That may sound like older generation ranting about how text-speak isn’t real words or established authors grumbling about the lack of craft in flash famous young adult or fan fiction novels but there is something far deeper at stake than simple grousing about ‘younger folk these days’. We think in language thus, the quality of our thoughts depends on the quality of our language. If ‘we think, therefore we are’ then how we think has immense power over how we live.
The job interview, the entrance exam, the first date, getting the exact items you want from a drive-through can either go well or poorly depending on our skill with language. Verbal, non-verbal, written, it all counts. Some people have a natural talent for language, some don’t. Either way our aptitude with language of any form, as with all skills, requires training and practice.
But our skill only gets us so far unless the quality of our language is equally sound. While there is definite truth in the adage about the craftsman who blames their tools there is also a solid truth in ‘a craftsman is only as good as their tools’. Even a master carpenter will only be able to achieve so much with only a sharpened rock and a mallet. Skill alone is not enough, we need to put just as much effort into the quality of our ‘tools’.
From our pre-industrial history where reading and writing were the privilege of the few in power and the global literacy rate was barely over 10% to our current global rate of around 86% education and technology have brought access and training in language to more and more people.
The struggle over the quality of our language, however, has only truly started to reveal its consequences in our modern ‘comment section’ driven world where achieving a reaction has become more important than conveying an actual message. How long do most comment threads actually remain on topic before devolving into posturing, ‘telephone tough guy’ threats, and name calling? No one is willing to write or read enough characters to engage in any actual debate so where does the exchange of ideas occur?
While the size of space offered by the various message posting platforms is a definite obstacle to clear and effective communicating the need for immediacy is a greater culprit. Putting our thoughts down in concrete form used to be a labour intensive process. If you were going to take the time to put something down using velum and a quill then you would make sure it was worth putting down.
The urgency to ‘post it NOW’ barely allows a moment to put things through a basic filter for spelling let alone any actual serious thought or consideration of message or content. We see it the constant need to delete posts and walk back statements in personal postings as well as in the world of journalism where the pressure to be first has become stronger than the need to be accurate.
We’ve even reached a point where people often forego putting forward thoughts of their own and simply re-post someone else’s thoughts instead. There isn’t any room or time for strengthening our skill with language never mind room to expand or improve our language.
So what is ‘quality’ language? Language is of greatest value when it is capable of clarity. Quality language is supple, agile, accessible, and aware. Whether the concept being shared is complex or simple our language is only useful if it offers and aides understanding.
Human beings are creatures of nuance, subtlety, and shades of grey. Sure we have our simple and straightforward moments but the more layered and complex our society and interactions the more nuanced our language, and thinking, needs to be in order to fully and effectively engage with it all. For language to be effective it needs diversity, variety, room to breathe, and time to consider.
This doesn’t mean we must always take a week to write a letter or have a vocabulary in the ninetieth percentile. A complex vocabulary can be a valuable asset but ‘complicated’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘quality’ and ‘variety’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘complicated’. The purpose of language is to communicate.
From early Neanderthals explaining to each other which caves hide hungry creatures to trying to explain string theory the function of language is to convey perspective, to share new and different information. Some concepts can be quite complicated but the language used to discuss them doesn’t have to be even more so.
As someone who teaches ballroom dance for a living I spend my days doing my best to make something which can be impossibly technical and complicated understandable and relatable to as many people as possible. Supple, agile, accessible, and aware.
This quote from Maya Angelou is a perfect example of quality language used with great skill.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” — Maya Angelou
Clear and simple words used artfully to convey a great deal of nuance and importance. In two sentences she is able to speak to aiming to better yourself instead of falsely striving for impossible perfection, constantly and continually learning, growing and changing as you gain more knowledge and understanding, all infused with assumptive optimism to inspire and nudge us towards our better selves. It resonates powerfully because of its simplicity. We can easily understand it so it affects us more deeply. Weighing it down with far more complicated terminology robs it of its power as would oversimplifying it to “Do your best. Learn. Do better.”
We can’t all be Maya, imagine what those comment threads would look like, but how do we ‘do better’ when it comes to the quality of language we use? The more we understand and feel familiar with the language we use the more effective we can be.
The best way to grow and improve that understanding is to ask questions. Of others, of ourselves, of everything. Ask questions and then work through the answers.
Practice, stumble, get tangled up in your words, try again, get someone else to have a go at it and learn from their efforts. Seek out friends who love to talk, truly talk, about ideas and concepts which don’t fit into 140 characters. Find new and different things to talk about, growth can’t happen from repeated encounters with the same things over and over. Read books and full articles, listen to e-books and podcasts, watch documentaries and talks.
Expose yourself to as much variety of thought and language as you can. The more you’re exposed to the broader your pallet and the better tools you will have to hone your skills with.
One of the key steps in understanding language is acknowledging the power words have, their immense capacity to affect both others and ourselves. At the risk of the over-used adage about power coming with responsibility, in a technological society where we can comment and then simply sign-off it is all the more crucially important we remain always aware of our potential impact.
Before we even get to the point of trying to share our thoughts we have to be aware of the incredibly powerful impact our inner language has. Words have power, first and foremost the ones inside our own heads. Is our inner language helping or harming us? Is the tone loving, hateful, patient, angry, understanding, judgemental? Does it have enough scope and dexterity to help us understand all the complicated things which happen inside us? One of the main focuses in improving personal mental health is the recognizing, monitoring, and shifting of our internal language.
The debate over the policing of language is a whole other conversation but I will say that muzzled language is not the same as mindful language. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of pouncing on specific words with the intention of stamping out harm, working up an instant frenzy of moral outrage, but we then risk missing the context and message the language was being used to convey.
Turning back to that Maya Angelou quote, if we pounce on the last two words “do better” we can rile up a froth over feeling judged and pressured to succeed, missing the far more important and multi-layered message of “when you know better”. Being mindful and aware is important but words and concepts having difficult, and potentially painful, connotations doesn’t automatically mean they’re evil and should be villainized and forbidden.
The only way the quality of our language, and thoughts, improves is by exposing them to ‘new’ and ‘different’. Different can often be uncomfortable but discomfort is an integral part of growth. Challenge yourself. Ask questions. Seek first to understand.
As technology continues to make the process easier and easier to permanently broadcast our thoughts it is all the more vital we push ourselves to act as our own filters. If an interaction demands you to be immediate before accurate ask yourself honestly if it’s an interaction worth engaging in. Is it just about reacting or is it aiming for lasting genuine impact? Save the draft of that important email, sleep on it, then give it another read over the next morning before pressing send.
If we let our thoughts and methods of engaging become too simple and reactionary we make ourselves far too easy to mislead and manipulate. As our world continues to grow and expand so rapidly, offering us access to almost infinite amounts of ‘new’ and ‘different’, it would be a truly tragic irony if we let ourselves get distracted into loosing the ability to actually notice, understand, and connect with it all.