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Learning to speak each other’s language worth the time and effort

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With Americans so predisposed to disagree with and misunderstand one another, it’s almost as if liberals and conservatives are speaking different languages. To overcome our partisan divide, therefore, requires learning the language of those with whom we vigorously disagree. The problem — beyond our initial ideological resistance to better acquainting ourselves with those who are different from us — is that learning a new language is hard and the long-run benefits are not always easy to see up front. Additionally, to really learn a new language, we must immerse ourselves in it, and our brains just aren’t wired to see things from a totally different perspective.

As the notion of political languages makes clear, not every language is associated with a country or region. Economics is a language of sorts, and with its speech comes a way of thinking. Economists love jargon like “efficiency” and “opportunity cost.” But what’s even more challenging than the lexicon is that unless we are raised in a world where economic tradeoffs are ingrained in our thinking, concepts like these can end up always feeling a little foreign. Just knowing the definitions isn’t enough because full appreciation of the words requires more. It’s like teaching an agnostic how to be religious. We have to train ourselves to see the world through a different lens. It isn’t natural; it has to be learned through experience.

That challenge speaks to how language in whatever form, as much as it helps us and is necessary for communication, can also lead to communication breakdown. Take the aforementioned term “opportunity cost” in economics. The term is used in multiple ways by economists. Sometimes it means “the very best alternative to something.” Other times it simply means “what would have happened otherwise.” A problem arises when an economist uses the term one way, and it gets interpreted as having its other meaning, with confusion being the end result.

For example, if I take a job as an economist, I might forgo a job as a neurosurgeon. That might be my best alternative. But it’s far from obvious that’s what I’d actually be doing if I wasn’t an economist. Maybe I’d be a preacher, a coach, a translator, or the president — who knows?

Over time some languages become obsolete. That must be a scary prospect. My ancestors were mostly Irish, and the Irish language has been all but eradicated, having been displaced by English. There is an enormous irony here given the ill-treatment the Irish received from the British over the centuries. History is replete with examples like this.

Technology is similar. Learning to write Python code can be just as hard as speaking a new language (hence why it’s called a programming language). If you don’t believe me, get in a room full of programmers and see how much of what they say you understand. Moreover, one technology tends to replace another, and the unsettling process of replacement creates winners and losers. Humanity might be better off in the long run, but in the short run, Betamax repairmen have an obsolete skill and lose jobs.

It’s easy to see how an economist, speaking in terms of creative destruction and of the benefits of technological change, might be misunderstood by someone more versed in the language of sentimentality, basically what’s fair to the people who are affected today or in the past. Vice versa is true as well — the sentimentalist might be misunderstood by the economist.

Or consider social media. Twitter’s culture is different from Facebook’s or LinkedIn’s. Each site has its own messages and alerts, but also norms and values. It takes time to get used to the different perspectives, and those who don’t sometimes find themselves ostracized for saying what others perceive as the “wrong” things.

Learning a new language takes an investment — one that doesn’t always pay off right away or sometimes even at all. But if we don’t take risks, we forgo the possibility of deep cultural enrichment and possibly financial gains as well. I’ll bet the early adopters of cryptocurrency are glad they overcame the steep learning curve and got in when they did.

We won’t solve all our problems through learning languages other than our own. But the experience will deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, including those we disagree with. Most importantly, it’s a good start.

James Broughel is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Tags Academic disciplines Culture Economics Language education Language proficiency languages political polarization Social media Terminology Understanding

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