Sunday, 15 November 2009

A rant against shenmeyisi

Any professional discipline comes with jargon. Jargon can make communication more precise and straightforward. For example, when you drop the word "AK47", most people interested in weapons will know precisely what you're talking about and there is no need to spend any further time on explaining what you mean. Unfortunately, jargon can also make communication less effective, especially with concepts that are open to multiple, divergent interpretations. Or when people don't bother translating jargon (which can indeed be difficult when you don't know exactly what you want or need to say, to start with...). That is a serious and widespread problem in the development sector.

Just a few minutes ago I started reading a comprehensive evaluation report, nearly 70 pages written in French in a country where French is an official language, as well as other languages that most Europeans do not understand. Right in the middle of the executive summary, the very key and probably only pages most users of the report will read, I come across this sentence: la planification et le suivi portent plutôt sur les 'outputs' et pas assez sur les 'outcome' Quoi? Translated into English, this sentence would run: Planning and monitoring focus on 'produits' rather than 'effet direct'. Eh? 


There are official glossaries of evaluation terminology anyone can download from the internet (e.g. the OECD glossary, available in many languages)! Why force-feed linguistic barbarisms on busy people? In many countries I have worked in, many "ordinary" people are fluent in at least one European and several "local" languages - do they have to learn English development jargon as well? If we want people to understand what we say, wouldn't it be more straightforward to use one of the languages they understand? How can we expect anybody to obtain any practical benefit from the "learning" and "capacity building" we pretend to offer if we can't express ourselves clearly? Do we really believe that the acquisition and indiscriminate use of funky vocabulary is a sign of superior knowledge? *sigh*

PS for those among us who don't speak Chinese: "shenmeyisi" in Mandarin Chinese means "what does it mean?" There is absolutely no need to have this term in the title line, but as you may have noticed, it creates slight confusion and thus potentially demonstrates the intellectual superiority of the author and jargon user - or does it? ;-)

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