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Language and Language Practices
Language is the written and verbal method by which people communicate with one another. It employs sounds or written designs that are understood by others to create words, phrases, and sentences. Other species have language, as well, but it is not believed to be as complex as the language used by human beings (Bloomfield, 1914; Deacon, 1998). There are many facets to language, and there are nuances and subtleties that are often overlooked. This is especially true with people who are just learning a language, whether they are children first learning to speak or second-language learners being exposed to a new and different language for the first time. People who study languages are involved in what is called linguistics. They may study a particular language, but more often than not they study multiple languages and the construction of those languages. What they do is very different than someone who is simply trying to learn enough German to get by on his trip to Europe, for example.
Instead, those who study language are focused on why language works as it does, and they often take interest in languages that are being phased out or that are no longer spoken Katzner, 1999). Ancient tribes can be studied, as can written languages that were created before the use of the letters and words seen today. Hieroglyphics are a part of language, even though some people do not see them that way. Anything that tells a story - verbally or in a written form - has to tell that story through some sort of language. Whether that story comes through pictures or words is more dependent on the time frame in which that story was told, as opposed to who is telling the story or the intelligence level of the storyteller and/or his audience (Kandel, Schwartz, & Jessell, 2000). Because languages of all types and from all eras of mankind are so complex and fascinating in their own ways, linguists can spend years mastering a particular language and learning all they can about it, particularly if it is a language that is no longer used.
Whether other species really have "language" in the same sense as humans remains a subject up for debate (Kandel, Schwartz, & Jessell, 2000; Polinsky, Comrie, & Matthews, 2003). While other species certainly find ways to communicate with one another, they do not produce infinite information from a set of tools that are finite in nature. They do not have rules of grammar and syntax, and it does not appear that they carry on complex discussions in the way humans often do. Still, some apes can be taught rudimentary language skills in the sense that they understand what is asked of them and can use pointing and sign language to find objects and convey meaning (Polinsky, Comrie, & Matthews, 2003). That is nowhere near as complex as what humans do every day, but it does signify that there is some type of language and thought taking place. Most species have their own "languages," but they are not of the type that would be studied by linguists. While genetics transmit most of the language used by other species, humans can acquire language through interaction (Bloomfield, 1914; Katzner, 1999).
Naturally, one can see how that makes human language different from the language of other species, since those species do not create their language in the same way humans do. Nouns and verbs, past and present tense, phrases and clauses, they are all part of language and are required if a person is going to be correctly understood by others who speak the same language. Of course, there are also many different kinds of languages still in use today. From American English and the most common European and widely-used languages on the planet, to the most remote and primitive languages used in villages in jungles and other areas where tribes survive on what is available to them and have never seen outsiders, there are languages to be used and to be studied. The way people use language is often different based on where they came from and how their parents and others around them used language, which also has to be considered when studying linguistics (Katzner, 1999).
Language "practices" make many people think of learning a language, or practicing a new language in order to be able to speak it correctly. Actually, however, there is a difference between practicing language and language practices. When a person practices a language, he or she learns it and works on getting better at it. Language practices, however, are the skills and tools a person uses in order to correctly learn and utilize a language (Polinsky, Comrie, & Matthews, 2003). There is more to language practices than just learning, because the tools that are needed and the skills that are required to understand language properly can take some time to address. People who are focusing on language practices are often teachers and writers, because they use the written and spoken word much more frequently than others. They understand more about grammar and semantics, among other things, than most people, and they have more knowledge about how languages are created and how they change over time.
How language is used comes under the umbrella of language practices. Language is part of a person's identity and can shape how they see themselves and how other people see them (Deacon, 1998; Polinsky, Comrie, & Matthews, 2003). The way in which a person refers to himself or herself, and what kind of "self-talk" is used by that person are both very important in the person's perception of the world and his or her place in it. By talking about (and to) oneself in a particular way, it is possible for an individual to begin to see himself or herself in a specific light (Katzner, 1999). How one sees himself, then, plays a role in how others see him. For example, a person who is asked what he or she does for a living may have many different kinds of answers, depending on how he or she views his or her job or career. Someone who has a job that society would not consider very interesting or valuable may see himself or herself that same way, but he or she may also view things very differently, depending on the words he or she uses (or others use) to describe the line of work in which he or she is gainfully employed.
Children, especially, are vulnerable to language practices passed along to them by their parents and by society (Polinsky, Comrie, & Matthews, 2003). Each child is like a sponge when he or she is young. The world around that child is "soaked up," and when a child hears good things he or she is more likely to see the world (and himself or herself) as good. Children who grow up hearing bad things about themselves, about life, and about the world in general (or specific groups in the world) are more likely to see the world as a bad or frightening place in which they are not comfortable, not wanted, do not have a place, or must be overly cautious in order to avoid harm (Kandel, Schwartz, & Jessell, 2000; Polinsky, Comrie, & Matthews, 2003). Not all children who have these language experiences will use them to shape their world and their adult life to a strong degree, but there is certainly cause for concern and the possibility for this to take place. Children may be more vulnerable than adults, too, but that does not mean adults who experience negative language practices will not internalize those practices to some degree. Battered women, for example, have often been convinced they "deserve" their beatings and abuse, because of the language…[continue]
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