Learning Another Language

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At dinner the other night in North Carolina, the discussion turned to XMPP. Was it better-suited to the current task than IRC? Would Google's new GMC replace them all? As two of us went on in this direction, comparing XMPP, IRC, and GMC to the classic TCP/IP, the other four were lost. It was Greek to them. Or rather Geek.

We were talking in a foreign language. Perhaps this was rude to our dinner companions, but without knowledge of this language, the project we were working on could not have been accomplished. We needed to learn and converse in the new language to get our work done. Just as in the middle ages, when most books were available in only Latin or Greek, knowledge of these language was necessary if you wanted to work as a doctor, lawyer, or priest.

What languages do you need to know to be a valuable worker and citizen in today's world? Your native language is not enough -- simply knowing the vernacular is not sufficient if you want fully to contribute to your company or your community. The most valuable members of the workforce have learned several languages. What are they?

Probably not Latin or Greek, except as these undergird many modern European languages. Certainly every worker should become fluent in a modern language other than his own, not simply for communication in a global economy, but to better understand how language works. And to better enjoy the nuances, universalities, and peculiarities of the human experience.

Humans have invented hundreds of spoken languages, and every one of us is capable of learning two or three of them at least. But we have also invented other forms of communication and explanation just as valuable to the modern worker. these include:

Music. It speaks to us. We express ourselves with it. It's in all of our movies and video games. It has its own notation that is understood throughout the world. Some say it's older than spoken language. A worker who can enjoy listening to music, be moved by it, and perform some with voice or instrument is more valuable than one who can't.

Mathematics. To the ancient Greeks, math and music were in the same department. Math is a complex, well-developed language that explains and predicts many things -- even imaginary ones. It's math that makes computers and XMPP and TCP/IP and MP3 possible. "The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics," wrote Galileo in 1623. Without mastery of the language of mathematics, a worker is of little use in the modern economy.

Art. From the sweep of a natural landscape, to the subtle sculpture of Michelangelo, to the abstractions of Picasso, the worker whose eyes can see and comprehend beauty in the visual panorama will be better at designing products, communicating to customers, or explaining ideas than the worker who is ignorant of the languages of the visual arts.

Programming. Back to XMPP and all that. Humans in the last four decades have invented dozens of programming languages that we use to instruct our machines what we want them to do. Without these languages, much of the work in today's economy would be impossible. A valuable worker needs to know at least one of these, so she can understand how the digital world works. A worker who can speak and write in two or three programming languages is even more useful. And the worker who can quickly learn new languages as they are developed is the most valuable.

How many languages do you know? How many do your students know? Make a list of the ones you know, and another of the ones you'd like to learn next.

XMPP: Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol

IRC: Internet Relay Chat

GMC: Google Message Continuity

TCP/IP: Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol

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