Language is more than a code. It impacts every part of our lives.
If you’ve ever tried to speak another language, you may have run into trouble. Some personal stories:
One time, I was a tourist in Poland and managed to ask a shopkeeper for a raincoat. After they showed me, I said, “Dzień dobry!” (good morning) instead of “Dziękuję!” (thank you). While it was embarrassing and made me want to avoid them, it was also a very motivating experience that I can laugh about now.
Another time, I went to speak to someone in Dutch and apply my newly-learned skills. I tried my very best to try something outside my comfort zone: writing entire text messages. I sent the person a text that I was proud of, since it was not just a simple sentence.
I used all my new verbs, and thought I would show him my progress. But, my word order was all wrong. For instance, I might have said, “Ik wil kopen een nieuwe fiets.” (English word order) versus the correct “Ik wil een nieuw fiets [kopen].”The person responded with laughing emojis, saying that they had no idea what I was trying to say.
It destroyed my desire to talk to that person in Dutch, and it took years before I tried again. Even then, he understood what I said after years of practicing to get it right, but he responded with puns and words I didn’t know.
We like to think about language as functional, but it’s more than that.
We can see this functional attitude toward language in lots of different forms:
- I use language to communicate with people, but everyone speaks Dutch, so English isn’t necessary.
- I don’t encounter German very much in my work.
- Why would you learn Dutch during your study abroad? It’s a useless language!
- This is the Netherlands; everyone speaks Dutch. Why stick to Frisian?
- They need to integrate if they want to stay here.
To a degree, this is true. We do use language to communicate, but there is so much more going on than simply a transfer of ideas into a code.
What is up with language?
Another formulation of this question can help us: how do people communicate? We may have learned that communication involves several elements:
We tend to think that language impacts communication in these three places:
- The sender composes a message in one language (perhaps translating in their head)
- That message is spoken or written
- The receiver receives it according to their language abilities.
Actually, language impacts these aspects of communication:
All of it.
Language impacts every element of communication
Let’s walk through each element to demonstrate how language impacts all of communication:
This is pretty straightforward. An intended message, including its literal and connotative meanings are put into a ‘code’. This code not only has literal meaning (betekenis) but also includes an intended meaning (bedoeling) and connotation (bijbetekenis).
This decoding is done in relation to the receiver’s context. Are they knowledgeable enough about the code of a language? Do they understand the bedoeling?
The receiver’s ability to decode is also impacted by other factors. Think of how communication goes with other native speakers of your first language –Sometimes they’re tired, maybe overly analytical, skeptical, romantically interested, etc.
Often, the communication channel itself is determined by language.
Take facebook, for instance:
Facebook was in English at first, but now it features options translated into local languages.
- Vind het Leuk!
However, consider that facebook is arranged for different languages:
Some of the layout is the same; however, some of the layout is different. It’s obviously a visual translation of the English version.
Even more than this, the channels have come about as a result of communication, out of necessity and need.
Tinder is a channel. This channel necessitates that there is language for romantic expression, and it involves appropriate language. It also necessitates that a culture includes this sort of social exchange.
The need for that exchange seems pre-linguistic: people want it or not. But that want itself is limited by language; the ability to communicate that want is limited by language.
Languages often come with appropriate feedback.
- A quick gasp in Germanic cultures means “ah. Yes.”
- The same thing in the USA means “oh shit!”
Connotations are also expressed in language, and responses are also encoded.
Besides general noise (like people talking, etc) and the obvious impact this has on someone’s focus (sender/receiver context), language itself can carry ‘noise’. This is often an interaction between sender/receiver context and noise. Imagine that I may be thinking of the right word, but there are three different languages bouncing around in my head. The linguistic ability of someone in the communication exchange often causes noise
Sender & Receiver context (revisited)
Let’s revisit sender and receiver context now that it’s clear that language is more than code
Sender and Receiver both grew up in the presence of others, calling their mothers or fathers a certain word, learning politeness, expressing fear – always in the context of language
But language also impacts our perception, our openness to new experiences, and the very way we encode the world around us
An easy way to demonstrate this is non-translatable words.
Before moving to the Netherlands, I had a few words for motorized, two-wheel vehicles:
My Dutch friends have:
My ability to understand my motor-bike options is obviously limited here to language, but it also impacts my social understanding
I have to learn new road rules made for things with different names. More than that, my understanding of the difference between ‘snorfiets’ and ‘bromfiets’ will seriously impact my understanding of road rules, my ability to travel from one place to another, etc.
For many of you, this may seem like a stretch, but it’s really not. The sender and receiver are also, to some degree, linguistically determined. The ways that we describe ourselves, name ourselves, identify ourselves with other people, etc. — this is all linguistically determined. Without language for ourselves and others, without language to describe and label things in our experience, our ability to build up experiences, personalities, or relationships seriously falls apart.
Language even determines our dreams. Not only do they happen in a language, but they also include ‘things’ which are limited by our vocabulary. If I dreamt that all my friends had bromfietsen and I only had a snorfiets, this would give me a feeling of being left out, maybe poverty or something. In English, however, I would just be too slow, maybe considering my scooter too slow or broken; my feelings there would be panic toward the machine and not my resources.
Our hopes, memories, and dreams only include elements we have language for.
It should be obvious now that language is so much more than just a code. While this is the ‘theory’ behind language, it’s not purely abstract.
If we treat language as purely functional, this has serious consequences in our social interaction with others, which further impacts our social relationships, our businesses, and our own lives.
In my next blog, I will address how people learn languages and how to create a good working culture to fit the theory I briefly explained. With this theoretical insight, we can take practical steps to help ourselves and others to improve language skills — without a teacher. See my other blogs for more tips.
Babble On offers business workshops aimed at helping teams work together to improve language. Our workshops build upon this idea and offer businesses a chance to improve teamwork, company morale, and language skills in one or a few sittings. Mention that you read this blog for 10% off!