Human language is a unique communication system which is different from that of other species. It is so complex and perfect that people couldn’t help wondering where it comes from. It is believed that language is part of our essential human nature and is therefore neither invented nor handed down as a gift. All humans are innately or genetically equipped with a unique language learning ability. At the same time, people use language in subtle ways to define their relationship to each other, to identify themselves as part of a social group.
Let’s see what a modern civilized man does a day, from the moment he switches on an early morning news broadcast until he falls asleep over a novel. He talks to his friends, his associates, and his parents. He talks to bus drivers and total strangers. Television and radio further provide more words of talking. Hardly a moment of his waking life is free from talking. He is swimming in words.
Human beings talk, i.e. they use extremely complicated systems of sputtering, hissing, gurgling, clucking, cooing noises called language, to express what goes on in their mind. This is called communication. People communicate with each other. They tell others what they are thinking about and they get others thoughts at the same time. This is a kind of cooperation, to some extent. Scholars believe that widespread interpersonal cooperation through the use of language is the fundamental mechanism of human survival. The principle that if we don’t hang together we shall all hang separately was discussed by nature long before it was put into words by man. Most of us probably have had the following experience. When you are walking in the street, someone shouts at you, "Look out!" and you jump just in time to avoid being hit by an automobile. You owe your escape from injury to the fundamental cooperation act by which most of the higher animals survive, namely, communication by means of noise. You did not see the car coming. Nevertheless, someone did, and he made certain noises to communicate his alarm to you. Indeed, most of the time when we are listening to the noises people make, we are drawing upon the experiences of others in order to make up for what we ourselves have missed. Obviously, the more an individual can make use of the nervous systems of others to supplement his own, the easier it is for him to survive.
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In addition to having developed language, man has also developed means of making more or less permanent marks and scratches which stand for language. These marks enable him to communicate with people who are beyond the reach of his voice, both in space and in time. The marks can pass on what one individual has known to other individuals, for their convenience or in the broadest sense, instruction. A human being, then, is never dependent on his own experience alone for his information. Even in a primitive culture he can make use of the experience of his neighbors, friends, and relatives, which they communicate to him by means of language. Therefore, instead of having to discover what others have already discovered, he can go on from where they left off. That is to say, language or communication through language, makes progress possible. Human fitness to survive means the ability to talk and write and listen and read in ways that increase the chances for him and fellow-members of his species to survive together.
If you are a careful observer, you will find that children talk to themselves or to a supposed image when they play by themselves, and even adults sometimes behave the same way. They sing a song when taking a shower or cooking. In this case, the significance of the words used is almost completely irrelevant. People talk simply for the sake of hearing themselves talk; that is, for the same reason that they play golf or dance. The activity gives people a pleasant sense of being alive. People are psychologically contented when enjoying the sound of their own voices.
Most of the time language does convey a certain idea. The language system is neutral with respect to the thoughts it carries. However the content and direction of the particular thoughts of a person can be affected by other persons use of language. Receiving statements which others have constructed and communicated can influence a person, and he will send back the answering statements accordingly. The conversation goes on when the speaker-hearers influence and are influenced. The power is sometimes hidden behind the discourse. People who hold this power at a particular moment have to constantly reassert their power, and those who do not hold power are always likable to make a bid for power. Power is won, exercised, sustained, and lost in the course of a conversation. This process of power maintenance is, of course, psychologically affected.
Here is an interview between a youth (Y) suspected of involvement in a crime, and his headmaster (H):
- H: Why didn’t you go straight down Queen Street?
- Y: I’m not walking down there with a load of coons from St. Hilda’s coming out of school.
- H: Why’s that?
- Y: Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it? I don’t want to get belted.
- H: Well there isn’t usually any bother in Queen Street, is there?
- Y: No. None of us white kids usually go down there, do we? What about that bust-up in the Odeon Carpark at Christmas?
- H: That was nearly a year ago, and I’m not convinced you lot were as innocent as you made out. So when you got to the square, why did you wait around for a quarter of an hour instead going straight home?
- Y: I thought my mate might come down that way after work. Anyway, we always go down the square after school.
There are various ways in which Y exercises more control over the discourse that one might expect. Firstly, he challenges H’s question on two occasions(turn 2 and 4) rather than answering them directly, though an answer is implied in 2 and offered after the challenge in 4. Secondly, in turn 6 Y asks a question which H answers: you would expect neither Y to ask nor H to answer questions. Thirdly, the answers which Y does give to H’s questions go beyond what is directly relevant in turn 6 and 8. Fourthly, Y shows no sign of adapting his style of talk to the relatively formal setting; he appears to treat the interview to an extent as if it were a conversation. This is evident in his vocabulary (belted, kids, bust-up) and especially in his use of the racist word "coon".
In the conversation H does maintain quite a lot of control nevertheless. Most of the questions are asked by him, and some at least are answered fairly compliantly. H is tactically yielding some ground in order to be able to pursue a longer-term strategy.
When people use language, they do more than just try to get another person to understand the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. At the same time, both people are using language in subtle ways to define their relationship to each other, to identify themselves as part of a social group. To take a simple example, one can communicate more or less the same idea in either of the following two ways:
Bring it over here would ja?
Could I ask you to bring that paintbrush over here?
The two ways of making the request make very different assumption about the speaker’s idea of the relationship between him and the person he is talking to, and what kind of social situation he thinks it is. The speaker might use the first utterance either because he is on close personal terms with the person he is talking to, or because he is in a clear position of authority over that person. By putting the speaker’s request this way, he shows that he is confident the other person is willing to carry out his request and will not be offended by his words. Using the second request, he is not sure he is close enough to, or has enough authority over the other person. In either case, it is clear enough that the content of the message is that the speaker wants the other person to bring an item, but the social relationship assumptions cause him to convey the message in two strikingly different ways.
Linguistic phenomena are social in the sense that whenever people speak or listen or write or read, they do so in ways which are socially determined and have social effects. Even when people are most conscious of their own individuality and think themselves to be most cut off from social influences, they still use language in ways which are subject to social convention. On the other hand, the ways in which people use language also have social effects in the sense of helping to maintain social relationships.
What do people usually do when they are at a tea or dinner party? They talk—about anything: the weather, the performance, the TV show, the football match. In fact, the remarks made during these conversations are hardly of any informative value, except among very good friends. In such matters as greetings and farewells, "Good morning", "Lovely day", "And how’s your family these days", "It’s a pleasure meeting you", it is regarded as a social error not to say these things even if we do not mean them. This talk for talk’s sake is a form of activity. We talk together about nothing at all and thereby establish friendship. The purpose of the talk is not the communication of information, but the establishment of communion. Human beings may have many ways of establishing communion among themselves: playing games together, working together. But talking together is the most easily arranged of all these forms of collective activity. The togetherness of the talking is the most important element in social conversation; the subject matter is only secondary.
Language use is socially determined. Language as a form of social practice is a socially conditioned process. It may convey the least informative meanings in the above-mentioned social situations; it may also carry some really important information one is eager to draw from another. Language varies according to the socially defined purposes as well as the social identities of people and social settings. The extensive linguistic variation is not a product of individual choice, but a product of social differentiation.
We have considered the psychological and social aspect of language in the course of communication. Language is the unique capacity possessed only by man. Through the use of language, man can communicate with each other. And during the course of communication, psychological and social effects cannot be ignored. Bearing these factors in mind, one can maintain a high competence in communication.
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