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Famous Last Words… Think Before You Speak

Sep 23, 2011

It would have been wise if John McWhorter, the renowned linguist, political commentator, lecturer, and blogger had taken his own advice from the title of one of his most recent posts: think before you speak.

McWhorter’s post for thedaily.com, last weekend was a controversial piece that in 842 words upended decades worth of linguistic study and knowledge. If we are to assume that different peoples speaking different languages perceive the world through different prisms, he argues, then the so-called “loser” of that arrangement  — the one with a subpar understanding of a given concept, be it love, hate, length of time, etc., etc. is doomed to inferiority.

“Before we celebrate this as showing that people…experience life in a dramatically different way than we do, we should consider that to embrace the idea of language differences as shaping perception in any radical way…denigrates the cognitive abilities of billions of the world’s human beings,” he says.

But ultimately, it’s McWhorter’s analysis that denigrates people, not the beauty and diversity of human perception. In fact, one could argue, that McWhorter’s all-or-nothing lens through which he views language is highly Amerocentric –that winner-take-all mentality that lay at the cornerstone of political beliefs like Manifest Destiny, rugged individualism and laissez-faire capitalism, and today very much resembles Monday night football.

Does this mean Americans view the world in two-dimensional, linear constructs. I do believe that. But that in no way implies that every non-American can’t view the world the same way if they so desired, and says nothing about different cultures, speaking different languages and their cognitive ability. The fact that IQs tend to rise in developed nations speaks –in whatever language you choose – to the power of opportunity, education and experience. It also suggests that most humans regardless of where live, have similar amounts of latent brainpower.

As PR agencies like mine continue adding new clients from across the globe, communication differences will undoubtedly create challenges in translating one idea and concept into another language and cultural context. I don’t know about you, but diminishing our clients’ cognitive abilities doesn’t sound like a good place to start.

Embracing difference, championing our linguistic uniqueness, and working with our clients to “get the message right” seems to me a far better approach.

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