This semester, I'm taking a course that is a bit different here on campus. Rather than simply being limited to dealing with topics within just my realm of study (English literature), I'm in an interdisciplinary course. That means that I'm taking a course that requires me to assimilate information from a variety of disciplines (computers, food science, nutrition, engineering, to name a few) and incorporate their knowledge in the work that I'm doing. Sound challenging? It is! 

​As part of the first class of our course, we were asked to examine what we thought the terms "knowledge translation" and "knowledge transfer" might mean. I decided to take the writer's approach to the question.

Knowledge translation requires three things:
  1. Knowing your own cultural language. A cultural language can be anything from a specific language that your family or friends or community speaks, to a language of technical terms that people in your profession know and understand. It can be as specific or broad as your own experience and cultural background or being part of a classroom dedicated to a particular topic.
  2. Knowing the what language(s) the people you want to communicate with use,
  3. Finding ways to bridge the language gap where words and ideas don’t easily mesh, sometimes through the co-creation of new words (like thingy, for example). 

The problem is this: most people only speak the language of their own culture or society. Not only don’t they necessarily understand the language of other cultures, they can’t be bothered to try. There is a form of elitism, and a deliberate use of technical language as a way to control who gets to know what. This is how knowledge societies support themselves, through the sharing of knowledge to others in their small group. This can be beneficial to society as a whole when it preserves knowledge that might have been lost (such as in the reclamation and rediscovery of knowledge in indigenous groups), but it becomes harmful when knowledge never leaves the group to impact or support society as a whole.

This form of elitism and exclusion is common, especially in universities and colleges, not only on the undergraduate level, but especially at the Masters’ and Ph.D. levels. People go to school, and are told to specialize in one specific discipline, in which they learn the specific language of their discipline. This is useful so that they can speak to others in their field, and to do their work. When their work is done, and their paper is published, others in the discipline are able to read it and use it to support their own research. Unfortunately, sometimes the people who could most benefit from the results of research are unable to read that paper. Why?

It’s not just because they don’t have access to the academic/scientific journals, but also because these papers are written in a language that is inaccessible.  The knowledge of that research is contained in the Ivory Tower of academia. It doesn’t leave. It isn’t shared with the average person, or even with people who we think SHOULD know. The average person doesn’t necessarily have the education, or more specifically, the same cultural language that helps them understand what the paper says. This is frustrating, especially when new research can point to new ways of doing things that are beneficial for everyone, not just a choice few.

The biggest barrier to understanding and sharing (transferring) knowledge is the use of jargon. Jargon is the specific language of a topic/subject, and is often very technical in nature. Used in your small group, where everyone understands the terminology, it’s perfectly okay to use it. However, using jargon in a larger group to obscure information or to confuse or intimidate the less knowledgeable excludes others from the conversation, and keeps the dialogue only among “those in the know.”  

In my opinion, when specific language is used to exclude others, JARGON IS JUNK.

With that in mind, I’m going to explain what my purpose is in the context of this interdisciplinary course and why my discipline (English) is beneficial to everyone.

 You see, I’m a writer, author, and editor. For more than ten years, I’ve been working as a freelance writer for children’s and parenting magazines. I have had a novel published by a small press, self-published a short non-fiction e-book about mason bees and was recently published in a collection of short stories about the experience of geocaching. In addition to this, I have helped more than thirty authors write their books (and even ghostwritten a number of them for them). I’m more than just an “aspiring author,” I am a successful professional writer, a member of the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, a book coach, and the Editor in Chief of an e-zine for cosplay enthusiasts.

While many people think that writers just string words together to tell stories, we also string words together to help people communicate ideas to each other. We use our words with purpose, knowing who our audience will be. It would be crazy for me to use the same language that I use for a toddler learning their first words (dog, girl, sun, etc.) for an academic paper on the social aspects of memory, for example. That just doesn’t make sense.

As writers, our words must meet the reader, where they are. If we don’t use the right words, if we don’t speak to them, at their reading level or level of comprehension, they’re not going to understand our idea. There will be a breakdown in our communication.  Considering that the purpose of writing something is to communicate, it would be counterproductive not to use words that clarify concepts rather than obscure them.

Some people (especially experts and academics) call this process of translating technical language to the lay person “dumbing it down.” As a professional writer, I never think of it that way. I simply think “How can I explain this in terminology that this intended reader/user will understand?” I am always in the process of interpreting the words of one individual or group, and translating it so that another individual or group can absorb those concepts into their understanding.

That’s where knowledge transfer occurs; when the intended reader/user is able to look at the material that is being shared and say “I understand!” We can only be said to successfully transfer the knowledge of the one into the other when that other has grasped our concept and can explain it to themselves, us, and others in their own language. At least, that’s been my personal experience so far.

In summary, “knowledge translation” and “knowledge transfer” are just two more technical terms that can obscure the simple concept of using the language of your intended reader/user so that they can understand and apply your concept.  

Leave a Reply.