What’s in a word? Quite a lot actually. We choose the words that we use in the same way that we choose the clothes we wear and the colour we paint our lounge. Words are powerful, emotive and evocative. Their choice is not accidental, it’s deliberate. Words say everything about us.
We are all, to an extent, linguistic chameleons, changing the way we speak depending on who we are speaking to. Not always in big ways, but always in some ways. Family groups share pet names, nicknames, references and stories, which are reflected in the language they use with each other. Speaking to a shop assistant, a colleague or a lover all involve different words, different inflexions, pitches and volumes.
In everyday communication,, we use both spoken and written words. Spoken words are tinged with inflexion and meaning, written words are too, but it’s sometimes harder to understand what it is. In writing, we lose the ability to react. This is at the heart of why it can be difficult to engage in online conversations at a deeply personal level, at least, it can be until you’ve met someone in person.
If i’m running a conversation with someone, i’m constantly gauging their reaction. If i’m teaching them something, i’m looking for signs of comprehension or bafflement. I want to understand if ‘hmmm yes, i see’, means ‘i see’, or ‘when are you going to stop talking, i’ve no idea what you’re on about’? We are all expert communicators, reading visual signs of engagement or boredom in people’s posture and facial expression. We adapt and modify our words according to what we hear and see. If our language is too complex, we simplify it.
In forums, blogs, emails and texts (or the humble printed word), we have no ability to react, at least, not immediately. We choose our words for a reason, but there is a delay before we can react to feedback. Take a forum. The first thing we say is what people will judge us on. Do you want to start with a joke? With something academic? With something using ‘big’ or ‘small’ words? All of this relates to the roles that we will take within a group and the way that people will perceive us.
Start with a joke and you run the risk of appearing like a fool, of being written off, or of being the witty centre of attention. Trying to be too clever might pay off, and position you as ‘the academic’, or might make you look like someone trying too hard, especially before you’re even established your online persona.
Add ‘jargon’ into the mix; the specialist language that groups of like minded people create to exclude outsiders (or, more charitably, the economic words that summarise concepts in a concise manner). Jargon is one of the most immediately exclusive types of language that we can use (or, conversely, the easiest way of showing that you are ‘in’).
A real challenge with any form of online learning, be it e-learning videos and podcasts or forum and social media based activities, is to get the language right. Accepting that we can’t be reactive to every learner, we need to aim for a broad ‘tone of voice’. We don’t want to be too scholarly, but we don’t want to be too ‘matey’ either. We need to decide if a formal or informal voice will work best. Personally, i find that an informal voice resonates better with may learners, even for serious subjects, but that’s not always the case.
Whatever language we use, we need to remember that words are dynamic and emotive, that, whether we like it or not, every time we commit pen to paper (or fingers to keypad, or even fingers to touchscreen), we are choosing which voice we want to speak with, and it’s important to choose the right one.