11 Dec 2007

When words are not enough

National Public Radio (NPR) in the US reports that of the 6000 or 7000 languages spoken in the world today, at least half face extinction. And with the global economy increasingly relying on vocabulary that is understandable to the least common denominator, our ability to communicate small nuances of emotion and experience may also be threatened.

In an interview with NPR, language researcher Greg Anderson, says, “When we're faced with a world in which only Indonesian, Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic and a few other languages still exist, just a tiny fraction of what humans once did will ever be knowable.”

What Anderson means is that when a language dies out, so too dies a unique way of expressing human experience and knowledge. For example, take the Swedish term lagom. Roughly translated into English, it means just enough but that does not fully explain the true cultural significance of the word or its influence on Sweden’s welfare state. If Swedish as a language were to disappear, so too would the concept of lagom.

With fewer languages existing in the global society, we may find it increasingly difficult to make ourselves understood with words alone. Therefore, we need to open ourselves up to new ways of expression. Instead of using a text-only PowerPoint slideshow, try presenting your ideas with Flickr instead. Try using mind maps in your next group workshop or, better still, put together a marketing campaign based solely on sounds and color.

In a world dominated by watered-down, globalspeak, we may soon have trouble getting our point across with words alone.


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