Learn a Second Language

Do you want to become a better information architect? Learn a second language.

IA is focused on establishing distinctions. You do this with words. As a result, mastery of language is important for information architects. You master language by reading and writing — especially reading things that are outside your comfort zone. (One of the under-appreciated wonders of reading using tablets and e-readers is that they allow you to look up the definition words on the spot.) The broader your vocabulary, the more nuanced the distinctions you’re able to draw. (That said, you should avoid obscure terms when designing something for a mass audience. Not everybody will have as broad a vocabulary as you.)

But even having a broad vocabulary in one language may not be enough. Language is so foundational to how we experience reality that we can easily take it for granted. It’s the ground on which we stand. If we only know the one ground, we risk assuming everyone is standing on it. That isn’t the case.

Learning a new language forces you to realize that languages are constructs. Yes, they all have certain things in common. All languages have words for numbers, for example. But things like categorization schemes can vary significantly. Some languages have category terms that don’t exist in other languages. Some have more categories for a particular domain, others less. This video makes the point:

You can learn about these things intellectually. But you only grok the differences deeply when you must communicate with people who speak a different language. You start questioning things you’ve taken for granted most of your life, such as figures of speech and metaphors. You become aware of the historical contingencies of languages. None of the major ones have emerged fully formed; they’ve changed and influenced each other over time. And you, too, have the power to influence how they change.

Wittgenstein said that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” You must know the limits. This requires you to transcend them. Learning a second language — and putting yourself in a position to rely on it — pushes you beyond the limits of your mother tongue. A second language throws contrast, making the edges between distinctions visible. It’s an important skill for people who aspire to design worlds through words.