Friday, October 28, 2011

In defence of jargon

"Every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas."
Ettiene Bonnot de Condillac (circa 1780)

"Jargon" has been a fairly persistent meme on Twitter lately. I seem to be in a minority amongst a group of learning tech people which I feel is well meaning, but misplaced in its desire to obliterate "in" language.

I'm all for clear, open and inclusive language in business - it's a workplace activity I could count as a hobby; discouraging the odd, clunky "institutional" language of passive sentences and misused pronouns. I've even tried unsuccessfully to convince organisations to pursue Plain English Campaign accreditation, though so far to no avail. I am a fully paid up swatter of jargon when it is used to obfuscate and bamboozle.

So, it's not that I defend the use of "jargon" in all instances - far from it; I agree completely that "our" jargon has no place in discussions with learners or with our customers until they are ready for it, should they ever need to be - but it is important to recognise that blanket assertions to the effect "jargon must be avoided in all circumstances" aren't helpful and are, I believe, misguided.

Jargon is exclusionary
One argument against jargon, perhaps even the argument against jargon is that it is exclusionary.

I recently joined the board of governors at my son's school - part of a comparatively large contingent of new faces. Halfway through the first full AGM the Chair apologised for lapsing in to "jargon". The subsequent explanation and referral to a handy glossary was welcome, but the apology, in my view at least, was entirely unnecessary - schools are a place quite unlike any other environment and they are part of a complex environment of funding, scrutiny and measurement that necessarily creates a language all of its own. However, once you understand it, it all makes perfect sense. More importantly it speeds things up. Had the Head to speak all the acronyms out in full and explain every last word to us newbies we would not have covered as much ground. This "jargon" was technical language; precise and concise.

That was entirely proper in its environment. What would be wrong would be for the school to use much of that jargon with parents. And in most cases it doesn't. But arguably education generally does. My son had reached Key Stage 2 before I even really understood what KS1 meant...

The sales person who stands in front of a new client and starts talking about LMSs, Scorm, client-server, protocols, ADDIE, terminal learning objectives blah, blah, blah is doing so to gain a position of authority and strength in negotiations with the client. This is not helpful and they should avoid it unless they are confident they will be understood. Any of these words could well be useful at a later date as they relate to specific ideas that the client may want to discuss in greater depth, and as experts in these fields then it our job to guide and educate the them, if they so wish. But it would be hard for us on the "inside" to get by without many of these words. LMS perhaps, protocol probably. But Scorm or ADDIE? These aren't jargon; they're our technical language.

Just as I don't think surgeons would be quite as able to carry out their work anything like as successfully if they set out to "cut through the skin, pull aside the white blubbery bits, poke about to find the brown nobbly bit on the pinky squigey thing and cut it off with a hot burny knife"; nor would theoretical physicists, er, be able to exist at all if they didn't have "exclusionary" technical terms to describe their ideas, neither can we really discuss what it is we are able to help people achieve if we don't have some technical language of our own.

The key is to recognising that this language can be exclusionary, and making allowances or creating ways of dealing with it if and when it occurs. Embrace it among those that can understand it and make the most of its power to be precise and concise; make allowances for those that aren't up to speed and help them learn; avoid it completely when it is inappropriate and likely to confuse.

Of course, there are clear examples of daft "made up words" - it goes with the territory of L&D, full of faddy made up concepts that require exotic, self-important lexicons - think MBTI, learning styles in all their flavours, NLP and so on. The tweet-child of the #madeupword meme, "leaderment" is not so much a genuine attempt to add a new word to the vocabulary as it is a misguided attempt to create a "catchy" label for an entirely new concept of dubious worth. The word is problematic because the idea is problematic.

Another recent bete-noir is "gamification", coincidentally the subject of my talk at the recent eLNConvert event. The great irony here is that before I picked gamification as my topic for the PK, I had intended to present a talk entitled "20 words L&D should stop using now". Gamification was on that list. Indeed, as my talk said, gamification is a tricky word since its definition is so broad as to stray close to meaningless and it is favoured by people who speak in hyperbole. This, for me, makes it problematic. However, it does describe something - the application of game-derived concepts and characteristics in to things that aren't themselves games - that is actually happening; and it does so in a handy word that is less clunky than that phrase that I just used. You might dislike the concept, but it is something concrete(-ish).

What's more, gamification is following an established construction - the "-ify" ending turns nouns in to verbs with the meaning "to imbue with the qualities of" or to "extend the reach of". Think personify or mystify. The -ication ending turns that verb back to a noun to label the activity. In this sense, the coiner of the word gamification is behaving just like a child who says "I eated jelly" - using the rules that they know exist to describe something that has happened, in the absence of an alternative "correct" label.

I'm not labouring this point to justify my using gamification - "leaderment is bad because I don't like it but gamification is okay because I do" - but to show that some new words are natural developments to accommodate new things, but others are specifically manufactured to create and propagate new concepts. I'm not saying that the latter is wrong either - after all, that's exactly what brand names are. However, that I think hits one of the significant objections to "made up" words - they smack of an attempt to slip in someone else's idea in to the conversation. I don't feel comfortable using a word that is in effect selling someone else's idea. We don't wish to be co-opted as anyone's mouthpiece.

Life imitates the art of language
Language shapes our perception of the world. Give something a label and the label can define that thing. It's the trick that's being played in the coinage of "leaderment", but it's the problem that keeps "e-learning" in a box for some organisations. There's "learning" and there's its other, "e-learning". The "e" keeps it different somehow, rather than just another mode of delivery that could sit alongside b-learning, v-learning and a-learning in the trainer's toolbox* (book, video and audio, if you're wondering).

But it is language's ability to shape reality that makes me wary of striving to remove all jargon from our vocabularies. Appropriate, meaningful jargon enables to us to think of things that are not otherwise labelled - allows us to use ideas we would have no handle on otherwise. Take away the sales pitches, the babbling, the dead metaphors and downright daft ideas - no, really, please do! - but leave me my jargon. It's the tools with which I turn my craft!

* actually, it's more complicated than that as it can also mean a channel for delivering all of those other types of learning as well, but you know that. I just wanted to be clear.

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