I have been fortunate to have had opportunities to live in different parts of the world and to learn different languages. What I have learned in that organic process of adapting to new environments and cultures is that language skills are far more than an ability to communicate with others. If anything, the true learning that I now maintain intentionally, just like one may go to a gym or monitor their diet, is that I no longer think about language as a communication tool; I see it as a thinking tool. What I now notice when I think about an idea that I want to try out, is that if I think about it in another language I get a slightly different feel about the idea itself, which helps me in assessing it and making the right decision about it.
Now, that doesn’t mean that one needs to learn another language to be able to test ideas. The simple fact is that anyone, even if monolingual, can improve his/her capacity to test ideas by increasing their existing level of knowledge of their mother tongue. The thing about language is that it offers virtually an unlimited capacity to build many ways of seeing things. An increase in vocabulary, concepts, ideas, and so on is a never-ending process. Most of us stop growing our language skills at some point. In most cases that happens when we reach a point where we have the capacity to get most of what we want. That’s fine as long as nothing changes around us. But with constant and rapid change, we need to adapt. Thus the valuable role of language.
All this ties in critically with our capacity to collaborate. Collaboration as a discipline has largely been researched from a ‘communication’ perspective. The existing body of research globally points to the fact that from the outset we have classified collaboration as essentially a branch of communication. It is now very clear that collaboration is more about a strategy of both communication and thinking. How well we may be able to collaborate depends on many things: trust, intelligence, integrity, attitude, resilience, skills, negotiation, communication and other similar factors all matter. But the scope of language skills we possess may yet to be the factor that trumps all others. When we collaborate we actually crash through the intangible barriers we all have. Collaboration is a process of understanding other parties better, and language is a critical tool. Without words and ways of expressing the concepts we see, we get stuck and defensive. Which is why broadening our language capacity helps in both understanding others and expressing our own inner world. Of that, I am certain.
When two or more parties sit around the table discussing how to collaborate the inevitable happens. Different concepts and ideas can be hard to reconcile. More to the point, they may be well understood by everyone but unless people are able to clearly express them (think language), we enter into grey areas where we depend on tacit understanding. As things progress during collaboration, misunderstandings will occur and they cannot be cleared unless we have a language broad enough to make things explicitly clear. That is why I recommend that collaborators take note of language as something separate from their education (formal or informal), experience and skills. A good and simple way to start is to make a point of reading something that normally does not interest you. Something that uses language that is very different from your own. Phrases, words, expressions, can add a new dimension to the collaborator who is keen on engaging with another party. Which is something collaboration cannot go without.