On Her Own

Vocabulary is important

Whenever you are entering a new field, a new world, a new hobby, a new interest, it matters that you learn the words that people already there use, and learn how to use them as they do. I know it can seem confusing and overwhelming, to have to learn an entire new language on top of all of the concepts and everything else that go into a new endeavor. It’s easy to wonder why the people already established there can’t be bothered to help translate their terminology into something you can more easily understand. There’s even an argument that jargon and technical words are a form of gatekeeping, designed or resulting in discouraging people from participating. However, working to pick up that vocabulary ultimately helps you, for a number of reasons. Making the effort is worthwhile and will keep you from being trapped at a novice level, on the fringes of the new community you’re trying to connect with and participate in.

Knowing the right words to use in your new environment, to describe the tools you’re learning how to use, the techniques you’re learning how to perform, and the struggles you are learning to manage will help you be more accurate and precise when talking to people who can help you. While those of us who are bringing new people into our areas are responsible for being welcoming, it’s helpful when those new people show their genuine interest in learning by starting with the basics: what words we use. When we both work towards that common language, it helps us understand them, and them understand us. Certainly, being the new kid on the block is probably not the best time to demand that the veterans adjust everything about how they talk about the area where they have expertise, or at least more expertise than us. Like being a guest in somebody’s home, there’s a gentle dance of accommodation where the polite response is to follow our hosts’ rules even as our hosts may relax what they may normally require of their families.

Among other things, there are probably reasons that established occupants of your new world using the words that they are. As a newcomer, you are unlikely to have a groundbreaking new perspective and way of expressing ideas until you have achieved a basic grounding in the field. It’s possible, of course, but it’s rare. Far more likely is that you will have retread old ground that has already been examined and dismissed for one reason or another. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it means you are on the same track as others who have explored the ground you are now getting to know. You might also be making an entirely new mistake or have an entirely new misunderstanding, and that’s okay too. Someone has to, and knowing what isn’t right can be as useful as knowing as what is. The trick is to be humble when trying to figure out if your way of stating things fits into the canon of what is correct or incorrect in this area where you are the novice. Without that attitude, you won’t know which of the three routes you have taken and even if it’s the first – a revolutionary, fresh take – your insight won’t be accepted until you can translate it into the words used in the field today.

Besides, you won’t be able to ask the right questions and receive the right answers until you use the words that are already part of the area of interest. We’ve all experienced the frustration of using a search engine when we can’t actually describe what we’re searching for, and it’s the same when it comes to trying to learn anything: we have to know how to describe what we’re trying to understand. In the beginning, it’s harder of course, but it takes only a small amount of effort to gain that level of fluency that will make future learning faster by leaps and bounds. Plus not for nothing, using the lexicon of your new hobby as well as you can will make you look – and sound – like you actually want to participate in this new community you’re entering. The people already there are going to be more interested in welcoming you and helping you, even when you stumble. When you insist on using your words instead, it shows an arrogance that you may not intend, but that will nevertheless influence how established people will respond to you. When you care enough to learn the correct terminology, you clearly and immediately communicate that you are ready to learn.

So make the time to go through the glossaries, stop making up terms because it seems easier, and pick up the vocabulary used by the folks who are already part of the world you are entering. This early work will pay off as you progress. You’ll be welcomed more warmly, learn more quickly, and connect more completely with your new community.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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