Can Someone Clarify?

In The Art of Travel Fall 2015, Language, Washington DC by Kennedy HillLeave a Comment

“Calling for a cloture”

“Votes required to stop a filibuster”

“Includes sunset provisions”

Languages are complex, vast, and often serve as a barrier between two people that speak different ones. Not only are the individual words different, but many times accents can stand in the way of a nonnative achieving that perfect pronunciation of a new language. If the language uses something other than the standard English 26-letter alphabet, then that brings with it a whole other set of problems, such as a differing sentence structure. But what if you face challenges within your own language?

Moving to DC, I never thought of language as something I would have to prepare for. But soon after starting my internship in the Senate, I realized that I would have to learn the meaning of many new terms and words very quickly if I wanted to keep up with current events. I had prepared for how I would get there, what I would wear, what tasks I would need to do, and had even reviewed the staff list for my office, but language never crossed my mind. Political terms that I have never had to use, or even realized that I needed to understand, had been thrown into everything from my daily briefings to economic reports. It felt odd to be exploring a world of my own language.

Within every community, whether it be a neighborhood, an organization, or even among close friends, people create terms to help them convey their message. Subject specific terms are convenient for those using them, aiding in a group’s ability to function collectively, as well as serving as a binding point among all involved. But I have to wonder what happens when, within your own language, you begin to isolate others.

I have seen this begin to happen in my own conversations. For example, I will be trying to talk to a professor that works for a nonprofit, or a classmate interning for the Department of Justice, and words and phrases that have become commonplace in my office impede conversations held outside of their respective settings. How can I discuss the current status of legislation with my peer, who is also trying to tell me about a court decision that was made recently, when neither one of us can understand the specialized terms the other is saying? It has occurred quite often, and you either have to try to guess what the individual meant by using context clues, or you have to interrupt and ask for a further explanation, disrupting the flow of the conversation. But these moments happen just as often on my own as they do when involving another person. I will find myself reading through reports and prepared documents, when all of a sudden I come across a word I have never encountered before, only to find out it is a formal or specialized version of something that I do, in fact, know. While I understand the purpose of specialization of terms, I question the consequential separation among people through a medium that is supposed to unite us all.

While working with a communications committee, I have realized that there must be a balance between keeping the language a certain way to accurately convey information, while also keeping it accessible to the general population. No matter how many acronyms and phrases a group comes up with to make their everyday tasks easier, they cannot be used unless first introduced to the public. This handling of language is another aspect of the variety that lies within a single language. Sure, I have faced language barriers while abroad, and a few times even here at home, but only in the most literal sense. Here in DC, my understanding of what it means for us all to be speaking the same language is constantly being challenged.

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