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Erin McKean

Founder, Reverb Technologies/Wordnik

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How important is a common vocabulary for sharing ideas, and how do we arrive at one?

This Live Conversation will start on November 3, at 2pm ET / 11am PT.

Do we need to all be "on the same page" to have productive conversations? Do we have to use the same language or talk about ideas in the same way? What are some examples of vocabulary that's divisive, rather than helpful (e.g. "death panels")?

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Closing Statement from Erin McKean

Thanks so much for all the great stories and suggestions -- such a big question can't be answered in an hour, but it's wonderful to be able to talk about it with the TED community! For more discussions follow my Twitter at @emckean. Thanks everyone!

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  • Nov 3 2011: I work a bit on ontologies and structured vocabulary in information exchange across data systems - with computers the normalization of terminologies is essential, and requires quite a bit of human coordination and agreement. Governance turns out to matter quite a lot, since terms change in meaning and you have to continue to harmonize as this occurs. So it's a social, systemic problem requiring old fashioned politics, in the sense of forming consensus and agreement around complicated issues. In ordinary human interchange we can't require adherence to a single set of data standards, so a certain level of feedback checking on assumptions and meanings is essential. It can be local and tactical rather than global, but we do this all the time, and often with really subtle cues like diction, or use of reference points.

    The intentional use of emotionally laden terms to substitute for neutral descriptive ones ("death panels") is a different order issue, I think. There are lots of ways to use language to render threats or otherwise prevent communication.
  • Nov 3 2011: Coming from the perspective of living in a bilingual household where the members' primary languages are different, it can make things difficult at times to have a productive conversation. However, with patience and willingness to take the time, it can be productive.

    Extending the patience and willingness to people who speak your own language is also necessary to have a productive conversation. Words are used to express ideas, language changes and evolves, sometimes to the point where your interpretation of the ideas based on the words used is different than their intended meaning by the speaker. Active listening is absolutely necessary.

    One other thing that makes productive conversations difficult is the use of language meant to divide groups and/or obscure meaning. This type of language is most commonly found among politicians and has bled into media coverage that we see every single day, further confusing the meaning of words and ideas.
    • Nov 3 2011: I definitely agree that patience and the motivation and willingness to communicate is key ... without that, people just talk past each other.
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    Nov 3 2011: I think that, without a common vocabulary, sharing ideas becomes almost impossible. We see that reality in the political and social divisiveness we face today.

    To me, that was the greatest value of the classical education model. People educated in that model by definition shared a common vocabulary of art, language, literature, philosophy, and rhetoric, down to the point where they all at least wrote in the same common language. It was from that common foundation that the amazing advances from the Renaissance to the 1960s were born.

    What exists today to give us a similar common vocabulary?
    • Nov 3 2011: It would be great to have a metalanguage to help us acquire common vocabularies -- a way to extract the most salient terms from any domain, and give their full context, and then have experts in the field annotate them ...
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        Nov 3 2011: I wonder: do certain aspects of the language of the internet give us the basis for such a metalanguage? If so, how could it be extended so that it functioned as such?
        • Nov 3 2011: Maybe as a coordinate system? These terms are used most often with these OTHER terms, by people who are at these places/domains/times?
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        Nov 3 2011: A coordinate system might work. Are you thinking something akin to a two axis political spectrum?
    • Nov 3 2011: Do you mean classical in the narrower sense, i.e. Latin and Greek language - yes a wonderful tool to work towards common language or at least raise awareness that there is an issue.
      It has become a minority skill, but as such hopefully still offers the occasional leven for any serious philosophical, political, cultural discussion.
      Even if it does not help directly in speaking with people from other cultural traditions it helps to have an open mind and some more clarity about your own use of core words and concept.
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        Nov 3 2011: Yes, classical in the narrow sense but only as an example of what the common vocabulary could look like and accomplish. We could pick any common set, and as long as everyone agreed to it, it would function as a common basis.
      • Nov 3 2011: Yes, an open mind and not an unbreakable attachment to your point and how it is expressed. I take a deep breath before I see a client and try to visualize opening to them, really hearing them. (and I'm in finance, not channeling!)
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          Nov 3 2011: And here I was just thinking the only true way to communicate with one another without any chance of miscommunication was to cut ourselves off completely from emotion--to become robots, as it were--and not to try and guess what the other person "intended"!
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      Nov 3 2011: Obviously, nowadays our vocabulary is largely influenced by the internet--wouldn't you agree? At least in more developed countries. Perhaps it doesn't have quite the same positive vibe as the idea of a common vocabulary stemming from classical education...
      • Nov 3 2011: I don't think our language is as influenced by the Internet as we assume ... we talk about the Internet like a monolithic thing, but it is actually a network of little nodes, and they can be very different. The cosplay folks have an entirely different vocabulary than the frequent-flier boards. :-)
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          Nov 3 2011: I agree that there are different "dialects" across the Internet, but I still think it has had significant influence on vocabulary in the last two decades or so. And it can be accessed by anyone, at any time--so more people have access to the same online articles, ads, and blogs. This transcends regional and even national separation. It literally is world-wide.

          Perhaps it's more accurate to suggest technology, rather than the Internet specifically, as an influence on modern vocabulary. Everything from shorthand such as "lol" to "twittering" your point in less than 140 characters to the words "smartphone" and "app". Technology has influenced our vocabulary quite a bit in recent years.
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          Nov 3 2011: Perhaps I was thinking more of how the internet changes how we access information, and that change comes with its own vocabulary. If we could find a way to leverage that kind of a system to help create a common vocabulary for the purpose of debate and problem solving, we could help alleviate some of the problem.
      • Nov 3 2011: Nicole -- yes, that's certainly true ... maybe as we have access to language and language communities that we couldn't get to before, the disconnect between vocabularies is more apparent?

        Dennis, yes, it would be great to use technology to help people get to meaning faster and in context (which is part of what we're trying to do with Wordnik).
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          Nov 3 2011: I'd like to think that while initially the disconnect between vocabularies is apparent as a result of global access, over time the vocabularies will begin to merge (hopefully without any sacrifice to culture, but that's a separate issue!) But maybe we'll have to wait and see how language has changed in the future to see if that happens.
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    Nov 3 2011: Well, isn't that the whole idea of Esperanto? :)

    Personally, I think talking in the same language is definitely very helpful in conveying ideas.
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    Nov 3 2011: Hello! In TED conversations, I often post a dictionary definition for difficult concepts especially when it appears to me that people are misusing the word or concept. I think it helps even if it is a bit pedantic.
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      Nov 3 2011: This is such a big help in TED Conversations too! There are so many cultures, races, and backgrounds on here that it always amazes me to see how much our definitions of certain words can vary wildly from one person to the next.
    • Nov 3 2011: Dictionary definitions are fine, but can you also find more narrative kinds of sentences? (At Wordnik we call them "free range definitions" -- places where an expert has explained a term in a non-definitiony way.) Then you get the bonus of being able to call in an authority, too. "As X defines it, a Y is ..."
  • Nov 3 2011: For me, a deaf person, it is very important to find a common vocabulary for sharing ideas. I'm not sure how to arrive there, but in a global world it's extremely important to be able to communicate across languages and barriers. For the deaf, and others, communication access is often not there, but thanks to great organizations such as TED, the goal of having a broad appeal spill over to include us.
  • Nov 3 2011: In my world, personal and cultural perception is what defines the underlying context of a language as a mean of communication. What we hear or understand from a language is our learned making perception, personal and cultural, and the underlying connection of that perception is emotional in one way or another. We try to communicate what we perceive in our world and people agree or disagree depending on how their perception lies closer or not in our own perception. What I have observed is that the underlying context of a dialogue and communication is fed by emotion hence the reaction on something said a certain way. There is an underling current in human communication that creates either conflict or agreement. I think that the individuality of who each person is is distinctive on its own. What we seek is agreement on our perception or rather an understanding on a human level.
  • Nov 3 2011: There is probably a breakpoint for shared vocabulary depending upon what you are trying to communicate.

    The need for a shared vocabulary probably varies directly with the complexity of the idea, and varies indirectly with how much of the idea is understood or agreed upon by the parties involved, how closely understood are non-verbal communications between the parties, how many previous concepts are needed between the idea to be communicated and the recipient, and how receptive the recipient is to the idea for reasons other than the communication itself. (The list would go on and on.)

    For my part, I've always thought of the interpretation of words as both complex and non-linear, so that a group of people with similar vocabulary and background, exposed to the same words, will result in interpretations that resemble a Lorenz strange attractor, a grouping of results that are very individual yet display order around a common center.
    • Nov 3 2011: Oh yes -- you can see that when you look at word clustering based on collocation, too ... That's a nice way of putting it! (Also: Lorenz Strange Attractor is a good name for a band.)
  • Nov 3 2011: Ultimately, someone is going to have to find a mathematical underpinning to natural language. It is hard to see how this could be done, because it is such an organic, fluid and ever-changing thing, whilst its intimate connection with personal identity means that there will always be social groups who develop language precisely in order to thwart external definition.

    There are also powerful psychological reasons why we would resist such an attempt. The idea that we - or at least the most basic expressions of ourselves - could be numbers, challenges on many levels.

    Nevertheless, language is rooted in social relationships and shared objectives, which are in turn rooted in sense data and intentionality.

    I suppose I'm arguing for a phenomenological algebra, which is what Kant asked for two and a bit centuries ago, though given the complexities involved he was probably hampered by lack of computing power.

    (This would also have some serious implications across the board.)
    • Nov 3 2011: I think every conversation on this topic begins at Esperanto and ends at Kant. :-)

      But yes, math seems to underlie almost everything, why should language be exempt?
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    Nov 3 2011: I think that common language is essential.

    Without a common language (or at least a near-perfect translation), it's like two mathematicians discussing a problem when one is using Euclidean geometry and another using spherical geometry.

    Even with a near-perfect translation, you're still missing out on massive cultural phenomenon that may sway the other person's way of thinking.

    While unifying mankind under one common language is therefore the most efficient path to take, there are certain pitfalls to such an idea.

    Due to the fact that language and culture are closely tied together, we would effectively have to make a world 'culture' - a world 'way of thinking' - that encompasses everyone. But this would eradicate all other cultures, and obviously, many people will have problems with this.

    While I say common vocabulary is essential, because in turn we then have common concepts, we have to find a way to accommodate for other modes of thought and other cultures in the process, while still being able to communicate our thoughts clearly.
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    Nov 3 2011: In fact, in this regard, the legal literature is actually the on going experiemnt for precision. Even the most cleverly enunciated laws require additional construction for application and interpretation. At best, we can arrive at a point where ambiguity is anticipated and appreciated inorder to have a conversation. Forensic Linguists clearly point out the individualistic traits every person has through their language almost as accurate as a thumb print. Common Vocabulary is possible when we consciously choose words when we speak and deliberately construct a sentence.Surprisingly people say the first thing that comes to their mind as a habit in everyday conversation. The need further diminishes when the percentage of communication through words is way less as compared to the action, body language, tone, emotive appeal etc.
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    Nov 3 2011: What I think is yes it is important to have a common vocabulary. And I don't know if somebody has said this before but I think when I talk to a particular person/community my vocabulary switches or it is much better to say that the usage of words depends upon the knowledge of person/community, the context, his overall personality, nationality etc. Also if I know the language the listener is comfortable in, the switching of language also takes an important part.
    • Nov 3 2011: That's sometimes called code-switching, and it's really helpful to make people feel comfortable and at ease, and to help with communication! Everyone does it -- you switch from formal language in formal places (school, church, court) to informal language in informal places (with friends, at home).
  • Nov 3 2011: What about having a wiki-language with a common base. That is, start with basic linguistic concepts in an agreed-upon platform like Esperanto or something with linguistic flexibility, and then allow people who commit to using and nurturing it to add words that express complex emotions or abstract concepts not found in other languages. If, for example, English lacks a single word for feeling embarrassed when someone else is making a fool of themselves (empathetic embarrassment), then a German user might add the word Fremdschämen, etc. Like in many existing languages there would be a set of rules guarded by language "experts," but the wiki component would make it dynamic and "alive" as any language should be, and thus susceptible to influence and change. My two cents.
    • Nov 3 2011: Ha, English speakers have invented an English word for that feeling -- it's "igry". It's also been called "Spanish shame."

      There's been some work done in "semantic primitives" but I think it's not very practical on a large scale ...
      • Nov 3 2011: Really, cool. I once read a morphological exercise to find a word that took a Latin root into English for that concept. It started with dedecoris alienum a um, and ended up in degarlum or degarlium or something like that.
        As for the semantic primitives work, I was thinking of of starting with an existing, base not developing a new one and then building from there. But that's interesting. I'll look into it. Thanks.
      • Nov 3 2011: My word for empathetic embarrassment is 'cringeous'
  • Nov 3 2011: I really cannot think of examples in the english language, but being spanish spoken in so many different countries it certainly has generated different slangs most of the time consisting of a same word given different meanings. For example, the word "afán" translates directly as "eagerness", in Colombia it is used mostly as a synonym for "haste", where as in Peru it is commonly used as a noun to name/call someone with a romantic interest on someone. You can see the "eagerness" in both cases; to arrive early in the former and to be with someone in latter, but a question like "¿Cuál es tu afán?" (literally: what/who/which is your eagerness?) will mean in Colombia "why the haste?" and "who's longing for you?" in Peru.
  • Nov 3 2011: The more you spend time with people from a certain geographical area, people from a certain profession or background, the more you share ideas with them in common vocabulary- in the language they understand and relate to . Vocabularies in communication has a lot to do with people's environment, background, culture, training and religion. Often times too, one word might mean one thing in one context and a totally different thing in another context. So context matters a lot. On the whole sharing ideas in common vocabulary is a function of time, understanding and awareness with the people interpretation of the world around them.
  • Nov 3 2011: It is very good to communicate in common vocabulary but often times contexts throws things out of order. One word could mean one thing in one context and totally different thing in another context. It is easy to communicate in common vocabulary but that happens after initial contact. The more you spend time with people from a certain geographical area, the more you tend to be on the same level.
    • Nov 3 2011: Context is EXTREMELY important -- that's where I think traditional dictionary definitions fall down. Without context, how do you know whether the guy wearing the tuxedo is the waiter or James Bond?
  • Nov 3 2011: Understanding the language of "values" is helpful. Read about Spiral Dynamics... good stuff. Powerful in communications between individuals, companies, countries, etc.
  • Nov 3 2011: I found that the best advice I ever received from my sales manager was to keep a acronym in my head while communicating with potential clients, "KISS". Meaning 'keep it simple stupid'. Works for me.
  • Nov 3 2011: How would we come up with a metalanguage (other than dictionary definitions, which are too narrow and static) to discuss how words mean what they mean, and how to approximate meaning better?
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    Nov 3 2011: It is definetely great to speak in the same language. However, imagine in Mali (West Africa) where children at 7 go to shool and are forced to learn in french without any background in that language. Although the child had already learned all the basic vocabulary for the age, he cannot express them in tne new language. So what is the benefit of speaking the same language if it does not benefit all equally.
  • Nov 3 2011: I think the important part here is 'vocabulary'. Obviously speaking the same language is important, but speaking with the same meaning. Currently I'm studying abroad in Denmark, where English is common as a second language (my program is entirely in English). While everyone speaks the same language (and to quite a high degree too), but knowing their connotations to a word is arguably more important than the word itself. It's lead to more than one wasted half hour of going in circles because people are understanding the words, not the meaning.

    I'd reccomend reading Embassy Town by China Meiville. I have yet to read it, but based on what I've read of summaries and reviews, it seems to be very connected to this topic.
  • Nov 3 2011: I don't believe it would help all that much. Miscommunication is mostly a matter of interpretation in our minds, not difference in vocabulary.

    For example, when I say the word "teacup," I'm only using one word ("same vocabulary"), but three different people will imagine three different things. I imagine a shallow, wide piece of china sitting on a saucer with wavy blue decorations circling around it. My brother imagines a modern coffee cup with a tea bag hanging inside it, and you might imagine a square-handled cup the otherwise is similar to mine (minus the decorations). One word evokes a wide range of thoughts. It gets a thousand times more complex when we bring in abstract ideas, such as "justice" or "healthy," instead of simple physical nouns.

    Further, there are complications of approach. You see this very prominently in religion. Protestant sects are reading approximately the same Bible, but they come up with completely different interpretations because one sect approaches it very literally, and another approaches it as metaphor.

    As far as one language, the argument has repeatedly been made that we would lose a lot of color and expressiveness if the human race had one language. I have to agree, especially since the benefit is only an attempt to correct symptoms of a much deeper underlying cause: that differences in ideas are about the psychology of our interpretations.

    However, I think it's fair to point out that having a "central language" does have benefit in academic fields. Latin and Sanskrit serve as historic examples.

    And to answer your other questions...no, we don't have to be "on the same page" for productivity. We've been doing it otherwise for thousands of years anyways. Plus, our minds are amazing things. They may interpret things differently, but they always have a way of reconstructing things into a new, unique logical order. I'd contend that reinterpretation of this sort fuels most of our new ideas. Having these differences drives innovation.
    • Nov 3 2011: I like the idea of "productive friction" -- that overcoming differences in language or opinion creates new discoveries!
      • Nov 3 2011: Totally. My business partner is a TEDx speaker himself, and although at our core we've been working together for so long that we have a very similar way of viewing things, we still think about it completely differently. He takes a much more "people centered" and feeling approach (which works wonders for networking and communicating to our audience), and I generally take a much more "philosophical" and "strategic" approach, which is beneficial for planning and development. We wind up working extremely well together because of our differences in personality and approach.

        In fact, our entire business is about personality profiling and helping people use their unique way of thinking to maximize their success. We believe anyone can change the world if they just tap into their profile.
    • Nov 3 2011: This is confusing.... to which post are you commenting on here, Erin?

      Eric Westfall 0Replying...
      10 minutes ago: I don't believe it would help all that much. Miscommunication is mostly a matter of interpretation in our minds, not difference in vocabulary.

      Thanks.
  • Nov 3 2011: The same language is handy, and then there is the common vocabulary part of the question, we all have different levels of vocabulary and depending on what your specialty is you may use the same words to convey a completely different meaning. This separation of vocabulary can make it difficult to convey the message you want if the other person doesn't a similar vocabulary.
    • Nov 3 2011: That's a great point about specificity -- I often find experts who are upset that laypeople use a term in a more general way than specialists, or who use a term that has a distinct technical meaning metaphorically (like "orthogonal"). But that's the way language works.
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    Nov 3 2011: Interesting question. I believe that we all have the same basic point of reference. The some values are shared through all cultures and races. Things like survival and caring for those close to you. We all have the same basic fears and hopes. If any decent universal language is to be developed it will have to start here. Any good peacekeeper knows this. And that is how negotiations should start.

    I think this is one of the main reason we have empathy. It allows us to understand another through association. Once a connection has been made and both parties can associate with an idea you can fix that concept and make it a term or point of reference in your vocabulary. You continue doing that until you can start a conversation.
  • Nov 3 2011: Are we talking about things like Medical Ontologies? If so then yeah they're very important as they help to remove ambiguity and introduce consistency and accuracy in the definition of.. stuff. Such as diseases, conditions and medications.
    • Nov 3 2011: Ontologies are really useful in technical fields ... I'm not sure they're useful for discussing politics.
      • Nov 3 2011: ahaa, I jumped in without looking too carefully about what was being talked about. My bad. Indeed, for politics ontologies would be less useful. I'd be wary of introducing things like Esperanto as has been suggested by someone else here. We already have "Legalese", the point where legal language that, while in English, is almost unreadable to anyone who isn't a legal expert.
        Politics however is for everyone, expert or not. We all have a vested interest. It is important that language used is enough to cover all those who have a vested interest in what is being discussed, including those who may not be so well educated. You can throw Esperanto out of the window, very few people know it and you'd risk important political discussion becoming the realm of a selected elite (more so than it already is).

        Giving everyone a seat at the table is more important than making sure everyone at the table follows the same defined structure. To have both would be nice though.
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    Nov 3 2011: Erin, do you ever participate in Peter Yim et al's Ontolog Fourm events?
    http://ontolog.cim3.net/cgi-bin/wiki.pl/
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    Nov 3 2011: Whenever you're having a conversation with another person, there is more opportunity for misunderstanding than understanding. The reason is that language represents our internal thoughts and images.
    Language is a form of agreement between words and ideas. A common vocabulary is a requirement for communication to occur at the level of language, it's an agreement.
    The pathway to "shared meaning" is an open agreement for dialogue: the exchange between two people to better understand each others ideas through language.
    The critical ingredient: curiosity. The moment we "assume" that we know what the other person means by what they say, we cut off the possibility of truly understanding their meaning and their full idea. We don't learn anything new.

    Jargon is often times criticized and devalued, when rather it represents the work of past dialogues to create a single agreement for word meaning. Depending on the culture (group, organization, etc.) that uses that jargon, the meaning for the word changes. For example, the word "set" can be jargon for tennis players but has a rather different meaning for poker players.

    Dialogue, Curiosity and Agreement.
    • Nov 3 2011: I completely agree that jargon is useful. Everyone uses jargon, whether they realize it or not ... the difficulty is in recognizing when jargon is helpful and when it's harmful. I think it's helpful when it builds camaraderie, works as shorthand (think a busy restaurant kitchen) and harmful when it's used to exclude people who would like to join ...
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    Nov 3 2011: The vocabulary acts as a bridge while communicating ideas across people.Thereby, only when the vocabulary/word used to communicate is perceived in the same context and meaning, can the thoughts move across people.Thereby, using vocabulary or words which means the same across people plays a key role in transmitting ideas.
    • Nov 3 2011: Don't know if a common vocabulary guarantees that words mean the same thing to all parties. We have an emotional vocabulary too.
      • Nov 3 2011: That's a really important point. We can often agree on what a word means, but not on how it feels. Think of words like "shrill" ... when applied to women that word is really offensive.
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        Nov 3 2011: I have to agree here. Even if words have the same underlying meaning for everyone, our experiences associated with them changes our emotional and psychological perceptions of them. We aren't walking, talking dictionaries--our real world experiences are going to impact our personal lexicon.
        • Nov 3 2011: what i wonder frequently enough - speaking several language since birth... eh, earliest days like - is which strategy to take when talking to someone, especially someone new.
          the US American way is to start at the basics, lay out the common ground, establish all the things we have in common, given that, given that etc and then finally get to the potential disagreement. the french way is start with your point and if this causes offence or confusion about a word, trace back, slowly defining words and concepts until you find where the disagreement actually lies.
          what is the best strategy ?
        • Nov 3 2011: Lily, it'd be fun to do some kind of study and assign participants different strategies ... I would love to see that tested!
  • Nov 3 2011: Isn´t it the Esperanto idea? I think it´s quite neccesary, English is not my native language and I need to think a lot about what I´m saying if I´m talking in English, the same when I read specific papers or things like that. Also, I needed to learn it and it´s a long term process. That time could be used to something more useful if we develop (or use) a language as Esperanto that´s thought to be easier for all than any other non artificial language. When we need to do some research, we struggle with the fact that there are lots of papers and things published in Japanese, Chinese, German, or whatever, that are new and don´t have any translation, that´s frustrating because you need to waste money to traduce it, wait for someone else to do the work, learn a language, or just ignore it when it´d be really interesting.
    I think we could improve a lot if we could share a language, but as I said, a "neutral" one, made to be easy, and without the politic stories, don´t forget that language is also a way of domination, and it´s not casual that as we all seems to know english, many people is starting to learn chinese righ now.
    • Nov 3 2011: I think that there's a lot to be said for Esperanto, but it's hard to convince people to learn it, so only a small subset of speakers of any language will. And even when people "speak the same language" they often disagree about the meanings of terms that they both know!

      It would be better if we had a way to discuss how we understand what words mean, so that we could work through the process together with others -- like proving a mathematical theorem or replicating the results of an experiment.
      • Nov 3 2011: But as words meanings come from their own histories, if we create a new one, it´ll have a new history,
        and we´ll create it. The "dictionary" meanings, could be created by consense by the language experts (maybe you as one?), but it´ll have it owns transformations, and mixes with the native languages, as always happened. As we won´t loose our native language, in a very controversial debate, we could come back and argue in the consolidated languages and with their agreed meanings not?
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        Nov 3 2011: It is the other way around.
        More meanings come to light for which new words are created or taken from other languages, or made into new combinations of words. Then also many words lose their original meaning over time or got another connotation.
        Take "believe", derived from love and honoring changed completely.

        It would be a good thing to have one language that could be translated to all languages on a standard basis. Just sec information.
  • Nov 3 2011: Hi folks!