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What Part Does Language Play in Relationships?
by Tonja Taylor
7/21/2020 / Education
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. --John 1:1-5, NIV
What part does language play in interpersonal relationships?
This question has a broad scope and a multi-faceted answer. The more research I do, the more I've realized I could explore the subject for months, perhaps years, and still not be satisfactorily finished. However, I've come to several conclusions I will share pertinent to us as teachers of English as a Foreign Language, so let's start at the beginning.
In the Beginning, There was Only One Language
From the time God created the earth, communication was easy. There was only one language, as Genesis 11:5-6 from the Holy Bible proves: "But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The LORD said, 'If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.'" 1
Although some scholars think the original language was Hebrew, others disagree. We know it was not English. The people shared a language and had strong interpersonal relationships in the fact that they were able to communicate well and be very productive. However, because they were working in unity on something that was not pleasing to the LORD, He caused them to start speaking different languages. Communication was disrupted and the project, known as "The Tower of Babel" in Genesis 3,1 was never finished.
Language Barriers Affect Relationships
In other words, because the people who once understood each other perfectly did not now speak the same language, their interpersonal relationships were reduced to such a level that they could not overcome the barriers.
Later in the Bible, the governor of the area, Nehemiah, rebuked the people of God who had married people of other languages, because half of the children spoke foreign languages "and did not know how to speak the language of Judah."2 So here, the loss of language and the learning of "foreign" languages caused trouble in interpersonal relationships.
English Replacing Native Tongues?
Language loss is a concern today, and some whose native tongue is not English are concerned that a mandate to learn English is a form of negative control. However, many children throughout the world are bilingual or multilingual, with those born in the USA being an exception. According to Ofelia Garcia, most of these bilinguial and mutlilingual children practice "translanguaging," involving code-switching,3 where they utililize their skills to strategically adopt the best practices to aid their understanding and ability to adapt to multilinguistic environments--vital for them to be able to relate well in relationships of multiple languages.4
English is a wonderful melange--which is a French word meaning mixture--5 of words from various cultures, and once mastered, is an excellent and powerful tool.
Language is the Heart of Interpersonal Relationships
Derk Tiong states that "language is...the bedrock of culture and provides the connection between people enabling us to form shared meanings that are necessary to work together."6
Shared language brings unity. We want to be like each other and communicate. We desire, and are created for, interpersonal relationships. We launch, maintain, and either help or hurt, blast or bless, those relationships with our language.
"Language is situational..." says author Sarah McGinty;7"...we concoct the selves we present in each situation."
Winston Churchill said, "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."8
I agree with Tiong, McGinty, and Churchhill; our hearts show in our language--speech and body, gestures and smiles and tone--and greatly affect our interpersonal relationships. So as teachers, we must be aware of these things at all times, especially when teaching. We are imparting much more to our students than just the facilities of the English language. We must be enthusiastic that our students can and will be successful in acquiring English, and help them have a delightful time doing so.
The beloved Mother Teresa, now in Heaven, was an expert on utilizing language in interpersonal relationships. She was loved everywhere she went, from the slums to special places, because she made each person feel valued and showed the same respect for all (Bose, 2011, p. 92).9
For example, When several Japanese businessmen dropped by for a surprise visit, her love spoke volumes to them. Many minutes later, they bowed repeatedly, smiling, not knowing a word of her language, but having been forever impacted by her grace (Bose, 2011, p. 75). She promoted kindness, trust, and adaptation to the needs of the speaker.
As teachers of English as a Foreign Language, it is our privilege and duty to use our language--spoken words, body language, and writing--to do the same as we cross cultural borders.
General Colin Powell was also an expert at utilizing language to strengthen interpersonal relationships. He practiced communication with what he called "temporary equals"-- he would invite subordinates to a one-on-one talk, during which he would listen, ask questions, and choose whether or not to agree. He believed great leaders help their people talk about issues to make them responsible for their own ideas. (Harari, 2002, p 37).10
General Colin's technique would work well with any group of students, including those to whom we are teaching the English. Students usually highly enjoy "teaching" the teacher; it is an empowerment, no matter the student's age.
Another technique where language is very important in interpersonal relationships is making sure comments in class from peer to peer stay honest but positive and constructive; to planning events and class contracts, where each student has a voice; and where the teacher models correct behavior as much as possible, even when unexpected or negative things happen.
Language as Identity
Language and learning is complex, unique and dynamic--just like every person and the interactions we have with one another. In large degree, our language(s) shape our identities.
When a teacher or parent or other esteemed person speaks to us personally, especially in front of our peers, that expands the perception of our worth; it affects our identities. When we speak as we have heard other speak, to emulate them and somehow attain to their level, we are identifying with them. From repeating affirmations, regulations, and cheers at school; to singing songs, positive or negative; to rehearsing victories and disappointments; sharing what was told on the news channels and radios; to speaking the Scriptures of the Bible, language affects the way we see ourselves. Word by word, phrase by phrase, it can and does shape our identities.
A student, for instance, may truly want to learn English, but may be uncomfortable in the atmosphere of class and not invest as much effort or time into it as he or she could. There may be emotional or mental struggle with identity about who they have been with their native (or even multilingual) language(s), and about who they may become as they learn the new language. As learners acquire an additional language, they are investing in multiple ways to advance and enhance their cultural capital and their identities are also enhanced as they become part of the new people group, or 'imagined community', with which they now share this language (Norton, 2013).11
When students learn English, their new community becomes global. Learning English can help students think bigger and realize and utilize their new identities as English speakers to empower others. An excellent example of this is the 80 middle school students in Pakistan who called themselves "The Reformers." They got a vision to get outside their own community to help children in Afghanistan improve their literacy skills, by giving them school supplies and teaching them some English phrases.12 Here, English was an excellent tool in forming and strengthening interpersonal relationships.
There are other ways that language affects identity, such as a "made up" language of certain words or phrases, which can include gestures. Spouses and families often have affectionate names for themselves that no one else uses. Sports teams or other working groups may adopt certain phrases or other tags with which they identify. Teens or children may make up codes to share just with their friends, or adopt some from a TV show or movie or song, so that they have a "secret" language that others can't understand.
My friend Jeanne Riggs Zaragosa, certified in Texas as a Sign Language Interpreter for the deaf, jokes that even in ASL (American Sign Language), there is slang, and variations from state to state.
I believe human predisposition is to get a perceived advantage over others; to have a private or "special" language that others cannot understand, for secrets and to feel distinguished from others; and to insist, as the wilder part of human nature is apt to do, on being non-conformists. However, new languages have been developed this way. Innovation is inherent in us.
Language is Inherent
Even unreached people groups, when discovered, have developed their own sort of language for interpersonal relationships. Dr. Brian Simmons, who developed The Passion Translation of the Bible, stated at a conference I attended that he worked "in the rainforest of Central America, where he was a co-translator for an indigenous tribal group who had never had a written language before."13
By helping them create a written language, he expanded their knowledge and identities as language users. During the day, he would teach them from the Bible, which they greatly reverenced and called "the talking tree bark." He also said that they weren't impressed with his degrees. They were much more interested in how he spoke to and otherwise treated his wife and children--how he used his language for interpersonal relationships.
In addition, professionals in various fields such as medicine, law, computer technology, industry, and more have their own language identities because of specialized lingo pertinent to their fields. They share many terms within their crafts that those not involved wouldn't usually understand.
Creativity Draws Out Language
Students in Uganda learned English and new identities through creative arts such as drama, photography, and drawing. Through the dramas, they became bolder than usual and spoke about taboo subjects in interpersonal relationships, such as HIV/AIDS, gender issues, and sexuality. Through the new language and identity, they were able to “talk what others think you can't talk.”14
As students of any age begin to learn English, I believe their identities will change for the better; their confidence and enjoyment of language, new social relationships, and their abilities to communicate will all be positive forces in their lives.
Language as Power
Both Fairclough15 and McGinty imply that certain language is power; that, as McGinty states, "all day long we create power and credibility...with work and words." Every action of language makes an impact; everything is affected one way or another, especially interpersonal relationships. McGinty states that power language is confident, uses declaration, and authority and experience as a base for control, while she cautions speakers to not use body language that negates the verbal expression (McGinty, 2001, p.11).16
General Colin Powell believed in language as power to affect interpersonal relationships, by practicing continual clarity with and exhortation of his troops, and by empowering others by listening to them and learning from them. He promoted truth, simple speech, the refusal of fear and pessimism, confidence that things could be done, and humor when needed to bring ease and strengthen relationships. (Harari, 2002, pp. 29, 34, 69, 71, 89, 120, 237)17
Interruptions are Negative Power and Can Damage Relationships
Most of us feel empowered when we talk, especially if we believe others are really interested in hearing us. When we are not allowed to speak, or are interrupted--especially by something not related-or it seems the other person disdains us, for our words are part of our identity and power. When interrupted, we can feel disrespected, unloved, rejected, or worse. Stanford doctoral candidate Katherine Hilton found that people see interruptions in conversation based on their gender and style of speaking,and that even small interruptions can greatly damage interpersonal relationships.18
English is Power in Global Business
English is the language of business around the world and being able to understand and speak it is has been a main way non-native speakers can succeed in the internet's 'globalisation' of power relations. Having a good knowledge of the English language has increased opportunities and advantages for non-native speakers in creating beneficial interpersonal relationships to do business around the globe.19
There are many phrases, and collocations (e.g., "cut a deal," or "land a deal"; "save time" or "save money"; "launch a business"; "make a profit"; "do lunch") in English business, and the faster non-native speakers learn them and other pertinent terms, the better they can communicate successfully with business people in English-speaking countries. They will expand their power in interpersonal relationships using their expanded language.
Language and Authority
Kings of old, and leaders of today, including the head of any country, do all of their work with words. Words are an extremely strong part of the leader's identity. As one pastor said, "If a king wants a ditch to be dug, he does not get a shovel. He simply says, 'Let the ditch be dug.'" And it is.
To utilize language to strengthen interpersonal relationships, Sarah McGinty says that "Understanding speech styles and forces that affect those styles...can help you build your authority and enhance credibility and impact." In addition, she mentions that we can "borrow authority" from those for whom we work--especially if a promotion and new power over one's peers could cause resistance and resentment--by stating dependence on the help of others to succeed.20
One example of giving others authority through language is a class contract, where each student has a voice and gives suggestions about particular class operations (after basic rules and procedures and rules are already established). Students suggest points upon which the class discusses, votes, and agrees. Next a formal "contract" is printed, and signed by each student and the teacher. It is posted for all to see. If someone notices a breach, the contract is rehearsed orally and students use their language of authority to demand it be followed. This strengthens students' confidence, critical thinking, articulation, and interpersonal relationships, as they realize how their language and actions affect the entire group.21
Creativity and Authority
Nineteen high school girls in Uganda developed greater skills in English through journaling, reading, and critiquing photographs through discussion. They were more directly involved and could freely form and state their own opinions. This included, as one student named Rose stated, being able to "think your own English." By hands-on project-based learning, they happily acquired more English than just sitting and listening to a teacher.22
Conclusion: English is The International LanguageThe importance of English in business
It is now agreed by many across the world that English is the official language of over 50 countries, spoken by hundreds of millions of people, and is the language of international business and education. English may not always be dominant, but it can be an extremely powerful global tool for business and pleasure for all who invest themselves to learn it.23
From a global perspective, then, it could be said that English is the language of interpersonal relationships, to unify us as the human race and bring about positive change in many areas.
The proactive youth in Pakistan seemed to think so. Through the Youth Milllenium Project, they sought to help less fortunate Afghan children by teaching them English, because they believed in the importance of giving them this international tool that, they surmised, could only improve life in Pakistan and in the communities beyond.24
"Love is a fruit in season at all times, and within reach of every hand," stated Mother Teresa (Bose, 2011, forward matter).25
Language is at the heart of human relationships. The LORD Jesus, Who is Love (I John 4:8) knew that, and He is our Example. In John 12:49 (Berean Study Bible), He states, "I have not spoken on My own, but the Father Who sent Me has commanded Me what to say and how to say it."26
As He and all caring teachers know, smiles, laughter, and love are the same everywhere. That beats even English. So let us teachers of English give not only the tool of our language, but the goodness to undergird it, that it may be a prime example of the language most utilized to strengthen interpersonal relationships.
Copyright 2020 by Tonja K. Taylor
1 The Holy Bible (New International Version by Zondervan), Genesis 3, 11.
2 The Holy Bible (New International Version by Zondervan), Nehemiah 13:24
3 Sociolinguistics (2020) Codeswitching. Retrieved 7-19-20 from http://www.ello.uos.de/field.php/Sociolinguistics/Codeswitching
4 Garcia, O., "Education, Multilingualism, and Translanguaging in the 21st Century," Retrieved 7-16-20 from https://ofeliagarciadotorg.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/education-multilingualism-translanguaging-21st-century.pdf
5 "melange" definition, retrieved 7-16-20 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/m%C3%A9lange
6 Tiong, D., (2017,November 3), Thinking Relationally about Language in Education: The Role That Language Plays in Relationships, Retrieved 7-11-20 from: https://relationalschools.org/2017/11/03/thinking-relationally-about-language-in-education/
7, 15 McGinty, S. (2001) POWER TALK: Using Language to Build Authority and Influence; New York: Warner Books, Inc.
8 Brainy Quotes, (2020) Retrieved 7-18-20 from https://www.brainyquotecom/quotes/winston_churchill_131188
9, 24, 25 Bose, R. & Faust, L. (2011) Mother Teresa, CEO; San Franciso: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
10, 17 Harari,O. (2002) The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell; New York: McGraw-Hill
11 Norton, B., (2001) Identity and Language Learning; Harlow: Pearson Education
12, 14, 20, 22 Norton, B. (2013, July) The Iranian Journal of Language Teaching Research: Identity, literacy, and English language teaching. Retrieved 7-16-20 from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1127433.pdf
13 Simmons, B. (2018, May) The Passion translation: Dr Brian Simmons responds to his critics. Retrieved 7-20-20 from https://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2018/May-2018/The-Passion-translation-Dr-Brian-Simmons-responds-to-his-critics
16, 19 McGinty, S. (2001) POWER TALK: Using Language to Build Authority and Influence; New York: Warner Books, Inc.
15 Fairclough, N. (2001) Language and Power [2nd edn]; Harlow: Pearson Education
18 Hilton, Katherine (2018, May 2), Stanford researcher examines how people perceive interruptions in conversation. Retrieved 7-17-20 from https://news.stanford.edu/2018/05/02/exploring-interruption-conversation/
19 Class contract, (2020) Creating Class Contracts. Retrieved 7-20-20 from https://uteach.utexas.edu/sites/default/files/2010-09-10%20Creating%20Class%20Contracts.pdf
21 The English Language Center (Brighton and Eastbourne), 4 Reasons Why Learning English is so Important Retrieved 7-16-20 from https://www.elc-schools.com/blog/will-english-stop-being-the-top-business-language-in-a-post-brexit-europe/
26 The Berean Study Bible (2018, June), John 12:49. Publisher permission retrieved 7-20-20 from https://berean.bible/terms.htm
Tonja K. Taylor is a joyful, free worshiper, teacher, author, wife, and mother who adores helping others know the sweet faithfulness of God. Through her YouTube channel, "River Rain Creative Arts" and other platforms, she tutors people around the world in faith, worship, writing, health, and more.
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