is thinking and talking about with our peers and clients.

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