Language—an amazing technology

You understand and then create using technology. But, how do you think, how do you understand?

When I hear and see written languages other than English, I am amazed and wonder how something as complex and technical as a language developed. Here I am struggling with my one language, English, and then I find out a teenager has learned nine languages. She told me she learned them by “…looking them up on the Internet.”

I know the notion that language is a technology may be controversial. I believe it is a technology because it is used to codify thoughts and ideas into a message and then to transmit the message through a medium, often simply air, to someone else. I suppose someone could argue that the formulation of the message takes place within the human mind and not externally from the body, so it is not a technology. 

Without language, or sometimes even with language.

Sometimes I feel like our languages are a bit of a jungle. We use language to create complex communications which convey and help other people understand our thoughts, ideas, feelings, and emotions. Other animals, such as whales and dolphins, may seem to have fairly complex forms of communication, however only humans develop forms of language have a complexity and flexibility far beyond anything known in the animal world. Since our languages can be crafted into more complex varieties, such as new words, or dialects, they have the same attributes of what defines a technology, thus I call it an amazing technology.

I don’t know anyone who has actually learned to speak whale or dolphin, so I can’t say complete sureness that these animals have a less complex language than humans. Our cat, as he has aged to 20 years old, has changed some of his meows, but I would not say his speech is complex.

Does the ability to have an idea require some form of language? Imagine you are alone, with no other being with whom to interact, would you even have, or need, a language? What would it be like not to have any sort of language? Would you simply experience feelings and emotions, but not have a way to understand them? Would you only be able to understand your feelings and emotions in a vague sort of way? It would be difficult to even think about your feelings and emotions. 

How do you think our human languages began? I imagine language starting from expressions, gestures and body language, even sounds like grunts and groans. To express our human feelings and emotions, we need some way to codify them into something that has mutual meaning and can therefore be understood by more than one person. The process of thinking about what one is feeling and how to express a feeling or emotion develops more complex ways to communicate until, finally, we have language that can codify and express a vast range of human concepts, thoughts, ideas, feelings and emotions—our humanness.

Today, there are many thousands of languages, some only slightly different from others called dialects. Languages, when spoken by people from various regions may sound quite different, due to accents—different ways of pronouncing words.

Human languages are not stuck in auditory modes or body movement. They can be represented by encoding them with symbols that can be written, read and understood by other human beings. The English language has an alphabet of only 26 characters. Using this alphabet, an almost infinite number of sentences may be constructed to express any thought. Just 26 characters make millions of sentences. Now that really is amazing!

When I was young we moved from the United States to Canada, a bilingual country. In school I took years of French taught from an academic approach. It was hard and complicated for me. Today I know very little French, however, I do know people from other countries who know more than one language—even several. They can translate instantly which astonishes me.

I do know the universal language of music, although I’m not technically proficient. While I can read music, if it is not too complex, I play a lot by ear. Perhaps if French had been taught in school by ear I might today be bilingual.

Computers of the Technojungle have languages. The actual language of a computer is so difficult that human programers use other languages for programming and the data then gets assembled, compiled, or interpreted into machine language which is binary (binary is discussed later in this book). There must be a couple of hundred programming languages. 

Many computers can also understand natural human languages. You speak to the computer and it responds hopefully accordingly. However, that is not actually programming. With artificial intelligence (also discussed later in this book), computers can actually learn by combining various bits of understood information to build new understanding. Humans can do this very well, but it is difficult for computers. The difference is that computers can use what they know to do things much quicker that humans. 

Because of the condition called Essential Tremor I often struggle to type on my computer. Recently, I have been using the ‘improved’ dictation feature on my computer. It is not perfect. One difficulty involves whether the system can tell the difference between a command and what needs to be typed. So I get frustrated when it types something incorrectly and I use the term ‘Delete That’ and the command gets typed instead of executed. Another interesting aspect is that, if I speak slowly and carefully, I get more typed errors. If I speak and entire sentence normally without interruptions, the accuracy improves. This technology is also not very useful for editing which requires moving around in the text and make various minor and major changes. Have you tried using dictation on your computer? What was that like?

Language is indeed an amazing technology. While we use language in helping us understand our world, as with every technology, it can be used in both good ways and bad ways as we express ourselves. One may say nice things or mean and even nasty things to another person. Words can be extremely powerful. In certain circumstances they can become carriers of peace and empowerment of people, or word weapons of mass destruction. They are the technology of the mind and tongue and can humanize or dehumanize. It would be easier if there were only one or two languages. Having thousands can be dehumanizing as it separates us into groups who can’t always easily communicate with each other. As the people of the planet all convert to the English language, will this help us at being better human beings and living in the Technojungle?

Have you ever thought of language as a technology? We use language to create something truly remarkable and closely associated with our technologies—data and information, and knowledge and wisdom, but what’s the difference between these?


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