John Locke wrote in 1690 that language is the most important „tool and common bond of society.“ Language can be compared to a key – what is meant by this?
Expressive function: language enables us to exchange information, communicate emotions, express needs, establish and maintain social relationships (cf. Bühler; Jakobson).
Appealing function: „Words are also deeds.“ (Wittgenstein) We can use them to call for action, express opinions, and thus make decisions (cf. Bühler; Jakobson). Moreover, we can cooperate and organize our everyday life. And: language enables us to think.
Informative function: With language we explain and transmit knowledge (cf. Bühler; Jakobson). Language structures our social life, even creates and maintains hierarchies. Language serves self-assurance. Language can help people in difficult situations.
With language we construct reality and reveal how we see the world. Language is a weapon – it can hurt and: Manipulate people. How do we deal with it?
Conflicts can be solved linguistically if we metacommunicate, i.e. talk about how we talk to each other.
Language helps us to express ourselves, to realize ourselves, e.g. artistically.
Language can be enjoyed because it also has an aesthetic value. What is more entertaining, more sociable, more unifying than wit, word acrobatics and language play?
Language can do all that. That is why language is the key to shaping human coexistence. This is especially important in intercultural communication.
In a country whose language we do not speak, everyday situations can become an obstacle course. Establishing contact with other people can be difficult. Of course, in simple everyday situations, communication is possible with hands and feet. But as soon as the situation becomes complex, that too is problematic. For these reasons, we often surround ourselves with people who speak the same language as we do. Language shows itself here as a connecting element, but at the same time it also separates us from others. As a result, doors remain closed to us – doors to people of other cultures.
Scattered notes on the phenomenon of language
Imagine someone throwing you a puzzle made of a thousand pieces. Of course, you would never be able to catch all of the thousand pieces in such a way that the right picture would emerge. That’s the way it is with language: When someone tells us something, that’s exactly what happens: A puzzle of a thousand pieces flies at us… We can catch a few pieces, pick up a few, and then put them together. Our interlocutor feels the same way when he listens to us. So it happens that we always understand only a part of what the other person says and means. It is equally true that we can always only be partially understood. This is the puzzle metaphor of language.
What can language do? Language is a magician, a musician – makes strings in us sound. Makes strings in us fall silent.
Another metaphor, let’s call it the coin metaphor of language: language is a strange coin that changes value in use. And it is a coin that, when not in use, has no value at all. Let us imagine the following: Let a word be a coin. I give it the value 1 and hand it over to you. Will you see a 1 when you hold it in your hands? Not necessarily. It is possible that you will see a 5. Maybe you were expecting a 1 from me, but now you get a 5. How is that possible? You yourself have changed the value – without my knowledge, without my intervention. But: If you tell me the value, I can help to change it again – I can also make it a 1 for you. But you have to tell me what you see. This is how the magic of dialogue happens….
The speech bubbles metaphor: Colorful iridescent, like a mirror they stand and float in front of us when we speak and listen – speech bubbles, and in them: our words … What we see? Our words; and us, ourselves! The other shimmers through, the environment shimmers through… and yet we see mainly our words – and ourselves! When two speech bubbles touch, a new image emerges; words flow into each other, our shapes interweave… a new sense emerges. This is real dialogue. Are we ready for it?
The egocentricity of language: why do we speak to each other? Because we want to express ourselves. We are not communicating anything. We are communicating ourselves. Ourselves. Language has no meaning outside of social interaction/communication. Meaning is constituted only in social interaction, which is at the same time a construction.
The body of language: speaking is a bodily process, procedure, act … something sensual. We experience it physically when we speak. Therefore, language is not to be understood only as a mental phenomenon. Even when we read quietly our body is active. Speaking, reading, listening – these are physical activities. Mind and body cannot be separated. They belong together, both are always active.
Language and speech are integrated into complex contexts of human life. It makes little sense to look at language in isolation (as philosophy of language has often done). Sound makes the music. Speech. The word is revealing. There is no such thing as silence.
Quotes on the subject of language
Language is the house of being. Heidegger
Philosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment of our mind by the means of our language. Wittgenstein
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. Wittgenstein
And to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life. Wittgenstein
Language – the source of all misunderstandings. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The most human thing we have is language, and we have it in order to speak. Fontane
Those who contradict and argue should sometimes consider that not every language is understandable to everyone. Goethe
For the language of men is equal to their life. Seneca
Take your language seriously! Nietzsche
There is no greater illusion than the opinion that language is a means of communication between people. Elias Canetti
Our language is also our history. Grimm
Every man has his own language. Novalis
With every new language you learn, you acquire a new soul. Czech proverb
Language is not, language happens. Heinz v. Förster
For whatever people do, recognize, experience or know becomes meaningful only to the extent that it can be spoken about. Arendt
Speak, so that I may see you. Socrates
Something that is not talked about has not happened at all. Only the word gives reality to things. Wilde
Wilhelm von Humboldt on the essence of language
„Language, conceived in its real essence, is something constant and temporary at every moment. Even its preservation through writing is always only an incomplete, mummy-like preservation, which, after all, only requires that one tries to sensualize the living speech in the process. It itself is not a work (Ergon), but an activity (Energeia). Its true definition can therefore only be a genetic one. It is the eternally repeating work of the mind to make the articulated sound capable of expressing the thought. Directly and strictly taken, this is the definition of each time speaking. […] The breaking up into words and rules is only a dead work of scientific dissection. To call languages a work of the spirit is already a perfectly correct and adequate expression, because the existence of the spirit in general can only be thought in activity and as such. […] It is no different with understanding. Nothing can exist in the soul but through its own activity, and understanding and speaking are only different effects of the same power of speech. The common speech can never be compared to the handing over of a material. In the understanding, as in the speaking, the same must be developed from one’s own inner power; and what the former receives is only the harmonically tuning stimulus.“ (Schriften zur Sprachphilosophie, Werke III, Darmstadt 1963, pp. 418 f., 430).
How explosive language use can be is described by Ernst von Glasersfeld in this anecdote: „Finally, I would like to give you an example that makes it clearly tangible how important uninhibited access to ideas is. In 1936, there was the Olympics in Berlin. There was not only a stadium and an Olympic village built, but also a theater. The friend I was visiting took me to the Olympic Village the day before the opening and eventually to the theater. There was still scaffolding in front of the entrance and some men were working on a frieze above the portal. My friend explained that apparently they realized too late, namely only when the inscription was finished, that it was not acceptable to the ruling party. Indeed, the inscription read „One people, one leader, one theater.“ Ernst von Glasersfeld: Between the Languages.
Bühler, Karl (1999): Language Theory. The representational function of language.
Jakobson, Roman (1992): semiotics.
Locke, John (1690): An essay concerning human understanding.
Mersch, Dieter (ed.) (1998): Signs about signs. Texts on semiotics from Peirce to Eco to Derrida.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (2003): Philosophical Reflections.
A dialogue between Heinz von Foerster and Bernhard Pörksen on dialogue: http://www.taz.de/!1085369/.
Further literature on language sensitivity
Isselbächer-Giese, Annette/ Witzmann, Cornelia/ Königs, Charlotte/ Besuch, Natascha (2018): Becoming language sensitive, teaching language education – thinking teaching differently. In: Trendel, Georg/ Roß, Joachim (Eds.): SINUS.NRW: Promoting Understanding – Designing Learning Processes. Thinking ahead in mathematics and science. Münster: Waxmann, 13-31.
Leisen, Josef (2019): Principles in language-sensitive subject teaching. http://www.sprachsensiblerfachunterricht.de/prinzipien [02 Oct. 2019].
Trendel, Georg/ Roß, Joachim (2018): Introduction. In: ed. (Ed.): SINUS.NRW: Promoting understanding – shaping learning processes. Rethinking mathematics and science. Münster: Waxmann, 9-11. https://www.schulentwicklung.nrw.de/sinus/upload/Phase05/Broschuere/SINUS_Gesamt.pdf [02.10.2019].
Woerfel, Till/ Giesau, Marlis (2018). Language-sensitive teaching. Cologne: Mercator-Institut für Sprachförderung und Deutsch als Zweitsprache (Basiswissen sprachliche Bildung). https://www.mercator-institut-sprachfoerderung.de/de/themenportal/thema/%20sprachsensibler-unterricht/ [04.10.2019].