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Stranger in our own lands | Project Research Institute

Stranger in our own lands

As an English immigrant to Canada I had thought that there would be some effort required to culturally integrate to my new home land but I totally underestimated the affect of language in this integrative process - even when my old and new home tongue is the essentially the same. Something as simple as asking my child's friend to put his backpack in the boot rather than trunk of the car has caused regular comedic moments - "Boot? What boot? I'm not wearing any boots!".

This got me to wondering about the parallels between natural language integration in society and the subtleties of our personal research language in collaborative research work. One example that comes to mind is the catastrophic result of using different measurement systems on the Mars Climate Orbiter. Could it be that the issue arises, as with natural language, not when we are conscious of speaking different languages but when we "think" we are speaking the same language. When we know we are speaking a different language we make efforts to ensure that we have a common understanding, but, if we are unconsciously speaking different languages what happens to this co-operative effort? By definition, we cannot consciously be co-operating to narrow the difference because we are not aware that there is any difference. Does our unconscious assumption that we are the same get in the way of the fine grained understanding of our research?

In research collaboration between academics from different disciplines this could be a problem. The subtle sensemaking around confidence levels in conclusions drawn from qualitative and quantitative data, is one obvious example. Mostly researchers are aware of their own confidence levels and seek to clarify them. The subtle semantics of research terms we use and the transition from natural language usage to domain specific research jargon is more likely to cause problems. The establishment of a common language, as well as a frame of reference, in each research collaboration is perhaps one important feature required of collaborative research. In practical fact, an evolution of the understanding of language terms is a necessary part of collaborative research, and can, if handled well, result in less ambiguous and better quality research.

For me, the conscious awareness of my differences has been very useful in gaining better communication and let's face it I need to be fully aware, one of my most remarkable language errors resulted in me realizing that inviting friends over for a Sunday joint was not perceived as the Sunday roast that I had meant!

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