Editor’s note: Eric Jackson, a technology consultant and developer, is a regular contributor to Local Tech Wire. His column appears on Tuesdays.I ran into two different articles on language recently, one in Nature (7/22/04), another in The Economist (8/21/04), that point out ways language can impact how we think and what we pay attention to.

The Korean language has special word-forms to distinguish close- and loose-fitting relationships between two objects when one is in or on another. The study described in Nature demonstrates that pre-verbal infants in both English- and Korean-speaking environments consider this difference significant, as do Korean adults. For English-speaking adults, on the other hand, the difference has no special significance and so tends to be ignored.

The second study focused on members of a Brazilian tribe whose language has only 3 number-words, corresponding roughly to “about one,” “a few,” and “many.” The study found that study participants had a great deal of trouble duplicating a number and layout of more than half a dozen objects, even when they could see what they were trying to duplicate. When they attempted it “blind,” their success rate fell to zero once the number of objects became “many.”

What is interesting about these studies is that they both demonstrate the ability of a language to erase distinctions that are significant to those speaking most other languages. In effect, the language we speak has the power to make some things invisible that others see perfectly clearly. Similarly, the right language can make visible objects, patterns and relationships that are closed to those unfamiliar with it.

Out of tune

One obvious conclusion is the familiar one that the words we choose are important since they can guide our perceptions. This is the basis for movements to reform language around gender and race. To be sure, such movements have sometimes seemed over-zealous. And forced changes in how we speak always seem awkward and silly. Nevertheless, the fact remains that language powerfully influences thought. Care, thoughtfulness and deliberateness are appropriate.

It is important to understand, however, that “language” encompasses far more than speech or written text. Anything that conveys information, anything that communicates meaning, is a kind of language. Thus, an organization’s system of rewards and punishments is clearly a language — it is the primary way we communicate desired behavior. Our words may even contradict it, but all understand the language by which the real communication occurs. Similarly, organizational culture and symbols, the frameworks used to understand and organize a market, even preferred layouts of stores or offices — all of these are just as much language as what you can find in the dictionary. And, just like that more conventional form of language, all these forms of communication can have a tremendous impact on what we are able to perceive and what is invisible to us.

In particular, they impact what we can hear and understand. I often find myself flabbergasted by the ways business have clearly ceased to hear the customers on whose support they depend. The ongoing battles in the music industry are an example. It is fairly obvious that music piracy is not a sign of the evil of which we are capable, an evil that must be rooted out and punished. Rather, it is a clearly enunciated statement that the music industry is not meeting the needs of some of its major constituencies. Such a statement is also a clear invitation to make money by meeting those needs. For the most part, however, the music industry still isn’t hearing, and the movie industry appears to be headed in a similar direction. They are seeking laws and technologies to fix the only problem their language allows to be possible, when the real problem is an inability to see or hear what is going on.

I am picking on the entertainment industry, but the fact is that the same thing happens in every industry, and every business is susceptible to the same deafness and blindness.

Seeking answers

What’s the solution? We must learn new languages and hone our ability to continue to learn them. For every business, things change and so its languages must also change, or it will lose its ability to see and understand critical messages from its constituents.

Obviously, this is not an easy task, but it is not so hard either.

Like children who are early exposed to more than one tongue and thus gain an ability to easily learn more later, the business that exposes itself early and often to diverse ways of seeing and describing its markets and that works to maintain internal flexibility, evolving processes and rewards, and experimenting with new ways of seeing and doing things will have an advantage the next time it finds that its customers are suddenly speaking a foreign tongue.

Ideas? Suggestions? Contact Eric at eric@deepweave.com

Eric Jackson is the founder of DeepWeave. He has built his career pioneering software solutions to particularly large and difficult problems. In 2000, Eric co-founded Ibrix, Inc. He is the inventor of the Ibrix distributed file system, a parallel file storage system able to scale in size and performance to millions of terabytes.