Are You and Your Colleagues Speaking a Common Language Around Innovation?

July 21, 2021
Editor's Notes, July/August issue: Are you and your colleagues speaking the same language around innovation? How you frame the issues could make a difference

I’ve been absorbed in reading journalist and linguist Gaston Dorren’s 2018 Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, which provides compelling thumbnail profiles of the 20 languages most widely spoken in the world, from Vietnamese, Korean and Tamil, up to Spanish, Chinese, and English. Dorren, a Dutch multilingual himself, provides fascinating insights into some of the more interesting and quirky aspects of all these languages, many of which he has personally studied or speaks.

One of the profiles, of the Turkish language, I found riveting because of a story of linguistic reform in the middle of that profile. After the end of World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s new ruler, Kemal Atatürk, sent about to totally reform Turkish society, in terms of its politics, culture, and even language. In 1927, Atatürk gave a famous speech in which he advocated for the radical reform of the Turkish language, which over several centuries had imported countless words of Persian, Arabic, and later, French, origin. Atatürk had already ordered that Turkish be written in the Roman alphabet rather than the Arabic script in which it had been written under the Ottoman Empire, in order to improve literacy.

Meanwhile, when it came to vocabulary, Atatürk insisted that “The Turkish nation must liberate its language from the yoke of foreign languages,” as he wrote in 1920. As a result, “In July 1932, the Turkish Language Society was established, and later that year, it launched its ‘word-collection mobilization.’” As a result, a well-meaning initiative was launched, in which army officers, other government officials, schoolteachers, and doctors were asked to suggest indigenous Turkish words that could be substituted for the Persian, Arabic, and French loanwords in use at that time. Over 90,000 words were suggested, but then, things took a weird turn when overly enthusiastic appointed vocabulary “substitutors” went overboard and began wildly substituting words with indigenous roots and simply dropping them into daily language. “‘For a while, Babel set in,’ as Geoffrey Lewis, a prominent authority on Turkish language policy, puts it.” Unfortunately, things had become chaotic, with the army of officially designated “substitutors” going so far overboard in replacing so many well-known loanwords that Turks could not understand most of what they read in their newspapers. Eventually, in 1935, Atatürk himself had to reverse the policy and return to the previous linguistic clarity. He did so by latching onto an obscure and incorrect linguistic theory that Turkish was the mother of all languages and therefore, all words ultimately were Turkish, anyway.

Clearly, any kind of reform that can lead to sustained, constructive change must be rooted in shared understanding, purpose, strategy, and even tactics among the stakeholders striving to create that reform. Fortunately, when it comes to the winning teams in this year’s Healthcare Innovation Innovator Awards Program, the sense of shared understanding and purpose, and strategy aimed at important changes, is ever-present.

From the Denver-based UCHealth leaders who’ve developed a telemedicine-based sepsis detection and response system, leveraging artificial intelligence; to the Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina leaders who have leveraged AI to reduce inpatient readmissions; to the Children’s Health of Dallas leaders who have integrated behavioral health with virtual care delivery; to the Kaiser Permanente of Southern California clinicians who created a hospital-at-home program for COVID-19 patients; every one of our winning teams has shown purpose, strategy, and results. We hope you’ll enjoy reading these winning-team profiles, and the capsule summaries of the innovations created by the semi-finalist teams in this issue.

And, it goes without saying, these healthcare leaders all worked together and have achieved laudable results—without engendering linguistic, or any other kind of chaos. May we all speak the same language of innovation!

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