Language Lessons

America is supposed to be a melting pot. So why is it we only learn one language? My coworkers who were born in other countries speak between 2 and 5. My foreign language skills are limited to ordering beer in Mexico and offering sex in France. It’s not like we Americans have mastered our own language. In college I had a foreign classmate correct my English on more than one occasion. We use words loosely and figure as long as you get the gist of what we are saying that’s good enough. But are we missing something in translation? There is a connection that we create through our words. If we short change our words are we starving that link? Take texting for instance, if we skip and abbreviate words all that left is a jumbled mess. From this Morse code a reader infers what we are saying. This guessing is sterile compared with the experience of hearing poetry and personally being moved by words themselves. Without truly utilizing the language to express ourselves the words end up cold. Compare the following:

“Hear my soul speak:
The very instant that I saw you, did my heart fly to your service”
“Hey, what’s up? Interested in a movie?”

The first is from The Tempest by Shakespeare. The second is WikiHow advice on how to ask a girl out via text. Both may ultimately have the same point. Clearly the route to arrive there varies. Language is an art and like all arts necessary for living. Even in our technology infused lives we crave it. It’s ironic on one hand we shorten how we speak to friends, family and coworkers through texting, IM, and tweets. On the other we are reaching out to anyone who will listen through long winded blogs about our lives. In our conquest for quick communication and easy access to everyone, we seemed to have warped the art of conversation. In a Dresden Dolls song the singer references how she loves modern communication “but just hates the stuff were missing”. I agree. We lose something when we cheat with language. If you really want to say something to me bring out the 50 cents words, curse, do whatever it takes to express your meaning and create a connection with me. Language is not about punctuation or grammar. It’s about gut. Bring yourself to table with your words. Leave the emoticons at home.

Maybe the lost connection stems from the production of shallow thoughts. In our fast paced world we react with our tongues instead of using our heads. If we thought a little more before we spoke, our words would hold deeper meaning. In a paper about Design Thinking, Charles Burnette defines seven modes of thought: intentional, referential, relational, formative, procedural, evaluative and reflective. The first five can help us communicate more productively.

1. Intentional thought is based on the improvement of a situation. Not every idea is meant to change the world. But if we thought with purpose our words would hold more value. By stating what we want to accomplish we are more likely to succeed. Intentional language is stating the goal.

2. Referential thought identifies relevant information and resources useful to the situation. By understanding what matters we can sift through overwhelming pile of nonsense to get at what is important to us. Referential language defines significance based on the goal at hand.

3. Relational thought organizes and explores ideas regarding the situation. Once we determined want is important we need to sort it, analyze it and make discoveries. Relational language is researching the goal and finding out how to accomplish it.

4. Formative thought interprets and communicates the situation to all concerned. Our discoveries needs to be shared with the world. Formative language is an overview of the situation and research data for all concerned.

5. Procedural thought executes processes to achieve goals regarding a situation. Procedural language is action items stating what to do and how to complete the goal.

Imagine a long work email. After skimming through the paragraphs you’re not sure what you’re supposed to do. Actually you’re not even sure what the email was about. Solid written communication should: 1. State the purpose. 2. Only include useful relevant information. The reader shouldn't have to hear about you cat. 3. State how the goal was addressed. It helps to know where the crazy ideas come from. 4. State what was determined. The crazy idea is now alive. 5. Provide action items with bullets points to make it clear what is expected of the reader. Now that it lives what do you need them to do? These are the five modes of thought applied to an email.

If the first 5 modes work properly, you should feel like you know what was said and what it means to you. However most of us engage in chaotic dialog all the time. The last two modes of thought offer approaches to clarifying future conversations.

6. Evaluative thought reviews the outcomes of processes to determine how well they meet goals. Did our communication help us accomplish what we set out to do? I dare to say a third of work emails are wasted dancing in circles. People often make unclear points and rarely answer all of the questions they have been poised. Evaluative language would address these issues by determining what would have made the communication clearer.

7. Reflective thought learns from prior experiences and adapts this acquired knowledge for the future. We can use what we've learned to improve our next communication. For example I've learned that asking only one or two questions per email can increase the amount of response I receive. Reflective language is using past experience to frame future communication. Think about what works and doesn't before you open your mouth or click the keys.

To me language combines thought and emotion to make a point. When we abbreviate our communication we shorten our expression and meaning is lost. Every sentence cannot be sonnet. None of us are as poetic as Shakespeare. But in our rush to speak without thought we end up without purpose. If we apply the modes of thought to the way we structure our words, we will be more lucid. People will understand us better and require fewer explanations. My suggestion is to be short and to the point but don’t lose the point and end up short.

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