Just like privilege, language structures the interactions in such a way that it increases our chances of having things our own way and lays down ‘scripts’ consisting of cultural rules that use language to direct who does what and sketches out the predictable series of events in the communicational episode. If violated, these can result in serious conflicts or sometimes, cross-cultural misunderstandings. Language is part of a social system which not only consists of individuals but is socially constructed through histories, hierarchies, social situations, and relationships. Seattle-based Chhavi explores the relationship of language and culture, in the search for an identity, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
Language is a very powerful tool that can shape every aspect of our everyday lives, including our daily interactions with people. Language is defined as a set of signs, symbols, and non-verbal behaviors that we assemble to share meaning (Baldwin, Coleman, González, & Packer, 2014, p. 138). ‘Culture is communication, communication is culture’ (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 49). This remarkable quote emphasises the close connection between culture and communication. It is interesting to note how we use language to conceptualize our concept of “self,” make connections with people and create images that we present ourselves (called “face”) in our everyday interactions with people. It is through language that we develop perceptions about others and how we interact with them.
From a family talk to job interviews, language can conform the roles, functions, and power structures. Language could be used in ways to enforce control over others on grounds of cultural differences, prejudices, group identities and differences, and maintenance of group power (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 153). I believe language holds the power to shape our thoughts and ideas as well as helps us to deliver our ideas, thoughts, emotions, and impressions to others through words, the tone of voice, and body language. Language is defined as a set of signs, symbols, and non-verbal behaviors that we assemble to share meaning (Baldwin, Coleman, González, & Packer, 2014, p. 138).
We often come across cultural myths that outline forms of behaviors and endorses particular values and responses in a particular situation, some shaped historically and some molded by cultural values. A popular example is “The American Dream” that describes the idea that hard work and determination can earn one success and prosperity (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 147). The egalitarian nature of this dream might be true for some, but not for all because it masks the perpetuating racial and class inequalities.
Just like privilege, language structures the interactions in such a way that it increases our chances of having things our own way and lays down ‘scripts’ consisting of cultural rules that uses language to direct who does what and sketches out the predictable series of events in communicational episode (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 144`). If violated, these can result in serious conflicts or sometimes, cross-cultural misunderstandings. Language is part of a social system which not only consists of individuals but is socially constructed through histories, hierarchies, social situations, as well as relationships (Johnson, 2005, p. 50).
Language holds an incredible power as it increases our knowledge of different cultures and helps us to better understand ourselves as well as others. I believe that language is also shaped by a group’s perceptions of others through stereotyping, even if there aren’t any noticeable cultural differences. Therefore, we should use language wisely so that we avoid making quick and firm impressions of others based on stereotypes.
The important aspect of language lies in what words mean because these words hold the power to influence the behaviors of people in a multitude of situations. We tend to adopt different communication styles in different situations and understand how these changes can impact an outcome because terminology, turn-taking, and length including the topic of discussion can seem to exclude others, without us even realizing it (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 153). A language also conveys our intentions behind the messages we send while communicating through our tone or body language.
If language is used well, it can elicit strong feelings in others, inspire others to action, and describe the dynamics of relationships with others. Baldwin et al. (2014) highlight the ‘Speech acts theory’ that outlines the basic rules we follow in order to efficiently work with others. Following and understanding these language rules helps us to understand cross-cultural language difficulties (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 141).
Likewise, in his book Privilege, Power, and Difference, Allan G. Johnson pays close attention to the trouble that lies in how structural privileges and the unequal distribution of power prevents people from using language for the purpose of reflecting on what’s going on (Johnson, 2005, p. 12) and how we can make ourselves part of the solution to these troubles. It is fascinating to me how language can also impose power over others using overly intricate styles of conveying messages and difficult to decipher words to cloud these issues around racial and class inequalities.
Language has the ability to oppress others through labels such as “helpless,” “stricken,” “powerless,” which can deeply wound someone emotionally and might lead them to carry this agony throughout their lives leaving them no room to stand up for themselves and face the world. Johnson (2005) emphasises working with the real issues surrounding privilege, domination, and oppression prevent us from using words like sexism, feminism, ableism. However, the truth is that we should be granted cultural authority to use these terms, thus making the pain and suffering worth it (p. 10).
Therefore, I strongly believe that we should use language responsibly and use our knowledge of language to treat each other with respect and dignity. We are all part of a multicultural world, therefore we should learn and be mindful of the cultural values so that we see people as individuals. We should not use language to make firm judgments about them based on things like stereotyping. We should, therefore, be aware of the power and influence of language so that we can make more insightful and wise choices about how we convey our thoughts and ideas to people as well as how we perceive others.
Baldwin, J. R., Means Coleman, R. R., González, A., & Packer, S. S. (2014).
Intercultural communication for everyday life (Vol. 1). Wiley-Blackwell.
Johnson, A. G. (2005). Privilege, power, and difference (2nd ed.). Boston:
Photos from the internet.
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Chhavi Mehra is an international student from India completing her Associate’s of Arts degree in Communications and Media at South Seattle College. She will be transferring to a university in California for her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism. Chhavi hopes to write quality pieces reflecting the integrity of publications like The New York Times.