For the last few weeks, I’ve been on iTunesU listening to Human Behavioral Biology lectures by Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University. (Why, what do you listen to while jogging?) It’s a fascinating subject and Sapolsky is an incredible lecturer, I highly recommend the course if you’re interested in such things. On Saturday, I listened to the lecture on Language where he gave a brief history of the development of Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN) and suddenly I saw the fundamental shift that we’re currently undergoing in the workplace in an entirely different light.
In the late 1970s, Nicaragua began to school deaf children in their country for the first time. Before that, each child grew up speaking primarily to their own family using a variety of unique signs and gestures. When the school brought these kids together and tried to teach them to lip-read Spanish, they made little progress. The teachers had a difficult time communicating with their students and the students just didn’t seem to learn. However, the teachers soon realized that the students were communicating fluently with each other in a language that the teachers couldn’t understand. The school called in linguists to help decipher the children’s language. Consequently, the development and evolution of this brand new language is thoroughly documented. Not only did children create it, but they continued to develop it. After three or four generations, the children who had originally created the language had trouble understanding the much more complex language developed by the younger children. Today, ISN is an internationally recognized form of sign language, with all the hallmarks of any language, including rules of grammar. Without an authority teaching them the “right” way to communicate, these children had created a communication system that worked for them. As Sapolsky said in his lecture, “New languages are created by children.”
For another, more immediate example, see textspeak. The language, again, created by children for sending messages to each other using the Short Message Service (SMS) on their mobile phones. SMS was created by the mobile carriers as an addon to their voice services. They expected people to use the service like a short version of email. “Don’t forget the milk.” The messages were limited in length and the phone keypads were difficult to type on. Most adults looked at SMS, sent a message or two and gave up, it was a pain in the butt to use, it was much easier to just call the person. It was the kids who realized you didn’t need to spell out every single word. They began to use number and symbol replacements like, “b4” and “I <3 u”, and they agreed upon abbreviations like LOL, FWIW, IMHO, ROTFL* to replace whole phrases. Today, what began as a kids language to communicate using a rudimentary SMS protocol over the phone network lives on in Twitter, where it has been further developed to include conventions like @mentions and #hashtags. This short messaging is becoming it’s own language, again largely developed by young people, if not by children.
Which brings us to a wider view of online social communication in the early 21st century. We call this Social Media, or Social Networking. By giving it a label merging concepts we understand, we can kind of comprehend it. But in reality, what we call Social Networking, is the birth of a new language, or meta-language, called Social. It’s a new way of communicating, with its own vocabulary and grammar. Just as you can learn to speak Italian at 40, you can learn Social at any age, but it takes work and a lot of you will not be willing to devote the time necessary to become conversant, let alone fluent in the language. Your children and grandchildren, however, created this language and they are developing it. They and their children will be native speakers. They will use this language in ways that we can’t even comprehend. Be assured they will live their lives online with Social as their primary language. They will raise their children with this language, and more to the point, they will conduct business in this language. If you want to conduct business in the future, you must to learn this language, and if you resist, your business will be short lived.
In my last column I advocated for Enterprise adoption of Social Networking without worrying too much about how it should be used. I suggested it would be better to let employees find their own uses and let it grow organically. In response, Kevin O’Keefe at Real Lawyers Have Blogs tweeted, “I tell firms (to watch) where college students walk, then put in sidewalks where they’ve worn paths.” I think that’s wise advice, the college students are big developers of this new language, and they will be your next batch of employees. Had the teachers in Nicaragua simply persisted with their existing teaching techniques, instead of learning from their students, those poor kids would still be trying to read lips in Spanish and their contribution to their community would be limited by their ability to conform to a language that wasn’t developed with their abilities in mind. It’s time for businesses to adopt reverse mentorship programs. Let your new employees train the veterans in Social, a language they created, that their kids will develop, their grandkids will intuit, and the language in which business will be conducted for the next hundred years.
*b4 = before; I <3 U = I love you, or I “heart” you; LOL = Laughing Out Loud; FWIW = For what it’s worth; IMHO = In my humble opinion; ROTFL = Rolling on the floor laughing.