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An Investigation Into The Relationship Between language And Communication

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Language has many definitions, and is viewed as an important medium of communication. It is also considered a unique human trait. However, a review of many theories of communication shows that language is probably not as critical to communication as
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  An Investigation Into The Relationship Between Language and CommunicationDefining Language The oxford talking dictionary mentions 'communication' as a synonym of language' i , andfor most people effective communication means a proficient use of language. In India itmay also mean a command over the English Language. The definitions of language canrange from speech, utterance and vocabulary on one side to barbarism, colloquialism,slang, legalese, bureaucratese, idiolect and Pidgin English on the other  ii . TheEncyclopedia Britannica provides the following definition of language: "A system of conventional spoken or written symbols by means of which human beings, as membersof a social group and participants in its culture, communicate." iii A Unique Human Trait? Descartes, French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher who founded the conceptof 'Mind-body dualism' considered language to be the most important factor distinguishing humans from animals iv . Recent evidence, however, suggests that manyspecies do indulge in complex communication, [e.g. Prairie dog communication:"individuals (of the species) enhance group cohesion by greeting one another uponcontact, using vocalizations that are specific to each species"] Prairie dogs are known torecognize and differentiate between two members of the same species yet language isgenerally believed to be a unique human characteristic v ."In human language, the relationship between a word and its referent is a purelyarbitrary and conventional one, which must be learned by anyone wishing to speak thatlanguage; many words, of course, have no obvious referent at all. Moreover, languagecan be used flexibly and innovatively to talk about situations that have never yet arisenin the speaker's experience—or indeed, about situations that never could arise." vi  Dr. Paul Broca, whose study of brain lesions contributed to the understanding of aphasia (the loss or impairment of the ability to form or articulate words), discovered "In search of the one who would have a lot to say, but, would not need to say it” - Kaana Singh (A PunjabiPoet) Page 1  that the left frontal region of the brain is the seat of articulate speech vii . This suggeststhat there is a biological basis for the development of language in humans. Ethnolinguistic Viewpoint The interest in the relationship between language, communication, and culture wastriggered by the ethnolinguists. Edward Sapir of Yale University wrote in 1931 that athorough description of the structure of a language and its function in speech might helpexplain the processes of perception and cognition in humans and provide a better insight into human behaviour. Benjamin Lee Whorf, under the influence of Sapir,hypothesized that the structure of a language may actually influence the manner inwhich a person conceives and perceives the world (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) viii .His work generated considerable interest and his suggestion that the way people viewtime and punctuality may be influenced by the verbal tenses in their language isdebated even today; but, the question whether language shapes culture or vice-versahas not been resolved. Relating the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to our own culture we cansee that the general structure of native Indian languages like Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi,etc. is: Subject + Object + Verb while the English language generally has Subject +Verb + Object structure. Has this Subject + Object construction influenced us to berelationship oriented, like in collective cultures, or has our culture influenced our grammar? Has the structure of the English language influenced the native speakers togive more importance to activity than to relationships, like in individualistic societies, or has their culture influenced their grammar? These questions may not be resolved easilybut the relationship between culture and grammatical structures is intriguing. Are Bi-lingual People Better Communicators? If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true then bilingual people, like most Indians, may havean advantage over those who speak just one language, because, they may be better able to simultaneously perceive and comprehend subtle similarities or comparisons, or contrasts, in diverse concepts or viewpoints. They may be able to simultaneously "In search of the one who would have a lot to say, but, would not need to say it” - Kaana Singh (A PunjabiPoet) Page 2  perceive opposing dimensions of an argument and create complex realities in their minds since their brains are accustomed to diverse grammatical constructs.It is possible, though, that conflicting structures of different languages may corrupt one'sperception or cognition, leading to confusion .  According to Professor R H Robins,bilingualism leads to distortions in both the languages: “However acquired, bilingualismleads to mutual interference between the two languages; extensive bilingualism within acommunity is sometimes held partly responsible for linguistic change… …Interferencemay take place in pronunciation, in grammar, and in the meanings of words.” ix   A Semiotic Viewpoint Language can also be viewed as a system of signs and sign using behaviour.Semiotics, also called Semiology, is the study of signs and sign-using behaviour. Itfocuses on meaning derived rather than the choice of words. x  This theory of signs triesto generate laws & principles that explain the signification process. American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce xi categorized signs into three main types:(1) an icon, which resembles its referent (such as a road sign for an accident pronearea); (2) an index, which is associated with its referent (as smoke is a sign of fire); and(3) a symbol, which is related to its referent only by convention (like the red light at atraffic signal). Peirce demonstrated that a sign can never have a definite meaning, andthat the meaning must be continuously qualified. xii This implies that even though peopleseemingly use the same language, generation of meaning is a unique internalexperience; which means that no two people will generate identical meanings from anygiven construct. His point can be further understood by looking at the work of RolandBarthes.Roland Barthes (1915-1980), Sociologist and Lexicologist, also provided an explanationof signs. He, too, postulated that signs have three parts, viz. (1) the referent, (2) thesignifier or symbol and (3) the signified or thought. xiii An object or animal could be areferent. For example the dog could be a referent. The letters D O G would signify the "In search of the one who would have a lot to say, but, would not need to say it” - Kaana Singh (A PunjabiPoet) Page 3  actual animal. However a range of symbols can be associated with the same object or animal. For example the dog could produce affectionate thoughts of ‘a pet’ or repulsivethoughts of a ‘greedy animal’ or even a spiteful person. Thus, denotative systemsconsisting of signs and symbols generate thoughts that lead to comprehension.However, since any given sign or symbol is associated with a range of positive as wellas negative connotations, signs can trigger different thoughts in different people indifferent situations. Which means that though the connotations of even a simple wordlike 'dog' are generally assumed to be well understood, here too the scope for dichotomy is immense. For example, a dog lover is likely to perceive it positively while adog-hater will react very negatively to the word. Moreover, the perception will also beaffected by the relationship between the interactants as well as the situation or context.It is possible then that the speaker might have a positive connotation in her mind whilethe listener gets offended. Therefore the focus is on meaning derived rather than thechoice of words, as mentioned earlier.It is clear from the work of Saussure, Pierce and Barthes that the scope for distortion isimmense even in the simplest of messages; simply because no two individuals can beexpected to derive identical meanings from any given construct - derivation of meaningbeing more than a function of the sum of the meanings of the signs, signals, andsymbols that constitute the message. In fact, there may be a set of signs or symbolswhich carry a particular meaning within one organization and other meanings withinother organizations. For example, first line managers carry different designations indifferent companies. Some call them Area Sales Managers, while others call themDistrict managers; still others call them Business Managers, and so on.   The differences between signs, signals, and symbols can be listed as follows:(1) A sign essentially contains meanings of an intrinsic nature.(2) A signal is a construct or attempt at creating extrinsic meanings andessentially brings about a change in the existing state of affairs (like atraffic signal, for example) "In search of the one who would have a lot to say, but, would not need to say it” - Kaana Singh (A PunjabiPoet) Page 4  (3)A symbol, as stated by Pierce, evolves from convention. According to Alfred North Whitehead, the English mathematician and philosopher, whocollaborated with Bertrand Russell on Principia Mathematica (1910–13):"symbols are analogues or metaphors (that may include written andspoken language as well as visual objects) standing for some quality of reality that is enhanced in importance or value by the process of symbolization itself." xiv  Symbolic communication is an inherent part of all human behaviour and is usedconsciously as well as unconsciously; therefore, it is an important part of communicationin groups (in particular) and society (in general) xv . In fact, words and signs are symbolicmetaphors which play an important role in all types of interactions through which manderives his sense of identity. The Implications From these theories we can infer that for effective communication to occur, the sender and the receiver must share a common set of signs. Further, they must be equally adeptat using them; and finally, both must be aware of the conventional usages of symbols. Itseems difficult to put together a dyad, leave alone a group, meeting these requirements.Take for example the English language which can be used to communicate effectivelywith a basic defining vocabulary of only 3500 words. xvi Now, we use these to perceiveand comprehend reality, which is infinite. The handicap we suffer in the veryconstruction of messages is obvious. Also, individuals vary in their knowledge and skillsof using these signs. Therefore, it is logical to expect individuals to derive differentmeanings from any given construct. Going back to the earlier example of the word 'dog'which seemingly is an accurate representation of a unit of existence. On closer scrutinywe find that this representation is far from accurate. There are no two dogs withidentical characteristics even if they are of the same breed. If we look at all the breedsthen the word 'dog' utterly fails us even in capturing an accurate image (physicalcharacteristics) of the referent, let alone its abstract characteristics. Similarly, the word'stone' doesn't communicate a clear image, neither does the word 'man'. In fact, there is "In search of the one who would have a lot to say, but, would not need to say it” - Kaana Singh (A PunjabiPoet) Page 5
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