Are We Afraid of Language

I just have to ask a question. When did we become afraid to speak? I've noticed it lately - we tiptoe around things that are controversial, even if that's not the speakers intent. I feel like a lot of people who have made headlines for something they have said probably didn't mean it the way it sounded. Everyone is guilty of making a mistake in the way they use language and usually it's not that big of a deal. Even the people surrounded by talking heads that are coaching the speaker on what and how to say something make mistakes. I feel like we've gotten to a point where we fear language. We fear discussing ideas or sharing different opinions. We are terrified of offending someone - and because of it, we keep our mouths shut.

The Problem

When we become afraid to speak out and declare that there is something that could be changed we kill the free exchange of ideas. Yes, there are some subjects and words that over time and historical changes have fallen out of our lexicon. There are some words that, like many of diseases, have been eradicated from our daily life. These words (which I won't list) are the kinds of words that only people who are ignorant or just downright hateful still use in their everyday language.

Who's At Fault?

Everyone. That's the truth. History is littered with people who have opened their mouths and caused the world to be completely flipped on its head. These are people who have flipped the world in both good and bad directions. Intent with language is just as important as the words that are said. Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are just a few examples of people who have flipped the world. So are Hitler, Stalin, and Castro.

The difference? Intent. The people who speak with hate are doing so because that is exactly what they want to do. For them, it's not about creating healthy debate and exchanging ideas.

 

When it comes to debate, we apply it on an emotional level. This is a part of human nature but when we become afraid of expressing opinions and our thoughts, we stop progress. We stop understanding. We stop the idea that you can walk a mile in someone’s shoes . Having a debate is not the same as standing on a street corner with signs and screaming obscenities.

 

Debate is the exchanging of ideas - an understanding of two people who come from different backgrounds, were raised under different circumstances, and have different values.

 

Debate is not about changing someone's mind, proving yourself right , or hurting someone’s feelings.

You want to have an effective debate?

  • Listen & Learn - Do not discount someone else’s opinion simply because you disagree. There's a lot you can learn from another person.
  • (Try to)Keep Your Emotions Out of It - Easier said than done, I know, as heated debates are often based on things that get people pretty fired up, like politics and religion. In friendly company, these are subjects that people are comfortable enough to bring up and discuss. Try to think of things in a logical manner rather than a personal one.
  • Avoid The Okay, Whatever factor. - When someone says something you disagree with there is no need to snort laugh and say okay buddy, whatever . If you do this, you are only proving that you're closed minded and not open to another person's perspective.

Debate is a touchy thing but it is where some of the greatest ideas are born. I'm concerned about the state of communication to see that more and more people are growing afraid of language and how it can be used to discuss the things that are happening around them. Don't be afraid to speak and to voice your opinions. The problem with language is that it can be twisted to serve someone's needs. Stop twisting the ideas - stop twisting the language. Listen to someone else and open your mind to the fact that there could be other opinions besides your own out there.

Are you afraid of language? Why? Do you feel it stops you from gaining a different perspective because you're afraid to ask a question?

 

 

Understand Language to Make Language Work for You

In the field of linguistics there has for long been a debate on how human beings develop the ability to communicate. Often referred to as the nature versus nurture debate, the argument is over whether we are born with an innate ability for language or learn to use language through our interactions with environmental stimuli. Over time, both sides have presented convincing evidence. For example, Noam Chomsky, a linguist from MIT, demonstrated that babbling newborn babies produce phenomes (the smallest units of sound) which they could never have heard in the language of their present country, but which are used in a variety of languages all over the world. Babbling babies’ use of phenomes proves, according to Chomsky, that the human brain is prepackaged with a “language faculty.” Meanwhile, proponents of the nurture theory say babies merely make these sounds independent of any prewired linguistic ability. Given the nature of our vocal chords, any human has the potential to make these sounds; certain phenomes only become more difficult as a particular human grows more accustomed to the sound of the language in which he or she is immersed. It’s a matter of cultural evolution, according to the nurture camp. Depending on your interpretation of the data, the debate leans to one side or the other. But it’s most likely a combination of both: humans have some sort of built-in, prepackaged ability for language, which formed slowly via mechanisms of Darwinian evolution, but which quickly develops and matures based on input from the environment.

No matter which way the debate leans, all seem to agree on one fact: each one of us begins developing our linguistic intelligence at an early stage. Now that we’re older, we can hone in on this linguistic intelligence and put it to use. After all, before you master something, you must first understand it.

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner says humans developed language as a tool. It’s a means at our disposal for achieving an end. Every time you speak, according to Gardner, you use language to achieve one of four ends.

They’re broken down as follows:

  1. People use language to convince or induce other people to a course of action. A boss, for example, may tell his employee that he needs his TPS reports by the end of the week, or a friend may ask another friend to pass the salad dressing at the table. According to Gardner, lawyers and politicians have developed this ability to a high degree, but it’s also an ability that begins to form at a young age—like when a three-year-old wants a second helping of cake.
  2. Language is used for mnemonics. Before humans had language, memorization was far more difficult. Language, however, functions as a tool for codifying and memorizing things. We use chunks to memorize phone numbers. We use mnemonics like Never, Eat, Sour, Watermelons to memorize the cardinal directions.
  3. Language is used as a tool for explanation. In fact, it’s the primary tool for teaching. Whether explaining literature or mathematics, anyone trying to teach someone something does so through the use of language. This is part of the reason why the human lexicon is forever expanding. As new developments and breakthroughs are made, new vocabulary words are needed to explain them. Google it.
  4. Finally, language is used to talk about language. That is, language is used to reflect upon language. This is called “metalinguistic analysis.” We can see this when a child asks his parent about conceptual words, like “dream” or “wish.” These questions would require the parents to think about the word and use language to explain its meaning.

Now that you have (I hope) a better understanding of the uses of language, try thinking of ways that you can put it to use. You can be confident in your linguistic abilities—after all they’ve been evolving since before you were born. Ask yourself the following questions: How can I put language to use to get a colleague at work to do something for me? What mnemonic techniques can I use to memorize things? How can I better use language to teach someone something, to make something run more smoothly on my next conference call or at work? If there is a difficult concept you’re working with, look at it at the quantum level. Look at the actual words you’re using to describe it and see if you can’t break those words down into easier-to-understand concepts. Who knows, a little metalinguistic analysis may very well make the answer to your problem crystal clear.