Understanding understanding *

“I want people to understand each other” –

That was the best I could come up with when asked to sum up my research in fewer than 10 words during last year’s Heriot-Watt Crucible. But it did prompt people to ask me questions such as how are you planning to achieve this, why do you want people to understand each other, what is the scope of your research, can you give us a bit more context etc. But nobody asked me what I meant by “understanding”.

Understanding is a hugely complex cognitive process that involves great uncertainty, yet it is fundamental in communication. It is also taken for granted or tends to be assumed too quickly.

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas believes that what is crucial in achieving understanding is intersubjectivity. This places emphasis on a distinct common social world shared by people when they speak. It requires us to overcome our biased, subjective views so that, instead of communicating our own subjectivities, we are communicating intersubjectively. And understanding is reached when people relate to something in “the one objective world” (which I don’t agree with, but that’s another story), something in the common social world that they have created through communication and something in each one’s subjective world.

This model is certainly not without its flaws, but it highlights the fact that understanding is a shared process. Even in the absence of others, when we read a book alone, for example, we try to understand by relating what we read to past shared communications. And that involves great uncertainty. In many cases, people assume they have understood each other even though they have created different images in their head that do not coincide. Understanding in this case is reduced to a “fictional coupling of expectations”, as my former PhD supervisor neatly put it.

And we haven’t talked about different languages yet.

In a recent conference in Cork organised by the University Association of Contemporary European Studies, I presented a paper on “The impact of multilingualism in public sphere communication” (abstract here). I tried to show that multilingualism is an integral part of post-national citizenship but it is frequently ignored in political communication. Because of multiculturalism and multilingualism, we have seen the profusion of new publics – subnational, diasporic publics, for example. And let’s not forget the EU public sphere, where 24 different languages are used! How do people argue when they speak a language different from their language of habitual use? How is debate transformed when interpreters are used? (Nicole Doerr from Mount Holyoke College has written extensively on this, looking at interpreted debate during the European Social Forum). How do we negotiate and establish meaning, understanding and ultimately consensus?

One of the questions I was asked was if language was actually important in communication and understanding. The argument was that, even when we speak different languages, we reach understanding one way or another (through paralinguistic communication, educated guesses (!) or through interpreters). So if understanding is achieved, it doesn’t matter what language you speak. The focus should be on the message and not on the language used to convey it.

IF understanding is achieved. That’s a big IF. Even in monolingual, unicultural environments we get “fictional coupling of expectations” instead of complete understanding. Multilingual environments add another level of complexity because when we speak a different language, we become different people (or do we?). If language is linked to culture, then when we speak a different language do we acquire different cultural traits? I joked once that I would probably be more efficient if I spoke better German.

But bold claims aside, we do change when we speak a different language. We do start to think differently. And if understanding is a shared process, this ultimately influences how we communicate our thoughts, our perceptions of meaning and ultimately the way we argue.

Multilingualism does not impede on our communication, but it adds another dimension to our understanding of meanings and perceptions that we must take into account.  Recognition and awareness is a good start.

Katerina Strani

* The title is borrowed by Heinz von Foerster’s book Understanding understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition, Springer, 2002.

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