The 5 most inspiring items on the agenda at the polyglot gathering 2017

Last week, I was inspired by languages, language learners and cultural aspects connected to languages.

I was at a gathering for language enthusiasts. The polyglot gathering. 458 people joined to meet up with like-minded people and learn about everything related to languages.

People who learn languages are in general open to others. At least when it comes to culture. Therefore, lots of the talks were not only inspiring to language enthusiasts but could be applied in a much broader sense. To open the minds of people.

With 99 talks to choose between, there was much to be learned.

I attended 23 talks (2 less than what was possible) and all 6 social evening events. Luckily, all of the talks will be released on YouTube at some point, so I – and you all – can watch and rewatch the best ones.

There were lots of good experiences. Fiel Sahir gave us insight into Asian culture and origin. Zsolt Balai showed us the future of language learning with virtual reality. And Kelvin Jackson and Phillip Newton gave a linguistic and cultural view on Klingon which would’ve made the list if I hadn’t been wearing my peerifying glasses.

Without further ado, here comes my list.

#5 The making of a hyper-polyglot

Tim Keeley, professor of cross-cultural management at Kyushu Sangyo University, gave us some inside into his 40-year journey of traveling the world and learning languages.

His first goal was to manage the large languages of the world. But later on, he started picking up smaller ones too. Currently working on languages in the Tibetan family.

Through this journey he also shared with us his philosophy of not counting languages or relying too much on how much time you spend on them. Instead he focuses on the languages that are interesting for him at present or in near future.

How well you speak a language depends on your background, your current surroundings and your mindset at the moment of speaking.

How it peerifies the world

An especially interesting aspect of Tim Keeley’s story was how much of an impression it makes on speakers of a small language when someone else puts great effort into learning it.

I experience this to some extend when people are learning Danish. It’s mostly not necessary and there are so few people speaking it that it seems very honoring that anyone would try. I can only imagine how much bigger the effect would be if there were less than 100.000 speakers or even just a couple of hundreds.

This, to me, exemplifies how much people appreciate if anyone tries to reach out to them. Tries to understand their world. It can be language. But it can just as well be culture, work methods, or something else.

#4 Ten things polyglots do differently

Lýdia Machová, the woman behind LanguageMentoring.com, shared her insides to what makes polyglots extraordinary.

It’s not something they are born with. And it’s surely also not some secret method.

In fact, Lýdia listed about 8 different polyglots who use vastly different methods. This was interesting in itself since it gave an overview into different methods that you could then look up yourself afterwards if one of them intrigued you.

Instead, polyglots do a few things differently. The main point was that people who master many languages really want to learn a new language and put in the work themselves. They do not sit back and wait for someone to teach them.

How it peerifies the world

People are very different. Also in how they learn. But most people can learn many languages. Or many other things.

When we approach any task knowing that effort makes the difference, we have the opportunity to make a difference for ourselves and others.

Any skill – be it mastering a language, a musical instrument, a sport, etc. – takes lots of practice. But when we try, we can reach out and be part of a new community. For instance one that speaks a foreign language.

#3 Multilingual Concert by jomo

Jean-Marc Leclercq aka jomo played a lengthy concert on the first official night of the gathering. Not only was it performed in many languages but it also featured musical traditions from many parts of the world.

He was accompanied by cajón and the towards the end also by clarinet.

I was amazed by how much good energy came out from the stage and also from the polyglot audience. We danced, sung and had a blast of a time. Enjoying Greek and Russian folk music, American twist and an Esperanto version of La Bamba.

Music unites. No matter the language. This concert clearly showcased this. It wasn’t the only time during the gathering that I was reminded of it. Second time was when a surprising number of participant joined the uplifting workshop of singing in Swedish dialects.

How it peerifies the world

Music, dancing and singing is a good way to cross some barriers. Some very easy folk dances can be copied by those who know them and turn individuals into a united crowd.

I can’t count how many times we joined hands in a circle of happy feelings celebrating the differences of the world of music Click To Tweet.

By listening, singing, playing and dancing we can discover a little part of a foreign world and thus get closer to each other.

#2 “Don’t say ‘quite’!” and “The Joy of Phrasal Verbs”

Tim Morley had prepared 2 mini-talks for the occasion. In the first part of this session, he pointed us to the fact that the word “quite” is understood differently. Both by different people (mainly Brits and Americans) and in combination with different words.

He did it in a fun, interactive way making the audience shout to him whether ‘quite’ made the adjective at hand stronger or weaker. And clearly, we didn’t agree.

The second part of the talk centered on phrasal verbs. Get, set, put, etc. You can combine these in many ways to give new meanings. Like to put up with me. Put me up. And put out for me. All different meanings.

Phrasal verbs are used a lot by native speakers but are difficult to non-native speakers. So using them a lot (correctly) makes you sound native. And using them with non-natives makes the chance of being misunderstood very high.

How it peerifies the world

These two short talks were yet another eye-opener to how much we can miscommunicate if we don’t have the same background.

Here, it’s about having different native languages. Even just a different version of the same language.

But the same phenomenon is seen in projects in scientific research or at work where people of different educational background work together: It’s possible that one word exists within several fields with a different meaning. Without the involved people knowing about it.

We also see this phenomenon clearly between scientists and lay people. A list of seemingly familiar words can be used vastly differently by scientists versus lay people.

When you interact with people who do not have the same background as you. Let it be cultural, language or education. Be aware that what you find normal isn’t necessarily normal for the other person.

#1 “Can Knowing Some K’iche’ Save Your Life and Make You Rich? (Probably Not, But Why Take Chances?)” and “An Introduction to Nootka, a Highly-Endangered Canadian Language”

Okay, these are two talks. And not at all of the same character. But they do share a topic: Endangered languages. And I just couldn’t choose which one was better.

I’m not much of a conservationist. Or at least I wasn’t. I don’t even think it’s bad that my own native tongue will disappear. I mean, I do get a bit nostalgic, but I don’t actually think we need that many languages.

What we do need, however, is variety.

As demonstrated in another good talk about Hungarian and Finnish, European languages are mostly very similar (except for those two language that are approximately as far from each other as English and Polish and way farther from the rest of the European languages). But if you dig a bit deeper into the pool of world languages, you’ll find completely different features.

Like with K’iche’ and Nootka.

Both talks were amazing in each their way. Dave Prine was fun and energetic while Brian Loo Soon Hua was methodic and very convincing in his sound production.

My mind was blown with the set of unique characteristics of each language. And they each jumped to the top part of my language learning wish list.

How they peerify the world?

Knowing that there are vastly different ways of communicating out there gives us a perspective on how to understand each other.

I personally believe that having a broad knowledge on how different languages are constructed can help me understand what communication is really about. When a new language that I explore turns out to have a feature I haven’t seen before, it pulls my attention towards the unsaid things in communication which is so difficult to transfer to another language or culture.

Being aware of the differences is always the key to communication. And learning about K'iche and Nootka didn't just give me an enormous intellectual satisfaction Click To Tweet but it also made my world a little larger.

What did I miss?

I obviously missed a lot of good talks. Though I mostly didn’t doubt on which one to choose.

I would’ve liked to hear Steve Kaufman talk about how many words we need to learn. Mostly because I later found out that his answer was around 15000 instead of the 1000-2000 that people usually come up with.

And I would’ve liked to have attended the Scandinavian talk with Karl-Erik Wångstedt, Irena Dahl og Kristoffer Broholm where they focused on the differences between the Scandinavian languages.

If you were there, which talks did you like the most? What inspired you? And which ones should we watch on YouTube?

6 ways to broaden your horizon

I’ve been busy these last couple of weeks and will be in the two that follows. After a long period of too few projects in my life, I’ve set out to engage in more activities.

In this post, I’m taking my own life and let it serve as a source of inspiration as to how you can broaden your own horizon.

Is it time for some new inputs in your life? Click To Tweet

For me, it was way overdue. I had been less happy than I wanted for a while. And all of a sudden, it struck me: I was lacking variety in my life. So, I sat out to create that. And as a bonus, I’m broadening my own horizon.

1. Language exchange

I decided this week to start offering Danish speaking courses to people all over the world. Online that is. I love to teach and I have a passion for languages. Not least for my own mother-tongue.

Danish happens to be extremely difficult to learn because pronunciation is far from the spelling of the words. Practicing speaking is therefor of the utmost importance.

I want to help others with that. And I want to get to know people from all over the world. A perfect fit.

While you learn a language, you can also get to know a lot about the culture and view of life of the person you’re exchanging languages with. Much more than if you’re taking lessons.

You don’t need to go to the extremes and offer a course. But maybe you want to brush up on your Spanish skills from when you went to school. Or you desire to learn Arabic.

Then it’s time to do some language exchange. You can find eligible partners by for instance finding a Facebook group with learners of your own language and ask if someone who has your target language as his/her native language to exchange. Another idea is to find people via the app Hello Talk. And soon also the app Amikumu where you can find people near you that speaks the language you are interested in (only runs esperanto now but will soon open up for a lot of other languages).

2. Join a community

This week, I also joined the Puttytribe. The puttytribe is a community for multipotentialites. When you – as me – are not a specialist but like to dabble in all kinds of different areas – ideally at once – you sometimes need to surround yourself with others who don’t think that’s strange.

This was what I needed and I’m already happy with this new group of people that I’ll get to know. People with interests in weird subjects. And people who have a very broad mindset. It’s truly inspiring.

I’ve done this once before with tremendous success. Joined a community that is. Then it was Mensa (the high IQ society). And I was so happy to have found people who were dealing with similar issues.

Maybe you are also an outlier of sorts. I think that it’s likely that you are. Think about where you are most different from other people and join a community of these odd ones out.

Joining your direct peers can help you open up your horizon too. By being more aware of your own special characteristics you can better see how you relate to others on these aspects.

3. Explore an interest in a new setting

Next week, I’m going to my first polyglot gathering. A meetup and conference of sort for language enthusiasts.

I hope to be able to explore a lot of different angles on languages and language learning and speak with a bunch of other language enthusiasts.

I don’t actually consider myself a polyglot since I don’t actively speak a lot of languages. I just know many languages. And I find them fascinating. Especially when I find a feature in a language that I haven’t come across before.

Can you think of an interest you can explore in another setting? Click To Tweet

You might be into cooking. Never mind whether it’s fancy or just down-to-earth homemade goodies. You have the opportunity of sharing your interest with others or get a new perspective on it.

You could take it to a different level and go to Kenya and take a cooking class. Or see it from a different angle and take a food photography class closer to home.

I’m sure you can spice up your own interest somehow.

4. Travel with unknown companions

The wedding of one of my best friends is this weekend. Which means my boyfriend and I will travel to Denmark to attend the wedding.

Not only am I looking forward to observing the different ways of celebrating such an event that comes from having a couple with two different nationalities.

I’m also excited to try my first stay via Airbnb.

Since 2010, I’ve offered rides to strangers whenever I drove somewhere. And also often caught a ride with a stranger when I wasn’t driving myself. And we’ll be taking people along this time too.

I love this way of getting from A to B since you get to meet a new person.

I often experience these people to be more open than the average person.

Maybe it comes from the fact that those are the ones who choose this way of transport. But I think it also has something to do with the fact that it’s not people you’re ever going to see again. Most likely not. So everybody just relaxes a bit more and don’t mind so much what they’re saying. They don’t need you to like them. So they tell you about strange things about themselves and people in their lives.

This means you get some interesting stories.

I’m looking forward to meeting our landlord for the weekend. An Australian girl living in Aarhus. And to hear her story like I do whenever I share a ride with someone.

It’s an opportunity to get to know another view on the world. Another story. Click To Tweet

5. Set up a new hobby

Last thing I’m doing this week is something I’ve just initiated. Which means that I don’t yet know whether it’ll pin out.

I’m trying to find people who want to play chamber music with me. I’m missing that a lot. Having moved to another country, I just don’t have a network of musicians anymore.

You might have a lost hobby. Did you for instance play badminton earlier in your life and want to rekindle it?

What I’m doing is to ask around in forums that I’m already a part of. It could be a group for your city for instance. I like Facebook for these things. But several social media are good for this actually. Depending on your hobby.

Just put your question out there. It turns out that people are very friendly and maybe someone sees your post who knows of another someone who would like to join you.

Don’t keep away even if your request seems a bit odd. Or maybe almost impossible to fulfill.

Trying leads to success.

6. Eat lunch with someone new

Now this was supposed to be examples from my life right at this moment. But I just wanted to share the best tip for the workplace.

Go eat lunch with someone who is not doing what you do. Who you usually don’t collaborate with.

I’ll tell you secret from one of the people in my research on interdisciplinary collaboration: He told me, that good new interdisciplinary ideas almost never emerge at work. Click To Tweet They come to be in the lunch break. Or while meeting each other with a cup of coffee in the hallway. Or for him – playing tennis with a guy of a different background within his interdisciplinary field.

Broaden your horizon

I find it super valuable to rethink some of my hobbies from time to time. Ideally not all at the same time 😉 But right about now, it’s necessary.

Do you have good examples of how you’ve put another angle on one of your interests? Are you doing something this week that you’ve never done before? Or when was actually the last time you met someone completely new?

An embracing educational system of the future

I’m not a big fan of the current educational system. Most of it is at least 50 years outdated and does not at all prepare people for the future. Imagine if we had an educational system that embraced the multifaceted challenges we face in a digital, global world. Click To Tweet

All the way from primary school, we do it wrong. We educate people to become production workers although that path is only the future for a minority.

This was just what we needed when education was established as a fundamental piece in the upbringing of children and higher education was transformed from being for the very few to being broader.

The result in today’s world? We aren’t well enough prepared for the global world. Basic knowledge of how to work or learn efficiently going forward is not part of our skill set. We aren’t critical enough to fake news and other bad sources. And our ability to present knowledge is poor.

Phenomenon-based education

In Finland, the basic education (7-16 years) is known for its excellency. Best in the world.

There are many reasons for this including focus on good teachers and support for everyone including meals and transport.

And it has just gotten better (as of August 2016).

The newest school reform shifts the focus somewhat away from being discipline-based to being phenomenon-based. I.e. it’s a multidisciplinary approach embracing the multifaceted challenges of the world.

The pupils don’t just learn math and geography but also the European Union and climate change.

Subjects are still taught. But topics have taken over to a varying degree depending on the school (since decisions on schooling is quite decentralized).

With such an approach, the future world citizens will have a better foundation to build on when they reach the secondary schools and later university.

Agile in education

Agile1 has been all the rage in software development for about two decades now.

(Although lots of companies still struggle keeping up. Not to mention actually doing it right. In my opinion that can partly be ascribed to the poor “production worker” education everyone is still getting.)

Anyway. Slowly but surely, professionals in other sectors start to notice the use of the methods.

In the Netherlands for instance, Willy Wijnands adapted Scrum into eduScrum about 5 years ago. And has since used it very successfully. Even though it has spread to a few (mainly secondary) schools since, it’s still just a small niche.

With eduScrum, the students don’t only get an efficient way of learning. They also prepare for the working life that comes after school. How to run a project, having different roles, self-organizing.

This way, the students also need to be more active in the learning process which is stimulating. And it can be quite flexible in accommodating the different strengths of the students.

What you get from a university degree

But still, current university degrees are super disappointing Click To Tweet.

Most university degrees are mostly a waste of time. You acquire all this specialized knowledge. And then you get out. It turn out that you might be able to use a fraction of it. But your new job will probably only require very little of what you learned. And you need to learn a lot of new stuff.

You definitely need to learn how to be at the job market. Because it’s way different than school. Most likely, you’re not stuck in a routine job. And if you are, try to replace yourself with a machine. It’ll be better at your job. And you can find something more fun to do.

You need to acquire new knowledge. And you need to get to know your colleagues who have a different background than you. Qua knowledge and culture.

A step in the right direction

Lately, I stumbled across Quest University, a university in Canada only offering one degree: Bachelor in Arts and Sciences. Two key factors of this degree got me very interested:

1) The mix of arts and science making education a whole instead of splitting it up. We need more than just a fraction of reality. We need the bigger picture.

2) The fact that they teach their courses one at the time. This way, you get in deep in one subject. Thus you don’t get distracted by the other things you should learn at the same time. Multitasking is just not for humans.

I think Quest U is taking education in the right direction. But more is needed.

Interdisciplinary Intercultural Degree of the Future

If I could make a university degree of my own, there would be focus on collaboration, broad knowledge palette, and skills that’ll stay essential for a while into the future.

Of course a few jobs need specialization. Research for one. But most don’t.

I’ve set out to create a degree. A degree with focus on actual useful skills. And a degree that also embraces generalists and multipotentialites.

The following is what I’ve come up with so far.

A few conditions:

  • Courses will be taught sequentially
  • The professors will be highly skilled people from the business community
  • They’ll teach 1 month a year while the course runs including exams
  • There’ll be no multiple-choice exams
  • Instead exams will be mimicking real life situation as far as possible
  • All courses are taught using a version of eduScrum

The undergrad degree would consist of the following classes during the first year:

Listing the 8 courses which appears in the thought up university degree.
First year compulsory courses. Orange is project and work related, blue is related to the humanities, green to life and physical sciences and black to the formal sciences.
  • The good question and learning efficiently

    What you really need from your college degree is how to acquire new knowledge. So, you’ll need to learn efficiently. More importantly, you’ll need to know how to ask the right questions. The ones that will lead you to interesting parts of the world.

  • (Edu)SCRUM

    Agile methodologies are way superior to most other ways of working. Scrum is just one example. And it’s not just for software development. Agile methodologies and Scrum is the first course of the degree. This will prepare the students for an efficient learning and working life.

  • Cultural clusters; cultural parameters

    With a future that’s looking to be even more global than we experience now, it’ll be important to be aware of cultural differences. It’ll make collaboration easier and it’ll open up the world for the students so they can get new inspiration.

  • The scientific method

    The scientific method is essential to understand well in order to combat bullshit and understand good process. Design thinking is going to be a sub-topic in this course science the two are quite closely related and a way to understand good process.

  • Documentation (written, audio, video, photo, etc.)

    Good documentation is important. Not a lot of documentation. But quality documentation. This course will be an introduction to many different means of documentation and how to use them including design tips.

  • Source criticism

    One of the most important skills nowadays is to be able to judge the information you encounter. In this course, we’ll teach what to look for, how to search and how to fact check.

  • Programming (at least basic level in 1 language)

    Programming is important to everybody now. Those who don’t know any programming have no clue how the world around them is functioning. This class will be an introduction to the programming way of thinking and should leave the student with the skills required to acquire more programming skills.

  • Applied statistics

    Yet another course on being critical towards the information you encounter. Basic understanding of statistics is necessary to judge the vast data flow of today. This introductory course is of an applied nature to make students capable of doing their own investigations.

The second and third year of the degree will be for more specialization and project work will take up a big chunk of the schedule.

The perfect educational system for the future

I’m sure we can make education so much better.

It’ll start with clearing out most of the discipline-based schooling and make it phenomenon-based.

Next, the process of learning should be changed radically to not being as passive. Instead, it should feel relevant to the students. EduScrum could be a suggestion.

Finally, more generalized degrees should be offered to make sure we have someone to bridged all the specialized people. What is important is that the graduates can acquire new knowledge.

What would your perfect educational system look like? Do you think my university degree would add value to society? Please share your thoughts with me in the comments.

Footnotes

  1. If you don’t know what agile is or have difficulties imagining how it could be used in other contexts than software development, I’ll highly recommend the book Agile. The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland (one of the Scrum pioneers).

How to use your different language personalities

You might have come across one of the many articles claiming that people who speak different languages also have different personalities depending on which language they are using. Maybe you’ve even experienced some language personalities within yourself.

At first, I thought this claim sounded a bit far out. But there is actually some research backing it up. Having dived into this topic, I have come up with a model for language personalities consisting of language, culture and mindset. And it’s all good to know in order to utilize your different language personalities and those of the people around you.

Venn diagram with language, culture and mindset giving language personalities in the sweet spot
Language personalities consist of language culture and mindset

It’s not like you become a completely different person when switching to another language. It’s rather the subtleties. Like experiencing time differently. Or thinking about events as either actions or as beginnings, middles and endings.

There are some actual differences in personality or at least in mindset due to language differences. But even so, most of the change that people experience in their personality is rather due to a culture change than a language change.

Languages and cultures are tightly connected

Some people experience themselves as being more extroverted or introverted when speaking certain languages. This is not per se due to the language but rather because of culture. If you wish to speak a language fluently and thus fit into the society of native speakers, that entails that you mimic the body language and tone of the language that you’re trying to learn.

If you master the tone and body language of the native speakers, you’ve come a long way. But in your effort to master the language, you might also have raised your number of language personalities with one.

Think about it though. Is that actually because of the language? Or is it because of the environment that you use the language in?

Concepts, expressions and behavior

If you want to learn a new language, it’s not enough to learn the vocabulary and the grammar. What really makes a language is the way it’s being used.

Let’s say you decide together with your best friend that you want a secret language to communicate with each other in. Then you can pick up Hindi and just learn the vocabulary and some of the grammar and start talking to each other.

But if you want to use it with native speakers, you need to learn cultural aspects too. Language is very tightly connected with culture and mindset that way.

Is it for instance enough to say ‘thanks’ in Farsi? Or should you say ‘may I sacrifice my life for you’? Does it matter if your cousin is male or female, older or younger? In Hungarian, it does. And in Spanish there are 5 different versions of ‘you’ depending on who you’re talking to.

Varying your word choice depending on language influences how you experience yourself in relation to others. That is part of your personality. You might for instance be humbler if you speak to someone you call ‘you’ in formal version.

A new crowd and fluency

When first taking up a new language, you likely also move into a new crowd of people with whom you can speak this language. This automatically gives you a change to reinvent yourself and become a new person.

Maybe you’ve even been this new person on the inside for a while. You have just been caught in the role you’ve always had among your friends and family. You might come to associate this new personality with the language you speak. But it could’ve just as well been due to the move into a new crowd.

If you’re not fluent in a language, you also have another personality. Often, people who are at a lower level, experience to be more blunt or impolite. This is natural since you don’t have the skills to be as subtle as in your native tongue.

A lack of fluency could also make you be more silent or more silly to cover for your lack of language skills. Or your inherent personality could shine more through because you don’t have the means to adjust for your quirks.

Language personalities are a mix of language, culture and mindset

Each language has it’s own quirks (words, grammar and tone) which contributes to language personalities.

Culture is another big part. The way of using the language with native speakers influences your language personalities: Word choice is specific to each culture; As well as body language.

Mindset is the last component. You might have a certain outlook on your life that is connected to the language you’re using. Or you intend to use the language for a specific purpose.

Language personalities are made up by language, culture and mindset. Click To Tweet

4 tips to handle language personalities

If you speak several languages or if you work in a multicultural or just multilingual environment, you can take advantage of the fact that the different languages promote different personalities.

Here are some tricks to think about. The first step to all of them is to be aware. Be aware of the differences. Try to observe what is going on in your language compared to others’. And be aware that you are dealing with both language, culture and mindset.

The tips can be used by you personally but also for asking questions and being aware towards people with a different language background than you.

  1. State the differences

    When you notice a difference between the languages being spoken, you can point out to your conversation partner that this is a concept that is used differently in your native language compared to the language you’re speaking at the moment. If both parties are aware of this you’ll get fewer misunderstandings.

    It can be expressions or specific word choice. But it can also be a politeness issue.

    For instance, if you aren’t used to using polite versions of ‘you’ and you’re not sure about which one to choose or whether you just insulted someone. In that case, explain that you are’nt used to these polite forms and therefor might not be using them correctly but that it’s not because you want to insult anyone in any way.

    Or if you tend to be overly thankful due to your language background, let people know that it’s custom in your native language so that they understand what is behind your words.

  2. Don’t use direct translations

    Whether you’re in a conversation or you are writing an email, do not try to first come up with what you want to communicate in one language and then translate it.

    Most direct translations are bad because they don’t convey the information in the way that was intended.

    Maybe you even run into one of those false friends.

    Unless you are an absolute beginner, try to think in the target language. The chance is bigger that you’ll then actually say what you want.

  3. Tell about your personality

    If you’re not fluent in the language you speak or you feel insecure in other ways, you should try telling the people you’re communicating with what is going on. Especially if you’re decently fluent even though you don’t feel so yourself.

    When you’re stumbling a lot, almost everybody will figure that you just have language problems but if you are managing decently, they might not be aware that you’re struggling.

    If they know that you’re just holding back a little or that you turn all giggly because of the language, they are more likely to help you on your way and forgive your quirks.

    Another pitfall is to exaggerate when you’re trying to mimick the personality of a new language. In that case, try to explain to those you talk to that you’re aware that you come across a bit strong, since you are adapting to one of your new language personalities.

  4. Take advantage of your different language personalities

    If you’re aware of an advantage of your personality when speaking one language, you can use this to your advantage.

    Try imagining yourself speaking the language in which you have a desired personality trait and bring that feeling, the type of words you’re using and your body language with you to the target language.

    Don’t overdo though! It has to fit within the frames of the target language.

    You can even try to use an expression that you would use in another language to explain what you want to communicate. I.e. “As I would say in [insert language]: …”

Awareness is key

Good communication starts with being aware of who you’re talking to. That includes being aware of which language personalities you have and which you’re surrounded by.

If you are interested in some resources on language related to personality, I made a collection for you to get started.

Do you have different language personalities? Or have you been in a situation where you felt your – or your conversation partners – language background was a hindrance? How did you deal with it?

Programming languages from the perspective of a foreign language learner

4 years ago, I met a woman and we talked about what our educational backgrounds were. She told me that she’d majored in German language and minored in computer science. I immediately got very interested, since these topics – in my view – were complete opposites. I mean, one is in the category of formal sciences and the other humanities. To her, however, programming languages were just another type of foreign language. And she had always been interested in languages.

As someone who’s both learned a lot of foreign languages and a lot of computer languages, I have come to appreciate the many similarities between computer languages and natural languages. Though you use them in completely different ways to accomplish different tasks, they are essentially the same: A way to communicate.

The first introduction

If you’ve ever had to learn a foreign language while you were an adult, you know that it’s quite a feat. You must learn new words, grammar, and if you go outside of the language family of your own native language, there is a whole lot more that is different (sense of time, tone, gender, etc.).

When I think back on the time when I learned my first computer language, it was indeed like learning a new foreign language. In the beginning, I just observed a lot of different words that I didn’t know what meant. And my vocabulary was very limited. The first words I could say were <b> and <i>. They indicated emphasis. I knew that. But not much more.

They were not like any words I had encountered previously. One letter and some brackets!? Was this now to be meaningful.

Towards fluency

Woman thinking about brackets and other punctuation signs and concludes it's a strange alphabet.
In computer language, brackets and other punctuation signs are often essential parts of the alphabet.

I tried listening to what more experienced speakers of this language were saying and imitate it as well as I could. For a computer language, this was done by copy-pasting code that had already been written by someone else trying to use the bit that was right for my purpose. Often, I got corrected: I hadn’t used the correct words for what I wanted to say; Or my word order was messed up so that it didn’t mean what I thought it did. Even though error messages are not nearly as polite and not always that helpful when correcting you as a real-life person is, they are very clear and precise – unlike most people you meet when you’re learning a foreign language.

Slowly but surely, I learned new sentences. And how they should be put together. I still needed a lot of help though. I had to consult dictionaries (in form of reference sheets) and ask experienced speakers on forums or in real life.

For a long time, I almost copy-pasted everything. But then I started to see some of the basic sentences so many times that I could reproduce them myself without help. After a while, I only had to consult the dictionary with the rare words. And I started to help out other learners who were at the beginning stages.

I had reached a stage of fluency.

There were still lots of people who understood the language better. Who were experts so to say. The poets of computer language. But I had a steady A2 level. From which I could grow my skills. That was exiting. And it gave me a taste for more.

Different language families

I had gotten curious and wanted to move on to my next language.

This time, it was much easier. I knew how to get started. The structure was not completely foreign to me anymore. And I had an idea of where to ask and not least what to ask for.

But it was still very difficult. Because I had now chosen a language in a different family. The first one had been a markup language and the second one was a programming language. We can easily understand that learning Russian doesn’t prepare you all that well for learning Chinese. But you might be easier off if you want to learn Ukrainian. That’s the same way when you learn computer languages: They only prepare you in some ways to learning other types of computer languages. And when you’ve then chosen a language type, all the different computer languages have their unique set of features which split them up into sub-families.

Questions like: Is it object-oriented? Do you use curly brackets or not? How detailed should you be? Are equivalent to: Does tone matter? Which alphabet should I use? Is it gender specific?

Learning several languages at the time

Foreign language learners are often cautious about learning several languages at the time if they are too similar. The same applies to computer languages. I experienced that myself when I tried to learn too many languages at the same time. Different languages were required by my work and study at the time, so I set out to learn about 3 different ones at the same time. The result was failure. I mixed up all the languages and I didn’t really learn any of them.

I was always confused about which words to use. And I wasn’t sure of the grammar of each language. That’s the same feeling that I get when I try to learn Spanish and French at the same time. Or German and Dutch. However, when I first got decently fluent in one computer language, I was able to keep it in its own box in my brain and not get it mixed up too much with other languages. Instead, I could draw on it as a source to learn a new language more easily.

The meta

Just as you can talk about foreign languages, you can also talk about computer languages. For instance, classes of words (nouns, verbs, adjectives) have counterparts in computer languages. Here they are objects, methods, and variables.

Computer languages do have less features than natural languages: They don’t have any indication of time (though few tenseless languages exist, it’s definitely not the norm); And only the imperative and conditional moods exist: i.e. you can ask if some condition is complied with and you can order the machine to do something.

In computer languages, punctuation is strict! If you place a semicolon at the wrong location, your whole conversation might be ruined. Every programmer swears over that missing semicolon ones in a while.

Putting the language to use

The biggest difference between computer languages and natural languages are how they are used and what they’re used for. Computer languages are used to communicate with machines. And natural languages to communicate with people. With natural languages, you can communicate both written and orally. But with computer languages you can only communicate written. Or can you?

Woman talks to her phone
Unlike a few years ago, we can now talk to machines. The language we use is a hybrid between computer language and natural language. Supplemented with some visual expressions from the machine.

In these years, we experience lots of new machines that we can actually talk to. The language we use in this communication is some construct in between a natural language and a computer language.

When you tell your phone: “OK Google! Find the nearest supermarket,” You know that you need to use a certain structure and certain words. The statement “OK Google” tells it that you want to communicate (that’s equivalent to initiating a program). After that, you form your request as an order (you use the imperative like you would in computer languages).

Emotions

On a scale from completely non-emotional to very emotional, computer languages and sign languages are in opposite ends.

Computer language has no emotion. Or at least next to none. In that way, I imagine that computer languages are just as far from a natural language as sign languages are. Admittedly, I sadly don’t have any experience with sign language myself, but I recently read an interesting article about getting lots more emotion into the language without adding words. With computer languages, you go to the other end of the spectrum and take all emotion out of the language. In sign language, you have your whole body with you, while you leave your entire body behind when you communicate in computer languages.

Emotional or not, languages are fascinating tools to communicate. Even computer languages. You just use them to communicate with machines.

So, if you like to learn foreign languages, you might want to look into a computer language next. This way, the gap between computer scientists and linguists turns out to be quite small.

Why is it so hard to collaborate with IT people?

For most non-IT people, working in a project involving IT is hard. The projects are full of issues. They are dragged out and people find them tiresome. Not that there aren’t well-functioning IT projects out there. But the truth is that I just meet a lot of people who think it’s immensely hard to collaborate with IT people.

They state that either they don’t understand what the IT person is telling them or that the IT person doesn’t understand what they are trying to tell them. People often don’t know why they can’t get what they seem to need from the IT people. And the IT people often don’t know why the users are unsatisfied.

So, what is going wrong in the communication?

I’ve personally been on both sides of these interactions. And I can tell you, that: Even if you're used to operate within both disciplines, you have to learn how to communicate between them. Click To Tweet

We tend to focus on our own goals and ways of working when we are doing projects and not so much on the common goals.

IT – a different mindset

Every discipline has its own characteristics. These have been build up through many years of practice as a community. And they feel completely natural to those trained within that mindset. It just so happens that some disciplines have characteristics that are way different from others.

When software engineers work on projects where they develop software for the control of machines operated by manual laborers, it’s not hard to see that there is a big gap between the work methods. But when we consider projects in which there are only office workers – other academics – it’s harder to see the gap. Because everybody sits around at their desk all day in front of their computers. Just as the IT people.

But there is a big gap. To dig into that, let’s first take a look at IT in the academic landscape.

IT in the landscape of academic disciplines

The landscape of academic disciplines is an ever-evolving network of topics bundled together for practical or historical reasons.

The first computer science programs emerged from the statistics departments, since computers were essentially machines that could carry out complex calculations such as statistical ones.

Formal, physical, life and social science on the left side with humanities and arts added at the buttom. All sciences feeding into applied science. Computer science connected to both applied and formal sciences.
Computer science on the map of disciplines: somewhere between formal sciences and applied sciences. See detailed version.

Nowadays, computer science is usually bundled with math and the natural sciences. Although sometimes math, logic, statistics and computer science are in their own category of formal sciences.

A few universities have even promoted computer science to be its own faculty (although that is most common at universities with an abundance of faculties). And at some places, you can even find pure IT universities. Furthermore, computer science also have an important role at the technical universities.

On my map of disciplines, I’ve added computer science as a separate block. As I see it, it does belong to the category of formal sciences with it’s very strict language and methods. But it’s also an applied science. Especially the way it’s being used outside the educational institutes.

Now. Okay. So computer science is placed somewhere between formal and applied sciences. Good to know. Which implications does that have?

Frameworks of knowledge

Due to the logical and strict nature of computer science which it has in common with the other formal sciences, it’s likely easier for mathematicians to collaborate with IT people than for the rest. But IT – as all other disciplines – has its own vocabulary and methods. And I’m proposing that these are father away from the rest of the disciplines than those of any other discipline.

One way of looking at these differences is to inspect the knowledge frameworks1 of different disciplines.

People who operate within different knowledge frameworks have different methods, instruments, purpose, objects of knowledge and measures of success. Even a different self-image.

Knowledge frameworks exemplified

Let’s look at a typical IT project and the knowledge frameworks held by the different parties. “Business” in this case is just any party representing the business side of things. Could be the quality department or the finance department. Or the department that makes packaging. The example is a very generalized and highly simplified to encompass different types of business.

  IT KF Business KF
Object of knowledge Software design, data structure, technical limits Business know-how, business processes, personnel capacity
Methods Technical/logical analysis, coding, technical testing Business analysis, usability testing
Instruments Programming languages, specialized software, standardized formats Machine (e.g. computer): focus on visual elements
Goals/purpose Create software that is not buggy, write good code, get a project done in time Ease or eliminate manual tasks, create easy learning curve for transitioning
Measure of success Number of tickets, time to fix bugs Higher productivity
Self image  Rational guardian of data, creator of automation and thus efficiency  Protector of company values, creator of value for the company

IT versus business

As you can gather from the table above, the two parties are rather far from each other. Sometimes it’s almost as they are each others opposites.

On the IT side of thing we have people caring about technology; about good code and about reducing the time they have to spend fixing stuff afterwards. This obviously includes usability because they’ll otherwise get more complaints. But it’s not really the focus of attention.

On the other hand, we have the business side, the soon-to-be users. They care about that their everyday tasks will get easier and that they won’t struggle with finding the right buttons or codes. They usually have little knowledge on what is easy to create in software and what is not.

Then there is the issue of what the two parties are doing. Their methods and instruments. What the IT people need is something very logical that they can pass on to the machines. They test technical issues and if the software does what it is supposed to (according to their specifications), that’s measured as a success.

In the business department lies the knowledge about what actually needs to be done. The people here use computers. Just as the IT people, you could say. But they’re not using them the same way. People on the business side of the project use computers in a visual way where they see images or text in everyday language. They navigate with the mouse and not with codes that – for them – are difficult to remember.

Making it less hard to collaborate with IT people

Working across disciplines is not easy. And it gets harder the larger the distance between the knowledge frameworks of the professionals are.

To get an indication of how big the distance between the knowledge frameworks are, you can take a look at the map of disciplines. If one discipline is high in purity and the other is very low, you are probably going to face big challenges.

Being aware of the differences, is the first step to a well-functioning interdisciplinary project. Click To Tweet To increase your awareness, you can try writing down your own objects of knowledge, methods, instruments, purpose, measures of success and self-image. And then ask your interdisciplinary partner about his/her knowledge framework.

Maybe you can even come up with a new common knowledge framework, where you incorporate both of your frameworks to create a common goal. This might seem like extra work but most likely, you’ll find it easier afterwards to understand each other and thereby save lots of time.

Do you think this method would work in your current project? I’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried it out. Which differences did you see? Did you come up with a common goal from two widely different ones?

Footnotes

  1. Bruun H, Langlais R & Janasik N, “Knowledge networking: A conceptual framework and typology”, VEST: Journal for Science and Technology Studies, 2005, vol. 18, s. 73-104

A world of differences – and how to overcome them

Hi there, first readers!

You have reached the blog where we make peers out of the fellow humans in the world.

This is the very first post on this blog. And I’m so excited that you’re here.

To kick off this blog, I’ll start by introducing myself and the subject of the blog. Afterwards, I hope to hear from you guys about what you think about the subject.

What is this all about?

Let’s start with the title peerify.

Peerify comes from peer. It’s my intention to turn the entire human population into your peers. By peer, I mean one who’s considered to be equal to you in the way that you

  • can relate to them,
  • understand them well and
  • communicate smoothly with them.
Cartoon drawing of the three bullet point above.
This kind of peers is what I would like everybody to be at some level.

Living in harmony with those who are different than ourselves and being productive at work (when working with people from other professions than our own) is difficult. I believe that most of these difficulties are due to the lack of understanding of our differences and lack of tools to communicate efficiently with those who are different from us.

On this blog, I set out to understand these differences better. I also investigate how to overcome them in order to function better together.

Wouldn’t you like to understand and communicate with people who are different from you better?

If you can answer yes to this, you’ve definitely come to the right place.

The main focus of this blog is interdisciplinary and intercultural subjects. But I will also take subtopics into account. Like languages, religion, personality traits, you name it.

Why would this be relevant for you?

I know that you’re all busy people with enough on your own plates to fill out your days without worrying about how to reach out to those that you don’t understand too well.

What I’m proposing is to eliminate those worries and instead equip yourselves to understand and communicate with everybody. Well, one step at the time.

This blog is relevant for you if you

  • are curious about the many facets of the human ecosystem
  • want to get better results when working with people from other professions
  • want to get rid of some of your (unhelpful) prejudices
  • are interested in other cultures and languages
  • wonder how religion, personality traits, sexuality, IQ and eating habits creates barriers
    • and want to get tools to break those barriers

Who am I to do this?

My background for doing this is that I’ve been busy figuring out what is different about people since I was a young teenager.

This section is going to be very egocentric. But I just want you to get some insights into my background for creating this blog. If you have any stories of how you’ve experienced differences, please let me know in the comments.

Noticing differences in religion and music

My first recollection of consciously noticing differences that were setting people apart big time was when I figured out that there were different religions in the world and that not everybody belonged to the same one. I was puzzled as to how one would decide which religion they should belong to. And later, I was even more puzzled that so much conflict was created by people of different religions and why this happened. I even ended up studying religion at the university for a short while. However short, it piqued my interest for religions and how to investigate them.

The next subject that caught my attention was musical genres. I played a lot of music myself and dabbled between different genres. I played classical music, jazz, latin, folk music, and pop/rock. When I was around 15 years old, I was told that I had to choose something to become really good at it. I chose classical. And I got good at it. But over the coming three years, I experienced being put into this box called “the classical girls”. Those were the (almost solely) girls who played classical music, who were often quiet and no fun and who didn’t comprehend (how to play) other musical genres.

But I didn’t fit into that box at all.

And I was baffled as to why all the others saw it so black and white. I wondered what was missing so that we could just all play music and not be so divided between genres.

Working at the boundaries of several fields

Being placed in this box was one of the reasons that I chose not to continue on my path to becoming a professional musician. Instead, I started studying molecular biology at the university; A discipline reaching into several disciplines.

After finishing my bachelor, I got a job where I got involved in some IT projects. And here, the issues started to pile up. It turned out, that IT people and others did not really understand each other that well. Luckily, I had gotten into programming in my spare time and was therefore fit to translate between the IT people on the one side and the chemists and engineers on the other.

Being right in the middle of these two groups was fun. And I was eager to do more of that. Besides, I wanted to get a master’s degree (since that is almost mandatory in order to progress in the job market where I lived). Thus, I decided to enroll into the bioinformatics program where I could mix my background in molecular biology with more programming and some statistics.

Halfway into this 2 years Master’s degree, I decided to take some compulsory courses at the institute for Science and Technology Studies. Here, I got into science history, philosophy, communication and sociology. It was all disciplines that somehow searched for the connection between science and society and between people (within science).

I decided to end my degree with a thesis on the collaboration between scientists of different backgrounds. I thus spend half a year researching theories (in books and by observation) on how people of different scientific backgrounds work together; how they communicate and how they create successful outcomes even when their goals are often dissimilar.

A cultural change and language learning

On a personal level, cultures and languages has been an interest of mine in many years. When I was a teenager, my twin sister and I would go to the library and lend these CD-ROMs with language learning software on them. We took on Italian when we were 13 and Turkish the year after. In 2015, I discovered Duolingo and have become obsessed with language learning since.

Me being lifted up by my boyfriend in front of a small lake in sunny weather.
I moved abroad to be with this guy.

After finishing my Master’s degree, I moved abroad to be with my foreign boyfriend. Here, I was also posed with language and cultural barriers that got me even more motivated to figuring out how we can understand each other better, learn from each other and all in all live a richer life.

I live a quite internationalized life connected with many cultures and languages. And I hope for others that they’ll get as much out of the global world as I do.

What is the intention with this blog

This is my first blog (except the travel blog I made while travelling in South and Central America 10 years ago). And I intend to be professional about it.

My goals for this blog is that I can share ideas and thoughts with a broader part of humanity. With the blog, I’ll potentially be able to spread some knowledge about the barriers that keep us all from embracing those who seem different to us.

I’m an idealist that way: I’d like to see people get along despite their differences and even create something better together due to their differences.

I believe that the way to a better world is understanding each other. So, with this first blog post, let’s peerify the world!

Where do you think, we need the most help in understanding each other? Or what would you like to know more about with respect to differences between people and how to connect across them? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Start peeryfying your world!

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