I wrote this for a class during the Fall 2010 semester.
To say that “language” per se has been the most important part of my life thus far would be a ridiculous and “undergraduate” way to start a paper with the general topic of language and social meaning. However, considering that this is my first ever graduate level paper I will start with that exact notion and see what happens! Our class has thus far agreed that language is a “terministic screen” (Burke,1966), or a “thematic structure” (Deetz,1992), or some other clever word play which simply states that language is like a contact lens that we never take off which affects how we see the world. I have realized that despite all the articles and books on earth, I will never truly realize what language means to anyone else except to me. I might get a good idea, but I will never truly understand how anyone else sees it just like no one will ever truly understand how I see it. However, I am optimistic that we can all learn to understand how it affects us together and more importantly, to understand the fact that language is socially constructed (Berger and Luckman, 1966). If more people realized this, it would help us to understand each other’s different perspectives. So the question that has been nagging at me so far during this course is: Can the realization of languages’ impact on our perspectives of the world help us to better understand other cultures?
According to linguists and my notes from the first day of class, language is the use of symbols and rules to manage meanings. A meaning is “what we get out of” a symbol. That definition works, but fails to cover the breadth and influence that language has on us all. Or on me, at least. I believe (whether correctly or not) that I am somewhat in the minority because I have thought about language consciously throughout my life more than most people I know. Even before my family moved from the Balkans to Germany and my perspective of language was thrown upside down forever, I had a stuttering issue as a child which prohibited me from being able to communicate like the other kids. This caused me to have fears and insecurities related to language use at a very young age and to think about it a lot. My conscious thinking about language has never really stopped. After a few years in Germany my family moved to America and once again I had to force myself to learn a new language. Then after another few years, we moved from a poor Covington, KY neighborhood to the middle class Villa Hills, KY area and I realized again that what I had learned in the Covington school district did not really apply in this new environment. Finally, I started my career at NKU and started studying communication as an undergraduate and haven’t looked back yet. My background with language is relevant because it is the reason that I still am so interested in this topic, it is the reason that I love to travel and to be challenged by different perspectives and different ways of looking at things, and it is the reason that I have a desire to take a closer look at whether or not people’s realizations of how language is constructed would help them to assimilate better to new environments. I also wonder if it would have helped me in the past. So, is a resistance to the social construction of language by ordinary people a futile one or is it possible? If it’s possible, would this realization help those people to better understand other perspectives? First, a background on social construction as I see it.
The idea of language being socially constructed and that all knowledge is socially constructed has slowly become more widely accepted among linguists. One of the foundations for this notion came from sociologists Berger and Luckman (1966) and their book The Social Construction of Reality. My take away from this work is that all knowledge is the result of shared meanings which start simply as decisions of “what is more preferable” and eventually become institutionalized and habitualized as a result of being passed down from generation to generation. Eventually, the meaning which someone originally created by choosing a distinction becomes a “reality” and we forget that this reality was actually created by humans. Berger and Luckman (1966) tell us that not only do we institutionalize things, but we also try to maintain those things and to make them fit our current worlds. Unfortunately, this attempt at maintenance often creates a “Frankenstein” effect in that we create this powerful structure (language) and try to maintain it but cant and it ends up maintaining us because we submit to its power and feel that we have lost control over it.
The first few times when I experienced a new culture I expected everyone to act “normally” but they acted totally weird according to my perspectives at those times. I know now that to them, I was the weird one and they were the normal ones because we had a different set of socially constructed realities as our methods of judging what was normal. For example, when I first came to America I was totally freaked out by not having to walk to school and by having an ugly yellow bus provided just for the purpose of taking me to school. My fourth grade elementary school friends were equally freaked out that I needed an interpreter to ask the teacher to go to the restroom because “How can he not know how to ask something that simple?”. Burke calls these different views of the world “patterns of experience” and “terministic screens” because every person looks at the world differently based on their past. He writes, “The method of adjustment which the organism has developed to face specific environmental conditions is subsequently applied to other environmental conditions” (Burke, 1968, p.109). Thus, how we learned to deal with things in the past is likely how we will deal with them in the future. I always walked to school in Europe, so the bus full of kids freaked me out. And my fourth grade class in Covington had no foreigners who couldn’t speak English other than me so the students had nothing to compare me to.
Stanley Deetz (1992) takes this idea to another level by advocating that reality is not socially constructed but that all of our experiences are socially constructed too. “Reality” is too singular and covers only us as individuals. But individuals combine their realities to create “experiences” which are eventually taken for granted as “facts”. He then tells us that objectivity and facts themselves are a joke. Who said that the scientific method is the best way to find the solution to a problem? It was a human being, and human beings are not perfect. Thus, the scientific method is not perfect. Just like the notion of the world being flat and in the center of the universe was not perfect.
In Democracy in an Age of Corporate Civilization, Deetz (1992) reminds us that most people in the world assume that it is “common sense” that words represent things. However, he says that “representational theories of language are neither very interesting or useful” (p.129). As communication scholars, for example, we know that there is nothing about the word “cow” which represents that specific farm animal. There is no intrinsic “cowness” in that animal which is represented by that word; some dude (probably an old white guy, but that’s for a different paper!) simply attached those three letters to the idea of that animal at some point in the past. This is why “cow” in Bosnia means nothing, but “krava” means that same farm animal!
Too many people in our world assume that their language is an unchangeable and objective fact. They assume that the language we use is a representation, when it is actually only a distinction which was decided on a long time ago (Deetz, 1992). And when people assume this, they disregard the idea that the way which they talk may actually affect how they see the world around them and how they interact with others. And finally, many people in the world think that their reality is the only reality and as a result create conflict with other people who don’t fit nicely into their own realities. One just has to look at every religious war ever or every big city in the world where homeless and disabled people get no consideration as an example of how horrible the results of such close minded thinking can be.
Despite all of these misconceptions that people have of language, there are some aspects of it which are universal. It is my hope that more people will realize that all six billion of us do have things in common and that more people will learn to understand each other’s different perspectives of the world. One of those “universal truths” is the fact that there is no one language which is better than another. Some languages are much more prevalent because the users of them have conquered the world, but every language is essentially equal. In An Introduction to Language, Fromkin and Rodman (2003) remind us that every language is equally complex, that all languages are dynamic and constantly changing, that relationships between sounds and what they mean are almost always arbitrary (cow example), that there is no primitive language, that any child born anywhere on earth is capable of learning any language to which they are exposed, and that similar grammatical categories (nouns, verbs, etc.) are found in all languages. A third universal foundation of language has already been discussed; the “fact” that all languages have been constructed socially overtime as a result of the creation of shared meanings of experiences is now widely accepted. In Language and Symbolic Action, Burke (1966) says that we are “symbol-using, symbol-making, and symbol-misusing animals” (p.60) and that the one thing which separates humans from wild animals is the fact that we have language. Other animals have methods of communicating, but those methods don’t come close to the complexity of our language. I will always remember Burke’s example in the same text of how he witnessed a mother wren tricking the baby wren to finally leave the nest. He jokes that if birds were capable of language use through arbitrary symbols like we are, that wren would have shared this new knowledge with all other wrens by writing a dissertation on “The Use of the Principle of Leverage as an Improved Method for Unnesting Birds or Debirding a Nest” (p.57). Unfortunately for the birds, they don’t have the power of language like we do.
It is quite obvious that human beings have a lot in common when it comes to our understanding of language. The problem is that most of this understanding is subliminal and that too many people incorrectly believe that everything we know is an objective reality and that questioning that reality or acknowledging other realities (other cultures) is often times a waste. Burke (1966) agrees with this conclusion by stating that man “clings to a kind of naïve verbal realism that refuses to realize the full extent of the role played by symbolicity in his notions of reality” (p.59). My personal example of experiencing different cultures is traveling between two different nations. But it is not limited to that. There are different cultures which exist everywhere. The world of the college graduate student is different from that of the homeless drunk, the world of the corporate CEO is different from that of the new intern, the world of black people in America is different from that of white people in America, and so on and so on. We know these differences exist, but too often we blame the “other” person from the other culture which is foreign to us for failing to see our perspective and for “doing things the wrong way.” I believe that if more people understood that others do things differently because that is what they know and that is normal in their world, it would be much easier to respect each other’s perspectives and to try and understand each other.
I have been lucky enough to have a job with an airline which has allowed me to visit many different countries. Once I realized that I should expect other perspectives in all these different places, it became much easier for me to understand the foreign cultures and relate to them. I have learned to not judge the other cultures as right or wrong, but to simply understand that they are different because their reality is completely different from my own. I have also applied this thinking to my personal relationships with others and have always tried to understand other’s perspectives. As a result of my own realization, I believe that resistance is not futile when it comes to other people in the world also realizing that differences perspectives are okay and are normal. However, I think it is very hard for communication scholars to explain to others the concept of social construction without people automatically discrediting us as loons!
It seems that to most people in the world, showing them that our different viewpoints are the result of different realities is a better method than trying to tell them. I think of Dwight Conquergood (1988) and his work in the Hmog refugee camp in Thailand. He didn’t go to the camp and give speeches to the aid workers about how the reality of the Hmog was different from their own western realities and how if they really wanted to help the Hmog, they had to accept the Hmog reality as true. Instead, he showed both the Hmog and the aid workers that two different cultures could successfully communicate though the theatrical shows which he organized. The Hmog understood the theatre and trusted the characters in it and decided to give the western methods a try. Resistance to the social construction of language is certainly hard and takes a lot of work and creativity. But as Conquergood (1988) proves, it is not futile.
Paper written by Igor Ristic, Northern Kentucky University, Fall 2010.