Mar 122012
 

“I don’t want to die having only seen through English eyes.”

That’s The Atlantic journalist, and leading national blogger, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflecting on his motivation for learning French. This type of observation is why I keep his blog at the top of my daily reading list — he combines a sheer fascination with language (he refers to Jane Austin as Jane Awesome) with comments and explorations of deep cultural currents, which attract an impressive flow of comment and discussion.

His post on learning French, and particularly the quote that opens this article, reinforced some thinking I’ve been entertaining lately about language, in all its forms and expressions–from spoken and written word to dance, music, carpentry, painting, architecture, far more than can be readily listed–as the medium of engagement. We connect, communicate, think, plan, act, mourn and celebrate through the various languages we have developed. And no single “language” encompasses the full range of our personal or shared experiences. If one buys even slightly into Gardner’s multiple intelligences, then each intelligence has its own set of languages through which it is expressed.

“Seeing through English eyes” is a terrific “mixed metaphor” for the cultural framework and filters inherent in the colors, rhythms, tonalities, and syntax of the English language, which can only be broken through, to some extent, by gaining the ability to engage through a different language, with its own distinctive colors, rhythms, tonalities and syntax.

All languages are visceral–they spring from the gut–and physical before they are rational. What we see, and how we see is conditioned by the language through which we give expression to the seeing. This is not good or bad, much less good or evil; it’s simply how things work. It’s all part of the palette we work with in creating and sustaining community.

And here’s the kicker: each new form of social media is developing fresh and distinctive modes of expression, in a sense, new languages. Twitter, with its 140-character constraints, is great for exchanging bursts of insights or learnings apart from the more extended treatment they might receive in a blog. FaceBook, albeit more subtly, has its own language–there are things I share on Walls that don’t feel appropriate in other venues–and the recent burst of enthusiasm for Pinterest suggests a continual desire for ever-new channels of expression.

Where I’m ultimately heading, and hope to more fully develop along the way, is that when someone doesn’t show up in a given venue or fails to speak up or appropriately participate under the prevailing “rules of engagement,” one underlying issue may be language. Not Spanish, Russian, or Somali (although of course this is increasingly the case), but the means of expression–engagement–in which they have become “fluent.” And a continuing issue for online communities is the still great mass of Invisible Ones, those without hardwire or wireless connectivity, and even more certainly, without confidence in one or more language of participation, or at least the languages of participation with which we have become confident.

And even as some of us become more comfortable with the creation of new languages, we must not lose sight of the need to “be stupid again,” as Ta-nehisi notes, in order to “see” what others are “saying.”

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