How can scientists of communication communicate?

Linguistics is, essentially, the science of communication.  We investigate the neural, physical, psychological and social elements of language, from the development of a child’s first language (or in the case of bilingual children, languages), to how we create and manipulate sound, to what impact technology can have on language.

But one of the most important things that linguists, and furthermore, humanists and social scientists can do is effectively communicate their research.

Dublin Language Garden facebook banner 2Tomorrow, a few of my fellow linguistics PhD students and I will be attempting to communicate our research to the public at our Dublin Language Garden as part of Discover Research Dublin 2014.  And in doing so, we’ve had to tackle some very complex issues that relate to our areas of expertise, and package them up to make them entertaining and informative, but not patronising to an audience that ranges from 6 to 60 years.

In some respects, linguistics and discussions relating to language is a reasonably soft-sell.  Such a fundamental tool that we all use daily will undoubtedly raise opinions as to its use (or perceived misuse), its quirks and its defining ability to make us ‘human’.  Everyone has an opinion on language.  The debate as to whether or not text messaging is having a detrimental effect on ‘correct’ grammar has been raging for well over a decade.  All parents can remember their child’s first word (some even know their own first word!) and of course, their children develop language so much faster than other children (except they don’t, but that’s another story!).

So everyone has an experience of language that they have probably already spoken about during their lifetime.  Linguists merely need to remind people of those experiences, and guide them to strongly supported reasons as to why that might have happened to them.

Why, then, is it a trend seen all too often among academics in general, to start over-egging the pudding?  Why do we insist on using technical jargon to explain our science?  It’s not just in Linguistics, it appears throughout all fields in academia.  Technical jargon and an overuse of ‘big’ words that effectively alienates the people to whom they are trying to communicate.  The Plain English Campaign are trying to stamp out ‘gobbledygook’ and jargon to make public communication clearer.  This is usually aimed at government bodies and corporations using legalese, but I don’t see why it can’t be used in academia too.  In fact, I think it’s imperative.

Jargon as a Defence Mechanism

Sometimes, I wonder if the use of jargon in public communications is there to try to protect the speaker from ridicule.  I wonder if there is some part of us that feels that we have to use big words in order to justify the ‘boffin’ label.  That if we were to use simple one or two-syllable words, it might make it sound like we haven’t done enough reading.  That our vocabulary isn’t big enough for an academic.  So these big words creep in, and we automatically sound much more intelligent (we think).

Jargon as Laziness

Another possibility for why technical terms and jargon are used could be because we are simply too lazy to try to think of an alternative.  We use these terms everyday in our workspace – it’s second nature to us to throw around words like ‘morphology’ and ‘ergative case’ and expect those around us to know what we mean.  So we don’t need to explain these terms, until we meet someone who hasn’t got a bogs what we are talking about.  But having to then think of an alternative word or phrase to explain what we mean becomes a challenge.  But “let’s park that” for a minute…

Jargon is a Barrier

Think about your best teacher.  The one that made you enthusiastic for their subject.  The one that taught the class you got the best grades in.  Now think about your least favourite teacher.  The least favourite subject.  What was the key difference?  If you set aside the dodgy jumpers, weird hair, or cool stories about their weekend (which were probably lies, let’s be honest) the crucial difference was how well they explained their subject.  You enjoyed that class because you understood it.  You hated that class because you just couldn’t work out what they meant.  The jargon they spouted was a barrier to the subject.

Communicating science

A boffin without a beard. Prof. Alice Roberts knows how to communicate, which is why she’s the Head of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham. And she’s from Bristol, so she’s practically local, hooray! (image from

The best teachers are able to communicate complicated topics in a simple and more importantly non-patronising way.  This follows through into every day adult life.  The BBC has nailed this in recent years with their “sexy scientists“, the likes of Profs Brian Cox, and Alice Roberts (my unashamed girl-crush.  Well, her and April Ludgate).  Their programmes are successful because they have taken really complicated issues and theories (entropy, anyone?) and explained it to us in a way that’s made us a) understand, and b) feel a bit clever for having understood it.  And it’s reasons like this that explain why the physical sciences are doing so much better at engaging the public and winning funding.

Tell it to the banker

Funding for Higher Education and basic research has been slashed in recent years.  The Recession has not been kind to academia, and in some respects you can see why.  Primary and Secondary education are necessary and legally required in Europe.  These are the most important years of development for children, and it is only right that as much money goes into these as does for hospitals, and our emergency services.  But this is where researchers in ALL fields of study – from the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences right through to the physical and applied Sciences, and Engineering – all need to effectively communicate what we are doing.  Because if the people holding the purse-strings don’t understand what we are doing, and WHY we are doing it, they won’t give us the money to keep on doing it!

Preach to the (un)converted

But just as importantly, the public needs to know what we’re doing, and why it benefits them.  And this is where the Arts and Humanities (if you like, the ‘Cultural Sciences’) tend to fall down.  Medical research is an easy one to justify government spending on, even though they still struggle.  Engineering, computer technology and economics is also an easy sell to anyone who enjoys roads, cars, living in buildings, mobile phones and being able to afford them.  Even Psychology meets only minor resistance to showcasing its importance to society.  Which is why the governments tend to award funding more often than not to subjects that can either cure people or make money.

The Cultural Sciences don’t have such immediate value.  We have the tougher job.  We have to explain exactly why it is so important to society that we investigate the hidden themes in Joyce’s works.  Why we have to more visibly demonstrate why research into the effects of tourism on language change means something significant.  Why that 15th Century painting reveals important insights into the technology of the 21st Century.  To explain the importance of such things requires a good deal of lateral thinking, and long-term planning.  If we can’t explain this clearly to the public, why would they support any calls to increase our funding?  Why would they care when the powers that be turn around and say they are cutting resources to the arts in local government?  Why would they be bothered if one more language dies?

So we, as scientists of communication need to ensure that we are effectively communicating, otherwise soon we might not have anything to communicate at all.

To see if we’ve communicated our science effectively, the Dublin Language Garden is open from 4pm – 9.30pm in the Trinity Long Room Hub, on Friday 26th Sept 2014.  If you’re in Dublin, stop by.

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