Whose language is your business speaking?

Anyone who uses language in their work and business — and who doesn’t? — would do well to consider the perspective of evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel. Because chances are the language of your business is hurting more than helping your success.

Papua New Guinea, an island somewhat larger in size than California, is home to fewer than seven million people and more than 800 languages. There are places on the island where you can encounter a new language every two to three miles, according to Pagel. Some would say that’s cultural diversity at its finest. Pagel would say it’s “very peculiar, even bizarre.”

Source: petersbar via Flickr

The reason? Humans, Pagel said in his TED talk last month, originally devised language some 200,000 years ago as a means of sharing ideas, knowledge and wisdom. “Language is a piece of social technology for enhancing the benefits of cooperation,” Pagel said. So it was “bizarre” that humans should have gone on to create thousands of different languages.

Today, there are 7,000-8,000 languages spoken across Earth.

“It seems we use our language not just to cooperate but to draw rings around our cooperative groups and to establish identities. Perhaps to protect our knowledge, wisdom and skills from eaves-dropping from the outside.”

Research shows the presence of multiple different languages slows the flow of ideas, knowledge, technology between groups, which flies in the face of language’s original purpose.

Isolation vs. global connectivity

As Pagel observes, this apparent natural tendency to isolate and keep to ourselves is being confronted by a powerful modern force: the inexorable march of global connectivity.

It's a networked world

Source: @fredchannel via Flickr

Today, we are connecting and communicating with other humans around the world at an unprecedented rate. And for Pagel that begs the question: Can we really afford all these different languages getting in the way of the free flow and exchange of ideas, wisdom, technology? The presence of this flow, after all, is why humans evolved far beyond our pre-human ancestors and other animals.

It behooves us as a species to remove anything that blocks this easy exchange. Pagel suggests humans have reached the point where we are more dependent on global cooperation and exchange than ever before to maintain our levels of prosperity. Which is why we appear destined to be one world with one language.

The anti-business approach of business

Pagel didn’t say anything about the seemingly endless sub-languages within any single language. Every industry and occupation has its own vocabulary designed, as Pagel would say, to draw rings around those in the industry or occupation.

We wrap our identities as individuals, businesses and institutions around our specialized knowledge because it elevates our status or competitive position. The language of knowledge, as much as knowledge itself, is power. So is it any wonder we don’t want others speaking our language?

No, it’s not. But how exactly are we helping ourselves or our organizations by making it difficult to communicate with others? Human language evolved to enable communication and facilitate cooperation. Somewhere along the line we decided to limit how much we cooperate and with whom.

In the realm of business, I can’t think of anything more anti-business. When we hold on to our proprietary language we effectively block people from doing business with us. “Very peculiar, even bizarre,” Pagel would say.

We don’t individually or collectively prosper by erecting language barriers — now or over the course of human evolution. It should be the objective of every business to hear their customers exclaim: “Now you’re talking my language!” One world with one language — your customers’.

August 4th, 2011

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