Exactly what does it take for something to be communicated?
This question gained specific prominence during the second world war when cryptographers, such as Claude Shannon, sought to maximally compress information for transmission. To successfully transmit a message, for example, you don’t have to transmit every letter of it. English – as well as other natural languages – have fairly low entropy. Given a partial string of characters, it’s actually relatively easy to guess which character comes nex_.
So, once you get beyond a certain Wittgensteinian fear that one person can never truly understand the perceptions another seeks to communicate – communication is actually relatively easy.
Recent research from Uri Hasson has found that people’s brainwaves actually sync up when one person is listening to another. The listener’s waves first mimic the brainwaves of the speaker, and then the listener’s brainwaves begin to precede those of the speaker – as the listener begins to predict what the speaker will say next.
I find myself particularly interested in the question of inter-language communication. Of course, sharing a language makes communicating easier, and I’d be incline to agree that common language is required for particularly meaningful exchange.
But at the most fundamental level, I don’t think a common language is required for the most basic acts of communicating.
When I was in my early twenties, I found myself babysitting my bilingual niece with a cousin of hers who was my age and who only spoke Hindi.
And let me tell you – we didn’t need words to determine that my niece was trying to pull one over on us every time she insisted that the other adult had given permission for a given activity. No, neither of us wanted her jumping on the bed.
Sharing a language, of course, makes things easier. But it’s also possible to communicate – in Shannon’s terminology – through compressed signals. Through eye rolls, through questioning looks, and through smiles.