Updated: Dec 13, 2022
The word itself means many things to us: if I use ‘language’ in conversation with my husband, his mind will invariably be drawn to languages other than his mother tongue and how he STILL hasn’t mastered French; I myself will reflect on the joy of devouring a classic novel and relishing in the flowery and descriptive passages of the past; the word itself, ‘language’ may well make an appearance in one of the first phrases you’d learn when travelling and many nomads will recognise lingua or langue as readily as they’d master hola or bonjour.
But language can be used in other ways too, with less positive outcomes than devouring Pride and Predjudice or brushing up on your school boy French.
Language can be used to manipulate and measure and, perhaps most worrying, to one who enjoys free thought and robust discourse, it can be used to exclude.
This isn’t new of course. Language has long been used to delineate class and to segregate the have not’s. Recall Eliza Dolittle’s (hilariously bad) Cockney accent that made Henry Higgins visibly recoil in My Fair Lady or Brad Pitt’s rendition of an Irish Gypsy. ‘Baddies’ in films or in works of fiction are often Russian or German and there’s been a number of non-speaking protagonists on the wrong side of the storyline. The bad guy rarely has an American Mid-Atlantic accent or a soothing Edinburgh brogue.
Language, or lack of, can be an early indicator of a number of genuine developmental, physical or neurological issues in young children but very often is a means of measuring the success of those early years of motherhood and of competition and comparison. How many words can your child say? Are they putting words together yet? How many? My child can speak in full sentences? Are you worried? Should I be worried? And then once they can talk, a child will be measured by tone, pronunciation, verbosity – or conversely, by the opposite! Once a child has mastered basic communication and has a more full command of their environment and an improved ability to have their needs met by articulating them, the real fun starts – swearing and ‘bad language’. Yet another opportunity to use language to measure and judge. And exclude. We don’t use language like that in our house. We don’t want Child X to play with Child Y anymore. Please stop saying that word darling, it makes you sound unintelligent (or common!). Only people who don’t have better words to use, swear.
School introduces more opportunity for a child to be assessed based on their ability to master the written word – only very shortly after they’ve navigated speaking. Sight words, phonics, spelling tests, lists….sucking the very joy out of using language before they’ve even read Dickens! The conflict herein is that children who don’t successfully master both the spoken and the written words may later on have their intelligence questioned and be excluded from provocative discussion and the very children who show strong aptitude in language may go on to use their words to cleverly manipulate others.
I’m in mind of Stephen Fry as I write this and the very clever piece he released about how bringing judgment into the use of language can have the effect of shutting down the conversation. I’m seeing much of this, particularly on Social Media (let’s face it, it’s the only ‘social’ we have right now) currently. There are rules of engagement, of course there are. There always have been. In ancient times not everyone was a storyteller; In the 1950’s children were to be seen and not heard; debate relies on a very rigid set of rules and it’s still really annoying when one of my kids interrupts me. The art lies in knowing when rules are vital in keeping the discourse going and when they are in fact getting in the way.
Hand in hand with the alarming trend in modern day thinking, of picking a team and sticking with it, is the unspoken rule that the right language must be used in order to engage. I get it. No – I really, genuinely get it. I’ve even defended it very recently. But that’s because I’m in the right club. I’m educated, highly literate, quite widely read and fairly well able to read a situation. Play the game. But what about those who can’t even get in the game. Or they try but use the wrong words and so get eliminated. Excluded.
I have long advocated that language changes culture. Literally – the original meaning of ‘literally’ not the new meaning as it appears in the urban dictionary (see what I did there?). Updating the words we use can drive change and is almost always part of any change strategy in government and large organisations – because people know that the words we say are important and can impact how we feel. We’ve seen it recently in the way governments marketed their lockdown strategies. Here in the UK the slogan was Stay Home, Support the NHS, Save Lives. It made sense, it was impactful and encouraged compliance. Then, when the government wanted us to very slightly modify our actions, they changed the language. Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save Lives. It makes sense. Language is important – it’s the cornerstone of how we communicate.
But what if there are so many rules, so many phrases to master, so many opportunities to get it wrong, that people stop talking?
When Black Lives Matter hashtags and slogans started appearing en masse across all social media platforms, the groundswell of support was unprecedented. It’s short, it’s catchy, it fits on a small placard. But it also seemed to rub many up the wrong way and it wasn’t long before the counter, All Lives Matter started gathering momentum. Apart from being highly, and probably intentionally divisive, it demonstrated an interesting phenomenon in social discourse. Language is not only used to communicate what you believe but it can immediately identity you as one sort of person. Or another. And no one wants to be the other. I mean, another. But what if you don’t quite understand what each of these slogan’s actually means or how they might impact you or another person? What if you posted a All Lives Matter meme, genuinely believing that what you were supporting was unity and togetherness but instead you were proclaiming yourself to be a far right conservative Christian. Who votes Trump. Sheesh. Your attempts to explain yourself fall on deaf ears – you’d only just seen the All Lives Matter message on a friends Facebook page and you confess that you just ‘liked the message’ and thought it was positive. You use the wrong words and are attacked, fairly publicly. So you leave the conversation.
What if you genuinely believe that all men ARE created equal and you actually live your life with acceptance and non-judgement but you don’t quite understand how the term ‘white fragility’ applies to you when someone who doesn’t know you, suggests that you’re a sufferer of this condition on social media? What if you’re genuinely curious and determined to stop being so damn fragile but, because you had never even heard of that term, your attempts to diagnose more fully and get a better understanding, are met with even more derision. So you bow out of the conversation. What if you’re in a parenting group online and you have a question about something going on with your child but you’re pretty stressed out and you’re understandably worried about your baby and you don’t express yourself well and before you know it you’ve been slammed as a negligent mother and because you’re sleep deprived and drank too much coffee that day you get rattled, decide your confidence can’t take the hit and leave the conversation.
I can recall times in my own life when I’ve not known the right words to use to explain myself and seek help and I can easily call up the frustration I felt. In fact when you don’t use the right language you often don’t even realise. It was only after the conversation that I realised when in a playground in Spain, I had told a little girl that I wanted her doll when I’d meant to say that I liked her doll. I was too busy being proud of myself for remembering the word for ‘doll’ (inconveniently close to the word for ‘wrist’) that I messed up the rest of the sentence. It explained the look she gave me. I’ve also recently asked for help with some technical issues (this blog actually) but because I didn’t know the right words to use to explain what I was struggling with, I very nearly gave up and didn’t get the help I needed. It was down to one person who was extremely patient and just ‘got me’, that I was able to move forward.
Imagine being a child in the playground, desperately wanting to play with other kids but not feeling confident enough that they will be understood due to a speech challenge, or speaking a different language. Or even just being really exuberant and scaring the other kids off with their excitement. Or imagine making that move, only to be laughed at because some of your words come out wrong. What about stepping into the shoes for a minute, of a refugee who has just arrived from a war zone, with no English and weighed down with trauma who not only doesn’t know how things work here but doesn’t know the right words to ask.
In most conversations that go on around me, and with me, I am a confident participant. I know the words to say to get my point across and to be accepted. In fact I’ve probably got the skills to infiltrate – to fake it. I know, and will continue to use the right words in order to participate in the conversation. And I will continue to use the ‘right words’ so I can be an agent for change. But real freedom, that’s something beyond change. And reaching that place requires more than using the right words. That requires understanding. And understanding goes beyond language.
So I urge you, next time someone uses the ‘wrong’ phrase or struggles to get their point across using the latest approved terminology, slow down, learn their language and gain understanding.