As we celebrate National Languages Month in the Philippines this August, we wish to offer these thoughts on one of the important and urgent goals of languages: understanding.

In an article entitled “Forget Words, a Lot of Millennials Say GIFs and Emojis Communicate Their Thoughts Better Than English”, published in Time Magazine last June 27, 2017, Katy Steinmetz presented a survey conducted by Harris Poll and commissioned by Tenor, the mobile GIF-sharing platform. More than 2,000 U.S. adults were interviewed in May. Of these, about 1,400 said they use such visuals in text or mobile messaging. It also showed that 36% of millennials, ages 18 to 34, who use “visual expressions” such as emojis, GIFs and stickers, claim that these images communicate their thoughts and feelings better than words do. When the question was asked with a slightly different wording — whether these images help people understand “the thoughts and feelings I’m trying to communicate” better than words alone — almost 80% agreed… More than half of the people of all ages said they use emojis and GIFs in messages to make people laugh, to lighten their mood and because they “make conversations more fun.”

It is a challenge to go beyond languages when we set as our goal real understanding in communicating with each other. We know that there are limits to spoken words, and that we can better enter the others’ minds and hearts by making that extra effort to understand what they are trying to say. How? First of all let’s look at the etymology of understanding. In an essay about the Oscar-winning film Arrival which deals with the problem of language, Jedd Cole, a writer and scholar of literature, language and philosophy, explained what understanding means.

The English word “understand” is itself a case of ambiguous meaning. It means literally “to stand under”. The Old English understandan means “to comprehend” or “to grasp the idea of”; but “under” doesn’t mean “underneath” but “among” or “in between,” like the Latin inter and Greek entera. The prefix “under” has also meant, in varying circumstances, “among,” “between,” “before,” and even “in the presence of”… “perhaps the ultimate sense is ‘to be close to,’” comparing it to the Greek epistamai, meaning idiomatically “I know” but meaning literally, “I stand upon.”

How can we understand others? By putting ourselves in the others’ shoes, and by standing with others, as Jedd Cole would say. As a classic example of language disconnect, we see the continuous discussion of our lawmakers about the problem of local commuters as they themselves don’t know how what it means to use public transportation to commute every day. This also applies to the problem of queuing up for hours inside government offices and private agencies which many of our rich lawmakers don’t experience at all. Perennial problems can only be adequately addressed by people who are standing with, and who are among, the people, immersed in their situation and concrete reality. Language expressed through laws will serve its purpose if it bridges the abstract and the concrete, and if it can offer simple solutions to complex problems.

Understanding can also facilitate inclusion and integration. Unwittingly perhaps, we have alienated people around us and excluded them because of their culture, language, and religion, political standpoint, gender orientation, color and race. Likewise, we may have been offended by someone’s FB, Instagram or Twitter post.

Sometimes a GIF and emoji can pave the way to reconciling broken relationships… In the past a white flag was enough to end a war, or a flower to mend a broken and lonely heart. Nowadays, a smiley can make someone happy, or a “he he he” remark or LOL can lighten the seriousness of a heated argument while messaging…

Language should promote peace, or else it defeats its purpose. It should further national and international understanding – so crucial to peaceful co-existence in our nation and on our only planet Earth.

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