Monday, 2 April 2012

Lost in translation

Posted by Jean Adams

“Jeanne A-dams! Zero! Out of twenty!”

Do school teachers still call out the whole class’s marks for each assignment?

I was 13. I had worked quite hard on my 200 word French essay on what my father does for a living. I learnt my lesson from Madame S. Not, as was probably intended, that I needed to try harder next time. But, quite simply, that I was no good at languages, and never would be.

I dropped French as soon as I could. There were other teachers at school who encouraged me to try harder in less humiliating ways.

When I chose to study medicine at Newcastle, it was partly because it had a reputation as an innovative, forward-looking medical school. It still does. There were modules covering things that no-one would have dreamed of teaching my mother’s generation of medical students – sociology, health psychology, communication skills. Jargon was the bad word of the moment.

There are two things that make avoiding jargon difficult. The first is recognising the problem: knowing when you’re using words, or referring to ideas, that are not commonly understood. The second is doing something about it: working out how to say what you mean in real money, without patronising, and without simplifying to the extent that it’s not worth saying anymore.

I am grateful for the effort that my teachers at medical school put into addressing the jargon problem. But more than a decade since graduating I am still not sure that I am entirely there.

Last week I had another of those moments when it became clear that I what I was talking about was specialised knowledge – not the common knowledge I’d assumed. I would like to apologise to the person who I think I embarrassed in front of their colleagues. I didn’t mean to. I really thought you would know what I was talking about.

A few days later I was on the other side of the table. Presented with a series of questions for discussion at the end a seminar, I had no idea what any of them meant. I think I paid attention during the presentation. I think I have some general understanding of the topic of the seminar. But how ever many times I read over the discussion questions I just could not work out what they meant. I couldn’t even work out what it was about them I didn’t understand. It wasn’t a particular word, or phrase. Just the whole thing.

I just don't understand the whole thing
Yes, I was embarrassed when it was my turn to add something to the discussion. Yes, I garbled and deflected. Yes, I think it might have been the universe getting me back for my own jargon moment earlier in the week.

Which all rather reminded me how hard we, as Fuse researchers, have to keep trying to work out what other people are saying to us, and to say something comprehensible back to them.

I really, really wish I could speak French. I am still angry at myself for giving up, when surely if I had just kept trying, and trying harder, I might have got somewhere.

I promise to keep trying hard to fight the jargon.

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