The new global language we’re already writing

A global economy ends up with many pieces of global infrastructure. Communications system, social networks, sans-nation-state currencies, political forums, international transport to name a few. We are currently in the middle of the transition to a global language, the written version at least. Something seemingly childish is about to entirely transform the written word: emojis.

Before you laugh and close this tab, let’s remember that they were the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year in 2015, Their usage has resulted in arrests, and we already have 2666 emojis in the Unicode standard. To read at university level in Chinese, one only needs to understand 3000 or so characters. In order to understand this premise more deeply, a revisit of the history of written language is informative, and it will uncover why this claim isn’t all that outlandish.

Our first attempts of written communication as a species started with pictographs on cave walls. The visual below is from Volltorta Gorge, Spain. Some cave paintings with similar pictographs date as far back as 71,000 years ago. The very first analogue emojis. The word emoji incidentally is a literal translation in Japanese meaning Picture Letter.

For much of human history, the written form was visual, obvious and static. This was largely due to the limitations of communication technology at the time. Our tools were limited to cave walls, painted with clay earth pigments. Back then, we used what we had, and had to ensure meaning could be transmitted without a spoken narrative to accompany it. But as our communications technology improved, the written form escaped the cave and millennia of evolution ensued. We used clay tablets and cuneiform script during the Sumerian era. This facilitated transportation of writing. Hieroglyphs in ancient Egypt followed the same pattern evolving from pictographs, as did Chinese scripture. Both are shown below.

 

As literacy levels increased, writing morphed – became simplified and deviated further from their pictorial origins. They became easier to draw, quicker to create and less detailed visually. This made them more transferable, flexible and increased the mobility of the content. More people, traders and merchants with average dexterity could draw the symbols and participate in written communications. Eventually, the methods of written communication became algorithmic collages of characters and alphabets to spell out the spoken word with more breadth. It became more exacting in its representation of the verbal form. In all probability, the written form probably evolved to match the technology of the day, papyrus, ink, and later, the printing press.

But since digital communications and tools have proliferated visual language has made a radical comeback. Via a weird combination of globalization, short form communication platforms and the need for expediency, we are now partially moving back to a world of interpretive pictographs. Now that the technology exists where the click of a single button can be translated into an entire sentence or deep emotion, our species has taken to the form with abandon. It is truly a wonderful iteration of the written form. I’m even wondering if we’ve subconsciously found a way to find a written form which can cross language barriers without realising it. An emergent phenomenon designed out of global necessity? While this isn’t the first time we have seen a shared character base which result in different words, (we have this in Chinese and Japanese), it is the first time we’ve seen a global omni-language written version.

The beautiful thing about emojis is that they don’t just translate, they also have a certain malleability and ability to create variety in tone. They can create a sentence structure. But more than anything, they’re a great reminder that language is itself also a technology. The tools we invent have the ability to change the reason we invented them and be repurposed with substitute inputs. The smart phone has the capacity to carry a new set of characters with the rare combination of visual accuracy and simplicity in distribution. The advantage they have is a new type of immediate and mutual understanding which can cross borders. It’s this that makes the switch to an entirely new global form of writing entirely possible. While it might take generations, it isn’t without precedent.

If you liked this post, you’ll dig my new book – The Lessons School Forgot – a manifesto to survive the tech revolution. 

The Language of Innovation

In my adult life, I’ve learned to speak two foreign languages. During my studies I came to the conclusion that it is very difficult to truly understand a culture, until you can speak its language(s). There are nuances and belief systems locked inside the words of a culture. The way a culture’s words are put together, how these words translate into actions, what its people believe and even the way they move are locked inside language. This is one of the reasons you can’t just translate phrases, or even some words directly. They need a cultural context to allow true meaning and required action to be drawn from them. It’s a process which has lots of layers, which when understood properly uncovers why different cultures believe different things, have different values, behave in unique ways and mostly go about things in a way which is, well foreign. Language and culture mirror each other.

Learning how to change, innovate and survive under a new technological regime is a lot like learning a new language.

For more than 10 years I’ve been out in the market learning and speaking our new business language, that of the accelerating technology economy.  Espousing that the era of stability is over and that there is a bunch of new tools and methods which not only circumvent industrial strategies, but are part of a permanent cultural shift in business. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

There are 3 clear stages that are recognisable parts to a successful transition.

Noticing the new language – We hear a bunch of words which are different. What seem like mere sounds and accents just washing over us gradually become more familiar. We see a smaller cohort speaking this new language in more and more places until we notice that it isn’t just different, but something different is happening around and to the people who speak this language. It is generating attention from outsiders and the language seems to have some advantages. Advantages that only those who speak it seem to understand and have access to. The initial recognition of this difference is first part of any change process. We must not only admit that we don’t understand it and that it’s not going to go away. But we must also be curious enough not to ignore it, but to dig deeper into it.

Understand the meaning – Next we must try and learn the new language. We have to study it, observe and listen, then try to speak it. We must learn the meaning inside the words – the foreign ‘culture’ it represents. This part isn’t just a translation process, it’s more about experimenting with the words until it becomes a physical response. A key part of this process is watching the body language and verbal language interact. Once we really understand the language, we understand its context and what makes it work. Understanding a language just little can bring about many positive changes and new actions. But it is a game of frequency and practice. To know it, we can’t just study it. We have to use it in non-classroom environments, in real life where mistakes can happen. We must converse with others who only speak that language. If we only practice with others who speak our mother tongue as well, we won’t really learn – we’ll always revert to what is more comfortable. Actions don’t just speak louder than words – they are the purpose of them.

Living the language – This is where most struggle.  At this point, we understand it well enough. We know enough to communicate and get inside the culture. But here we face a choice on whether we want to adopt it. To use it. To become at one with the language. Unless we decide to live the language, it will never be an automatic reaction and allow us to interact in its world without thinking. This is the chasm most never cross, because here’s where it goes beyond learning and becomes more about changing.

If you go back and read through the 3 steps again and think about disruptive technology or business innovation, you’ll see they are the same thing. The reasons most large companies, and people with established stable career skills struggle to adapt to innovations is because they are not prepared to live it. Mostly they want to learn a few words, be able to order a sandwich and introduce themselves, but mostly they’d prefer to just speak and act the way they always have. It’s usually window dressing. They don’t truly believe in it and they want to maintain their current culture. We’ll never truly innovate speaking an outdated language, or more precisely, living in an outmoded culture. We must immerse fully and leave the past behind.

For a company, and even a country, we’ll only ever be future-proof once we are so immersed in the language of innovation that we develop our own slang, dialect and accent with it. This is not easy. It’s a radical and permanent shift. Ask anyone who moved to a new land and had to learn to speak all over again.

Just remember this, if you don’t like change – you’re really going to hate irrelevance.

Blog readers in Melbourne – I’m inviting you as a reader to The Lessons School Forgot – Live – to celebrate the launch of my new book. 

Hope to see you there, Steve. 

Top 10 tips to learn a language

When it comes to starting anything new, including learning how to speak a foreign language. So here’s my top 10 tips on how to hack the language learning process using the web:

  1. Watch free youtube lessons on speaking your preferred language. They’ve got ’em all.
  2. Follow native speakers of that language on twitter. Here frequency & brevity is your ally.
  3. Comment on blogs in that language to practice your written form.
  4. Makes friends on-line with people from that country who want to learn English.
  5. Organize skype chats with your on-line friends to practice each others language together.
  6. Download one of the many free apps to practice in down time or while waiting for people.
  7. Offer free on-line English lessons to speakers of the language you desire to learn.
  8. Watch kids shows (cartoons etc) from your home country that have been translated on-line (see youtube)
  9. Set your browser, mobile and web apps into the language you are learning.
  10. Bonus Analogue tip – go to local restaurant and practice with waiters…

There’s never been a better time to start something worth starting.

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Digital Dialects

While it has been reported that many languages are dying via globalisation and nationalised education, language is fighting back. But this time it isn’t geographic. It’s jumping boundaries and hardware devices to find like minds who want to invent their own lexicon. Language likes to be unique. Language likes to treat insiders differently. Language likes to evolve, change and even judge.The connected world is developing an entire cadre of digital dialects in. Most of which are geographically dispersed and happen virtually.

For me it’s another proof point of the world we are all now living in. As soon as we think we understand what’s happening, it evolves. But more important than the change is the fact that it never asks for permission.

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It's just the evolution of language

I was asked if I thought social media was dead, my response was that it never really was. To me  it’s just the next evolution of the human language. At first we had pointing at things and our body language to communicate. Then we had pictographs on cave walls, which evolved into the spoken word. After which the written word and the printing press arrived…..

Social media is just the wider dissemination of human communications facilitated by new technology – just like books once were a new technology. I wonder if they had some buzz word for the common book when it arrived? The fact that the tools were new and shinny prompted us to name them, put them in a definable category, when all it was (is?) was the evolution of humans talking and sharing ideas.

Is social media dead? I’m not sure, what I am sure of is that humans are social creatures and there is nothing more we enjoy than socialising in any way we can.

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