Language and Design

I’ve spent the last week in Costa Rica and a few times I’ve had to rely on my very limited Spanish to ask a question or to express a very simple idea. My native language is English and my dominant non-English language is Arabic, which I’ve studied for years and taught. I’ve spent several months in Arabic-speaking countries and have spent a lot of time practicing with students, colleagues, and friends inside and outside of the classroom. My experience with Spanish is the little bit that I learned in high school Spanish classes (which consisted mostly of writing out verb conjugations) and the occasional Spanish that I hear and the even rarer occasions when I have to speak it in the last three years since I’ve moved to San Antonio. The point is, my Spanish is not so great.

Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica.

I’ve noticed that when I have tried to speak Spanish here in Costa Rica, my Arabic keeps getting in the way. My brain will search for a “foreign language” word for something, and the first thing that pops into my head is Arabic. Then I have to push that out of the way and find the Spanish word (if I even have it). It’s very interesting to me how much interference there is from my second language when trying to speak a third language. It demonstrates to me how much more a language is than just a set of words, but an entire system of meaning that connotes a whole assemblage of habits, attitudes, beliefs, and so on. When speaking a foreign language, you often becomes a different person. Your values and attitudes may change slightly in order to fit into the linguistic and cultural discourse of which you are trying to become a part. This doesn’t happen overnight, obviously. You learn words and stitch them together to make sentences as your mouth and pronunciation gets a feel for the language. Then you hear and mimic phrases that you hear in similar situations and very slowly accumulate linguistic and cultural knowledge that makes you realize that you’re learning much more than just a language. This becoming takes a lot of time and effort. Many people may be able to communicate in a language, but never truly let themselves be changed by the language. Wherever you study or from whomever you learn, you will take on their expressions, dialect(s), and pronunciation. So you are “becoming Costa Rican” or “becoming Syrian.” It’s more than just a language. My problem with Spanish is that I haven’t started “becoming Costa Rican” and my Arabic paradigm is so much stronger than my Spanish that it keeps getting in the way.

Eventually it becomes almost intuitive. Once you reach this point, it’s hard to remember how far you’ve come. When I first began graduate school, the university made all the language students who were going to be teaching introductory classes train together in preparation for becoming university instructors. They divided us into groups so that each one contained only one teacher of a language. For example, my group would have me (Arabic), a Spanish teacher, a Korean teacher, a German teacher, and an American Sign Language teacher. Then each of us would create a short lesson in which we’d teach the other teachers the vocabulary for members of a family, or vocabulary for animals. Starting a new language from scratch made each of us realize how genuinely scary and stressful it is to come into contact with an entirely foreign language. The sounds the language makes are strange and unfamiliar, and the vocabulary words are devoid of context or any kind of familiarity. In that moment when a teacher asks you to recall and repeat a strange word you’ve only heard two or three times, you feel completely lost and even alienated. We each realized how important is to be encouraging, to repeat over and over, and to be clear and direct in intent. The lessons and their planning must be designed for the student, with empathy in mind.

The experience of learning and then teaching a language makes this painfully obvious. Any failure to relate a lesson or concept is the fault of the teacher in 99% of circumstances. The lesson was too advanced, not engaging enough, or the student’s experience and ability was not taken into account. Teaching is one of the most directly human-centered design practices that there are. The task is to relay information and to turn it into knowledge gained by the student. For a designer, this is human-centered design at its most pure and simple. So in any given design, you have to take into account the anxiety of encountering a new system, whether it’s a language, a map of bus routes, or a financial aid application. You also have to take into account how much you’ve internalized these systems and become a part of them, blinding you to the assumptions and practices that you now take for granted. Once you’ve established a system of meaning, it persists and reinforces itself, like my Arabic interfering with my Spanish. The best way to avoid this would be to have a diverse team whose backgrounds and experiences allow them to keep assumptions in check. Ideally. But that’s more often not the case. Then it becomes a part of the job of the designer and the teacher to find out who the users and the students are and to meet them where they are.