Discover & Innovate: City University looks deeper into the nuts and bolts of language and communication

Discover & Innovate: City University looks deeper into the nuts and bolts of language and communication

Not many of us think about language, but if we take it for granted, we underestimate the importance of using it properly - and therefore effectively

You might wonder why I put my last name, or family name, in all-caps. It's because sometimes people get confused by my name. You see, my family name is quite rare, and my first name sounds like the very common family name, Suen (孫). So, I write it like this to tell people I am from the Lun family and my first name is Suen. The terms "personal name" and "family name" are much clearer verbal signs for the concepts they represent, namely, so-called "first name" and "last name" from the Western European perspective.

If you look at the pinyin names of Chinese athletes, the last name always comes first and first name last, which is a government regulation concerning proper Hanyu-pinyin transliteration. So YAO Ming is not Ming YAO. Other languages like Hungarian or Japanese follow the same principle. If we universally adopt the policy of using all-caps for family names, at least things will be clearer on paper (or on the screen).

Who is responsible for initiating this change? People who call themselves linguists perhaps. Which organisation is responsible for enforcing this change? ISO? UN? Schools? Nobody so far. If you claim there is an economic incentive to advocate this change, for example, you can run a search engine more effectively because there will be less mismatches in the results, well, maybe people will start paying attention.

Linguists are concerned with the scientific study of language in relation to language teaching and learning, and language applications (human and/or computer). To do the first two tasks well, we need to work on linguistic research and language standardisation. People who study languages will have a better understanding of human nature and behaviour, and they can manipulate the language signs (words and expressions) and language rules (grammar) to serve their communication needs much better. They can speak, write, and think sensibly and critically because they are empowered by their languages and also because they also understand the limitations imposed on them by their languages.

Miscommunication happens all the time. When then-president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) came to Hong Kong many years ago, in one of his speeches he said: "井水不犯河水" ("a well does not flood a river"), not knowing that in Hong Kong the saying is reversed: "河水不犯井水." Although he meant Beijing would not interfere with local affairs, some local journalists thought that Jiang suggested that Hong Kong people should not interfere with mainland affairs simply because Hong Kong was thought to be the tiny well and China the big river. I looked it up in a proverb dictionary and found that Jiang's version is the standard way of saying the proverb all over China; it was simply a misunderstanding caused by language/dialect differences.

Communication between humans is tough. How many zeros are there for a billion? An old Briton will give you a different answer to a young American. There is a thousand times' difference! If a Hongkonger spells in British English but uses the American numerical system, will that cause unnecessary trouble?

Linguistics is fun and we learn it because we want to understand the communication process, but more intriguingly, how language is represented in our brain and how it can be represented and run using a computer. Next time you see a robot using real language, you know there must be a team of linguists working hard behind it.


This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
The keys of communication


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