A Word About Lingo

For twenty years of my career I was responsible, on various levels, for educating employees on the use of business technology. I was often in a position between the experts in the processes the systems were used for and the technical teams who owned those systems. I spoke enough of the technical language to understand what the system developers were saying; and I new the terminology of the business processes to understand those subject matter experts. My role often placed me at the center of conversations in which technical lingo was lobbed at business folks, and business lingo was lobbed at technical folks. My job was always to translate lingo from one side into plain language the other side could understand. Those decades of experience offered just one lesson on how lingo can get in the way of true understanding.

Forty years ago my greatest riding mentor warned of the trap of lingo. He would often parody the use of common Dressage terms that too often were used in vague ways. Half halt was always a favorite target. Especially in those days, you’d hear trainers shouting that phrase repeatedly in lessons. When you would ask either trainer or student what “half halt” actually meant, you would get a wide range of responses. I’ll never forget being at a clinic held by an Olympic rider in which someone asked her to describe what a half halt was – specifically, which rider’s aids were involved. The clinician frequently used the term, but sometimes would tell riders to half halt who thought they had. Her response to the question: “It might be hands, it might be legs, it might be seat, or it can be any combination of those aids.”

Now, I have seen countless discussions of what aids are involved in a half halt, and you can certainly debate that. But think for just a moment about that answer. The gallery at that clinic were largely adult amateur riders, many of whom started Dressage late in life. They had all heard the term “half halt” countless times. Some probably felt they understood it, others probably recognized their own confusion. What real clarity did that explanation offer to them? More importantly, did that answer reflect real clarity on the part of that trainer who so cavalierly threw the term at students? Even if her answer was correct, how is a student to know when to use any specific set of aids?

I am not arguing that the lingo associated with an activity has no value. It is certainly important at a high level to ensure that we understand each other. Science is a key area where the lingo is critical – but most of us would not expect to understand the lingo most scientists use (unless you are one yourself). It is not hard to learn the words, but real understanding of them takes time to learn. What I am arguing is that lingo can easily get in the way of communicating with those not in your sphere or at your level of knowledge. There is a reason why so many people, including scientists, say that scientists make terrible spokespeople on topics such as climate change. When you are teaching new concepts, it is particularly critical to get away from your familiar lingo and find a more basic way to describe the concepts.

That same riding mentor who mocked some people’s uses of lingo was a master at communicating things in a clear way, at the level of the person he was teaching. His barn was filled with that same type of audience who attended that Olympic rider’s clinic – mostly middle-aged women who either started or returned to riding later in life. They were keen students but did not have the background or knowledge to understand the lingo. Nor did most of them have the time to read and study the masterworks. The time they had was dedicated to riding and caring for their horses. His approach to these students was highly successful and I found it reflected in the best teachers I have known in my life.

Before a student can understand the real meaning behind the lingo, they must first grasp the concepts. For physical activities, this includes learning the feel and motions. The word or phrase is not needed in this part of the process. In fact, through my experience I find that when you throw out a word of lingo the recipient’s brain gets stuck on the word. While they try to understand the word (or look it up if online) they are missing the point of the concept you are trying to convey. For some people this truly becomes a roadblock to understanding as they can be quite uncomfortable with an unfamiliar word. For others, they may have a preconceived notion if they’ve heard the term before and that notion will get in the way of them hearing what you are trying to teach. I see this a lot online, where people throw around terms in a way that shows they clearly do not understand them and the resulting conversations get very convoluted as the parties have different understandings. The reason people justify for using lingo is to have a common understanding – but that only happens if you know by experience that the other person has the knowledge or background to ensure they have the same understanding of the term as you do.

I always start with the basic concept of what I am teaching. Using simple language I can break the concept down into whatever pieces necessary to help the student gain understanding, whether those are basic steps or components of a concept. If the student doesn’t have to put brain power toward the vocabulary they can focus it on understanding or body feel. Once the student seems to be grasping the concept I will ask them to demonstrate (if appropriate) and articulate it back to me. As they show confirmed understanding I will give them the terminology that goes with the concept. Some students eat up the terminology and will ask along the way if there is a term for something; others are happy to have grasped a concept without needing to learn the terminology. Both, and everything in between, is fine with me. That they can master a concept which helps them in their endeavor is truly the only point.

I don’t remember who told me this, but I was once told that you are not an expert on a subject unless you can explain what you do to a lay person in plain English (or your native language). Mastering lingo does not make you an expert – it comes with the development of expertise. Sadly, too many lose sight of the fact that most of the world may not have true familiarity with the specific lingo. I’m seeing so many people on social media, people who are teachers by profession, using high level lingo in their posts – anatomical, behavioral, neuro-scientific, etc. In some cases they use it correctly, and in some cases they do not. But only those who understand the proper use of the lingo will know the difference. Sadly I see so many people impressed by lingo. That the other person knows this high level lingo and the potential student does not leaves that student with the feeling that they have much to learn from the user of lingo. Unfortunately, that can be quite the opposite of true. Some of the people who have argued with me the most in favor of using the lingo have gone on to show they actually have little understanding of it. This was also the experience of my riding mentor from all those years ago.

If you find yourself using lingo in your communications with others, consider your audience. Are you sure they have a clear understanding of it? Practice descriptions of your concepts that a beginner can understand. Above all, don’t get frustrated when the audience does not understand (as I have seen and experienced). Always check yourself and find another way to explain it, giving the person a chance to catch on. Remember that your knowledge and value is not measured by your understanding of a specialized language, but rather in how you are able to convey key concepts to those whom you are teaching.

If you are a student and find that your teacher is using a lot of lingo, don’t be embarrassed to ask them to explain or clarify in a different way. It is not your failing if you are not familiar with specialized words – and unless you are into research, it is not necessary for you to have that familiarity in most pursuits. Where it is necessary, that knowledge can come later when you are more confident in your understanding of the concepts. If you have a teacher who makes you feel bad, in any way, for not understanding or learning the words, look for another instructor. It took me many years to find an instructor who indulged my requests for explanation and engaged me in conversation in a way to ensure my understanding. It remains my top requirement for any teacher for myself or whom I hire for my teaching staff.

I happen to be a person who likes to pursue the knowledge to the level of understanding the lingo that goes with the subject. However, one of my points of pride is that my students (as well as my employees) have always thanked me for being able to explain things in a clear and easy to understand way. In some cases mine is the first explanation they have understood on a given topic. That is down to my practice of staying away from lingo unless I know that my audience understands it well and the same as I do. If the context requires the use of a specialized term I will first ask my audience if they understand the term and maybe ask them to explain it to me.

It is critical to recognize that keeping an explanation simple is not the same as “dumbing down” the topic. Nor is it a sign that you are “dumb” if everyone else seems to understand a term and you do not. Odds are some of them don’t actually understand it either. If there is one take away, I hope it is not to judge someone for not understanding the lingo – especially if that someone is yourself! I will end, in good humor, with the KISS principle first taught me decades ago by a highly regarded international clinician at a trainers’ symposium – Keep It Simple, Stupid! (That last word may seem mean, but it makes the acronym work. 😉

2 replies

  1. I always keep the Richard Feynmen learning/teaching technique in mind. He was a Nobel prize-winning physicist who realized that jargon, vague words, and complexity actually reveal the speaker’s lack of understanding. There are four key steps to the Feynman Technique:
    Choose a concept you want to learn about
    Explain it to a 12 year old
    Reflect, Refine, and Simplify
    Organize and Review

    Liked by 1 person

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