Reinterpreting Language

Note to reader:  Previous entries or white papers offered from UnLearnReLearn may contain useful context for understanding this topic.

I spoke previously about three areas in which every human can learn and know as language, body and emotion.  This is a different way of understanding learning and knowing than most of us experienced growing up.  Even today 90% of our formal education revolves around cognitive skills that are expressed in a language of some sort.  This includes reading, writing, logic, mathematics, analysis and most scientific study.  These are the areas we teach to and test for.  We have not yet incorporated explicit emotional or somatic learning in our main stream way formal education.  And in our informal education we do not explicitly teach about emotions or the body very deeply.  These are not indictments or complaints but only an acknowledgment that there are enormous opportunities for us to learn more broadly and in areas that are tremendously rich and useful.  And even in the area of language there are fundamentals that we do not think to teach.  Learning what we might call the mechanics or language can help to an extraordinary degree each day.  

Language is itself magical.  Can you imagine a life without it?  It is unlikely that you would be able to think, you would not be able to share your experiences in any way except pointing and grunting, the limitations this would put on life as we know it are almost unimaginable.  Yet, we often treat this ability without respect or consideration.  And, if we take a look, we will see that we miss teaching some of the most fundamental properties of language.  

And language has several amazing properties.  First, language creates distinctions.  It allows us to discern the difference between and, as importantly, share that knowledge with others.  One kind of red berries nurtures us, another makes us sick.  Language allows us to name the differences and communicate that to others.  This one ability is the source of expertise and specialization.  What distinguishes me from a lawyer is that someone with legal training and knowledge has distinctions about the law, laws and how the legal system operates.  That knowledge gives them value as a guide when I need to enter the legal world.  In a similar way the ability to distinguish allows the coffee taster or perfume maker to identify in very nuanced ways a superior product.  The ability to distinguish is the reason many sports commentators are former players or coaches.  They have distinctions for the game that the average television viewer does not.  Knowing and being able to articulate distinctions is what makes one an expert.  This property of language is a descriptive quality.  It allows us to describe or verbally recreate experiences for others with the hope they will be able to see what we see.

A property of language that has emerged in the past 100 years is the idea that language is generative.  Simply put the use of language creates the world we see and also changes our experience of the world.  It isn't simply talk.  If I we were to agree on having coffee tomorrow and arrived at the place and time as planned it would be evidence of this property of language.  The two of us arriving at the same place at the same time with the intention of sharing coffee would probably not have happened by accident.  We altered the world through our promise to meet.  When we declared we would meet we each began to shape our futures to fulfill that commitment.  Another way of saying this is that we generate action through language.  Language does not precede action language is action.  This is the claim.  There are only five things we can be doing whenever or however we use language.  (Some articulations give six rather than five.  For a more detailed explanation please see the white paper ReLearning Language).  That means that in any thought, comment, question, text, email, movie script, there are only these five things that a person can be doing.  Only five speech acts.  Each of these five acts has a specific role to play in human communication and each has a constant structure regardless of the idiom in which it is expressed.  Learning these mechanics is a powerful set of tools that we have so far not chosen to teach our children and are only now learning ourselves.

Language is also an historical phenomenon.  You grew up speaking a particular language as a result of this historical property of language.  Those things that jump out of your mouth that sound like your mother - and that you've promised yourself you'll never say  - are more evidence.  The way you think (in language) is historical, learned and inherited.  Without this property each new generation would need to begin the process of learning from scratch, which of course, we don't.  The implication is that changing our way of thinking may be more challenging than we believe because the weight of our linguistic history will continually pull us back to ways of thinking that preceded us as individuals and have become embodied, or part of us, over time.  

In work with our clients we often hear stories of overwhelm or people complaining of not having enough time.  Given that we can't manufacture more time it makes sense that the solution would be in the direction of being more effective with the time we have.  Learning to be rigorous in the use of language by making effective requests and offers, obtaining grounded promises, listening for the distinction between assessments (opinions) and assertions (facts) and leveraging the power of declarations can save any one of us significant time and energy.  An example can be taken from fast food restaurants that may not be masterful at creating nutritious food but are very good at shaving time off their processes.  They have figured out that giving you 10 pre-articulated menus will, in the end, save them the time it would otherwise take you to formulate your request.  And that will help them make more money.  It may look like a convenience to us but it is mostly in their interest to increase the effectiveness of the conversation.  

The potential for us to get better at using the tool of language are enormous and exist in every moment and interaction.  For a deeper dive into this topic read our white paper ReLearning Language.  For more depth yet contact us for a conversation.  

Dan Newby