Language Games

My last post on faking it engendered some discussion that made it clear I hadn’t communicated my point very clearly. To paraphrase one uncharitable commenter, one interpretation is that I’m looking for ways to justify my tendencies towards self-aggrandizing attention-seeking egotism. And there’s certainly an element of that, as I thought I covered in that post before discussing more interesting possibilities to me. But I think there’s more going on, so I’m going to take another shot at explaining some of the context going on here (or dig myself deeper in my delusional attempts to justify my bad behavior).

If I wanted to learn a foreign language like Spanish, should I study in private, learn from books, and only dare to speak it in public once I have achieved full mastery of grammar and vocabulary? Of course not. The best way to learn a foreign language is through immersion: start speaking it among other speakers even if I’m doing it very poorly, and learn by the hilarious mistakes I’ll make in trying to communicate in that language. But more experienced speakers will get the essence of what I’m trying to say, and correct my mistakes, and that practice is how I’ll improve my command of the language. To connect this to my last post, one could call such practice “faking” one’s knowledge of the foreign language.

Joining any new group or community means learning a new language. Just because it is English and not technically a foreign language does not change this fact. If you’re playing ultimate frisbee and somebody yells “Force away!”, that has a specific meaning for everybody on the field that is not immediately obvious from the English meaning of those words. If you don’t respond appropriately, your teammates will start yelling at you, as I found when I was learning ultimate while playing pickup games. Just like the beginning speaker of a foreign language, I learned from those mistakes, and improved my speaking and comprehension of “ultimate frisbee language” through practice.

The same overloading of common words is true of scientific and professional communities. Part of the reason graduate school takes so long is learning to speak the language of one’s professional community. Each field of study requires a set of unique domain knowledge. The community could just coin neologisms for any new concept, which does happen, but more often, existing words are repurposed for this domain-specific context. For instance, if you ask a biologist, an engineer, and a programmer what a “platform” is, you will get three different answers, as we found out once when we spent an entire day at Sciex sorting out confusion around that word. Using jargon inconsistent with the community usage will cause miscommunication and demonstrate one’s lack of understanding of the field.

Mastering the language of a given community is, in some sense, equivalent to mastering the system of thought used by that community. The practices of the community become embedded in the language, such that the two become tightly intertwined. Those who try to use the jargon without understanding the knowledge community will be exposed as charlatans as they will use words in combinations that make no sense to the insiders – I’m always entertained by how offended engineers get when bad tech speak is used in TV shows and movies. The converse may not be true, though; those who understand the system of thought will generally be able to communicate what they mean even if they don’t share a common language. For instance, doctors who speak different languages like Spanish and German would probably be able to work together just from the shared context of medical practice.

As another example of the strong relationship between language and thought, I continue to be fascinated by framing. If I had called my last post “practicing it” instead of “faking it”, I think I would have gotten different reactions from readers, as “fake” has negative connotations, implying the claiming of unearned mastery, and “practice” has positive connotations, implying that such mastery is earned. I chose the less charitable word precisely because I was aware of the egotistical way in which my behavior could be interpreted, and thought that the language choice would indicate that awareness. Alas, my communication was not successful, or possibly too successful, in that the framing of the behavior as faking activated an emotional context of unfairness I could not overcome. I should have known better, as I’ve read George Lakoff’s work on framing, and know that using emotion-laden words creates a powerful context which is difficult to override with logical debates (a lesson the Democrats have still failed to learn). And so I learn from this practice experience, and will write more effectively next time.

To take a quick detour into philosophy, I need to read Wittgenstein at some point because it seems like his concept of language games is very similar to this. Because the same word can be repurposed to many different uses depending on context, language is more like a game being played within a set of rules and we’re choosing which rules to use at any given time. Depending on which community we are speaking to or which context we are in, words take on different meanings – to use the example from that web page I found via Google, a boxer could either be a pugilist or somebody who puts things into cardboard boxes, and until I give you the context, you have no way to distinguish between those two meanings. And as a further aside, that’s reminiscent of superimposed wave functions in quantum mechanics that later collapse once an observation is made to provide a context, but that gets way too trippy, so I’ll leave that for another time.

Hopefully this further elucidation of the context of my thinking places my last post in perspective. I’m currently embarking on a severe test of my ability to grok new forms of thought and language, as my first day at Google was yesterday. Trying to get up to speed on a large organization with a very distinct way of speaking and doing is going to be a fun challenge for me. We’ll learn whether my practice in trying to cross disciplines over the past decade translates into this new context, and whether this skill is generalizable or not, as I believe it is.

3 thoughts on “Language Games

  1. Aren’t you lucky — you just moved in with a scholar with an area of expertise in Wittgensteinian language games! She has a copy of On Certainty on her bookshelf at the moment and might even have a copy of Philosophical Investigations kicking around you could borrow 😉 And she is always happy to talk about Ludwig…

  2. I don’t know you, never met you. I am just passer by who happen to come across your blog. My comments were influenced by two points
    1) “bad habit”
    2) “This habit drives some of my friends crazy, as they feel that it is tantamount to lying”

    The work Fake didn’t really catch my attention as much as the above 2 did.

    Based on the information you provided i came to a conclusion that the habit was developed when you were in High School. Now habit by definition is “habituated routines of behavior that are repeated regularly, tend to occur subconsciously,”

    So the act of faking/practicing is subconscious. Till now there is no negativity.

    #2 provides the negativity. A third person feels its almost like lying.

    Mind is fickle. Experiences in High School were so motivating that your mind is not ready to let go.

    If you are lying then it is faking, if you are not then its practicing. One doesn’t lie when learning a language.

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