The Role of Language in Communication

Language is a term used to refer to diverse things that share one characteristic in common: they all relate in some way to communicationOpens in new window.

As a medium of communication, language encompasses all the acts associated with verbal communication in all its manifestations, including writing, which is considered a visual representation of the system we use to communicate and transfer meaning primarily in oral form.

Language, however, does not always refer to this verbal communication system; take, for example, sign language, which has a more restricted meaning, that of a system of manual communication used by specific groups, specifically the deaf and the hard of hearing.

Somewhat similar to sign language is the body languageOpens in new window used by policemen, movie directors, and people in general. These are gesturesOpens in new window and signals used, consciously or unconsciously, to communicate messages to those around us.

Language, therefore, is a code or arbitrary system of signs or symbols that permits a group of people to communicate and share meaning. These signs are known as words. In other words, language is the system of words or signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other.

To say it plainly, wordsOpens in new window are mere symbols—they have no meaning in themselves. Our language skills depend largely on the way in which we use words. We take our ability to use language so much for granted that we rarely recognize the role it plays in our lives until a situation arises when it cannot be used, for example, when you have difficulty in finding the right words to express yourself or when your meanings are misunderstood by others.

To put into practice the ability to organize and transmit thoughts and ideas, and ultimately communicate something to somebody, individuals have to articulate and string together sounds (phonological system), create units with meaning (morphological system), and form well-structured phrases and sentences (syntactic system).

At the same time, if communication is to be deemed effective, individuals have to comply with rules that govern meaning and share a common lexicon (semantic system).

In linguistics, the scientific study of language, the term language has a more specific meaning and use. It refers to the biological ability to organize and transmit thoughts and ideas in a systematic manner.

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From this perspective, language is a faculty that defines human beings and human behavior.

  • As such, language serves a key function in every society and every culture: language is instrument with which human beings interact with one another; express their feelings, needs, and wants; and construct their lives as unified societies.
  • Language is also the medium used to describe cultural practices; pass on cultural perspectives from generation to generation; and in the case of literature, folk songs, and other artistic forms of expression, create cultural products that identify groups of people.

It is important to note that the sounds produced in language are divided into segmental and suprasegmental sounds.

Segmental and Suprasegmental Sounds

Segmental sounds (otherwise known as phonemes), are produced by the vocal arrangement and described through a system of phonetics. The phonemesOpens in new window occur as discrete units of consonant and vowel sounds, which are articulated in a linear fashion during the speech process.

The phonetic system forms the basis for pronunciation. Phonemes in themselves are not meaningful; however, they are combined into longer segments which do have meaning. The morpheme, either one word or part of a word, is considered the smallest unit of meaning in language.

Grammar involves the structuring of morphemes into words and sentences. For example, ‘church’ is a one-morpheme word; whereas, ‘church-goer’ is composed of the two morphemes ‘church’ and ‘goer.’ And with the morpheme ‘goer’ are two phonemes, ‘go’ and ‘er.’

Suprasegmental sounds of language include such elements as pitchOpens in new window, stress, length, and pause, which form part of the grammar of the language. For example, the use of rising pitch signals a question; whereas, falling pitch indicates a statement.

Likewise, stress is used to distinguish between the two different words des-sert’ and de’-sert. The different dimensions of linguistics which embody these segmental and suprasegmental elements of language include pronunciation, grammar (including syntax), semantics (meaning), and pragmatics (usage).

According to ChomskyOpens in new window et al (1965), human beings are born with a language acquisition device that is activated once the child is exposed to contextualized language.

This “activation” triggers a series of processes that allow the child to develop the grammar of the language (or languages, in the case of bilingual and multilingual communities), a set of underlying rules that allow the speaker to produce an infinite number of “correct” utterances. This grammar includes features that are common to all languages (known as principles) as well as features that are particular to the language or languages that the child is acquiring (known as parameters) (Chomsky, 1995; Chomsky, 1981).

Among the features shared by all natural languages, also referred to as language universals, we find the following:

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The Uses of Language

The functions of communicationOpens in new window may be assessed in terms of the needs they fulfil and the effects they have. They may be classified as follows:

Language fulfils all of these functions. We also use language for more specific purposes, some of which are described below.

1.   Labelling and Defining

We use language to label and define. Labelling is the act of identifying an object, act, or person by giving it a name, making us able to talk about it. When something is named, it is equally defined; that is, it takes on all the characteristics that people associate with its label.

There is a difference, for example, between calling a classmate a “student”, a “friend” “a young adult” or “a soccer player”. Whichever label you choose, you are not only drawing attention to some particular aspect of that person; you are also suggesting how others should define that person.

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2.   Evaluating

We use language to evaluate. Any word or phrase that judges the rightness or wrongness of an activity or behaviour is termed “Evaluative Language”. Such words like “clever”, “stupid”, “wonderful”, “good” and “bad”, are evaluative languages. Expressions such as “you could do better”, and “this is a first-class piece of work”, are also evaluative languages.

Evaluative language is important because without it we would not be able to be critical or supportive of others. But we have to be careful how we use evaluative language. We can create a negative or positive impression of people, places, or actions simply by talking about them inappropriately.

3.   Expressing immediate experience

We use language to talk about the past and the future, and even communicate about people who are not present. We may use language to learn from other people’s experiences, weigh up different alternatives to problems, and plan for the future.

Language could also be used to substitute for direct experience, for example, there are certain experiences which are depicted in words clearly enough, whereby things absent are presented to our imagination with such extreme vividness that they seem actually to be there before our very eyes.

4.   Entertaining

When you tell jokes to friends, do crossword puzzles; or perhaps you are the type that watches movies, reads poetry or novels, you are using language to elicit entertainment. This means a great deal of our entertainment and social activities are done through language. Even the pleasure of an activity such as watching a sports event is enhanced by the cheers of the fans and the commentary of the television sports announcer.

5.   Talking about language

We sometimes judge our communication skill or request someone opinion to examine the way we communicate. In so doing, we are merely using language to talk about communication, a scenario termed as “metacommunication”. We can evaluate how we had expressed an idea and assess whether our wordings would perhaps have delivered clear communication if our words had been phrased better. In this instance, the whole communication is communication itself.

Important Hint! 

The uses of language are so vast that it is almost impossible to discuss them all. Language can be used, for example to lie, to be aggressive, or to destroy a relationship. In the next study we discuss How Words Came To Have MeaningsOpens in new window.

    This study is a series. See next page!
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