I Don’t Have the Language for That

The Main Barrier to Understanding

Nearly every day I find myself in conversations where the main barrier to understanding is language. Every area of knowledge has specialized language that must be mastered to truly understand.

Let me offer some examples:

  • Medicine – “adrenocorticotropic”
  • Engineering (Mechanical) – “draft”
  • Engineering (Electronic) – “impedance”
  • Math – “quadratic equation”
  • Philosophy – “ontology”
  • Athletics/Cricket – “wicket”
  • Theology – “soteriology”
  • Software – “LAMP Stack”
  • Financial Markets – “derivatives”
  • Law – “habeas corpus”

If you will begin to observe the times that you struggle to understand something, you will notice that the problem is usually not that you are not smart enough. It is usually that the speaker is using a specialized vocabulary that you do not yet possess.

I say usually because there are some concepts and fields of study where the ideas themselves are abstract enough or complicated enough that rare intelligence is required. For everything else, though, I am arguing that language is the key to unlock the doors.

It may be that learning is really about words. It may be that education is simply starting with a very basic vocabulary based on the ABCs and then continually building that vocabulary. Of course, I am not saying that we must just learn words. The words that we learn must be understood, else they will produce no meaning and we will forget them. These words must be connected to concepts. The words are abstract symbols that stand-in for the concepts.

I recently sat in on a two hour meeting with electronics engineers doing a schematic review. I am not an electronics engineer (EE). Let’s analyze the situation. Three of the people in the room shared a common background and a common language. They all studied engineering in college and have now been working in electronics circuit design for decades. That common background includes immersion in math and science. It also includes expertise in electricity and micro-electronics. They all understand the computer-based tools they use to design their circuits, and they also understand the way the electronics will be manufactured. About the only thing I share with them is that I understand the manufacturing side. So I sat in that meeting for two hours in wonderment at how much I do not know. I had fun just trying to make a note of all the terms I did not truly understand. I was inundated with terms and acronyms that I could not define.

This leads me to appreciate that in any field of study that I want to understand, I must be committed to learning the language. However, it is not just leaning the lingo, it is actually understanding the words, terms, and acronyms. There is a recursion that has to take place to really understand a new term. Recursion means “the act or process of returning or running back.” If a new term is a specialized twig way out at the end of a limb, I need to use recursion (go back) to first understand the limb it is attached to. If I don’t understand the limb, I keep going back to the branch, then the trunk, then the roots. At some point I find the concept that I already understand. If that point is at the roots, then I start building back up to the trunk, branches, limbs, and finally to my specific twig. This is the way language and understanding builds.

This is the reason that I respect all disciplines. To function at a high level of understanding we all had to build our knowledge. Whatever your field of knowledge, you have invested time to master the language. If you decide to learn something new, it starts with language.

In recent years I have become unashamed to say to someone “I don’t currently have the language for that.” I then recursively explore the language with them to arrive at knowledge.

Do you have some examples where your field of expertise has specialized language that is a barrier to understanding? Have you run up against a language barrier that you had to overcome to achieve a goal? Please share these in the comments section.