Words are all over the place. Although words are intrinsically human, how effective are we in the use of words? Are we getting better or are our linguistic skills at risk? Is it important?
The first thing we are told – and this is all over the place – is that communication skills are something one needs to learn and develop and that quite a number of skills are involved too. That’s fine. We’ll find much good advice on the subject and it will do all of us good to try our best to apply them, allowing the whole lot to be part of our personality. I would also stress the additional idea of personalising the manner in which we incorporate and use all communication skills, certainly not as a technique, like an on-and-off switch, but for real.
What is the observable evidence as to how we are faring in verbal communication? How are we getting along with words? The answer is that our verbal capabilities are at risk.
Let me try to put this in some perspective.
Our thinking process
To address the issue let us deal with thoughts first. Much emphasis is put on our ability to listen. But what about the real worth of what we listen or read? Have words, so to speak, lost some of their market value? If so, what are the consequences?
How would we be able to describe impressions, feelings and opinions without words?
Let us start at the origin. Before any words are spoken there are thoughts. How does our brain think? In the process of the development of linguistic skills, humans move, in varying degrees, from an image related thinking process to a word related conceptual process in order to deal with the more complex abstract level of conscious thinking. It’s language – words – that allow us to know and describe what we think. How would we be able to describe impressions, feelings, and opinions without words? Linguistic abilities are therefore needed at some very early stage of our thinking process. Once we recognize the need for words at some stage of the development of our thinking capabilities we must also accept that words need to be learned if they are going to be of any use. And not just words, but how the transmission of words requires a precise and mutually shared language. And when I say language, we do well in keeping in mind that one word, or set of words, can have different meanings in different locations and settings.
We know how challenging and critical it is for us to communicate effectively. It affects all of our relationships. Though listening, for example, is equally important and much crucial advise on this difficult enough part of the communication equation, let’s us concentrate on linguistics, on how we convey our thoughts through the use of words and in an articulate manner. For, in fact, words affect both sides of the equation. The same way that our thinking abilities start with images and concept-related-processes before linguistic capabilities take over (to varying degrees), let’s keep in mind that on the recipient’s side words are also translated into something else that is not entirely linguistic. Perceptions and emotions are on both sides. Hence, thoughts and how we think, and all those filters, apprehensions, preconceptions, etc., that all of us have developed over time, and for quite a number of reasons, are on both sides of the communication equation. In between all that, words are the building blocks. And by this, I am not invalidating that many other skills and factors are involved in the transmission of words.
Let’s forget about the media, the format, etc. Let us, therefore, concentrate on words, the fundamental elements of communication.
Where have all the words gone?
I said “most” communication for a reason. We all know the importance of visuals. My concerns go indeed much further. Numerous studies provide us with information about the impact of our device-linked digital age. It’s not just that we read less. Studies reveal that time spent with gadgets, games -you name it – including the old TV set, has changed the way children, adolescents, and adults use their time. The latest findings point to a revolution, not just to a gradual development.
The conclusions and the evidence from scientific studies on this subject cannot surprise us. The real problem is that we are not doing much to change it. No one is saying that we should shy away from technology. But there should be no doubt that we have to improve on how we use it so that technology becomes beneficial and allowed to deliver its best potential, both, to our thought processes, and to enable us to communicate better. Just to mention one aspect, an important one: how is it impacting our toddlers as they move through childhood? Gone is bedtime reading with mum or dad, and then – hopefully – also later, hopefully on their own. The fact is that mobiles and tablets have sneaked in at bedtime and throughout a good part of the day. It’s not just the time that’s used up by excessive use of those channels, which obviously reduces time for other activities, but much more important: how is it affecting our physical brain and our cogitation?
What must be stressed – the essence of what I am addressing in this article – is that language acquisition is progressive, and that interaction with the environment affects its development. This process starts at an early age, but the process doesn’t stop when one reaches adulthood, it actually extends far beyond that. And to this, I add: This process cannot be taken for granted!
The type and level of interaction as we move along that path will determine the degree to which adequate linguistic abilities develop.
Cognition theories agree that for the development of linguistic abilities (and obviously our brains are wired for the development of this basic human skill) we all need the appropriate environment and we need it in a constant and progressive manner. The type and level of interaction as we move along that path will determine the degree to which adequate linguistic abilities develop. This process has an impact on how our neural network is built and gradually consolidated. Hence it affects not just the purely linguistic aspect of how our brain deals with words, phrases, etc. – what can be referred to as verbal communication or linguistic abilities – but also how our brain is able to transform all those words into thoughts, and to what degree these thoughts are retained and have any meaningful effect later on, during and after the actual communication interaction.
Is it possible to think without words?
Yes, to some degree it’s possible to think without words. Some even advocate doing so; though this is often mostly an artistic, contemplative or philosophical approach to the idea of seeing things in our minds vs. a more articulate and precise process. Surely, it is a nice thought, worthwhile discussing, but it is not a valid and full recognition of the human being’s linguistic capabilities. In certain kinds of thinking, such as in the process of abstract and profound intellectual reasoning, it is impossible to refrain from using our linguistic cognitive abilities. And this already takes place within our minds. But more important: it is impossible to convey thoughts of certain complexity without words. One might love modern art. No problem. But I couldn’t transmit any of my ideas here without words. Whatever the origin of our thoughts, we need linguistic capabilities if we are to have conscious awareness of them. Language allows us to communicate what we are thinking.
We must not only allow our toddlers and our growing-up children to develop their linguistic skills, we must be personally implicated in that process. And it doesn’t stop there. We as grown-ups must also be concerned with our own capabilities in that area.
Listening, body language and a long list of other skills are important elements of communication, but where would we be without words? The “Dow Jones index” for the word market has been dropping for quite a while as our minds get adumbrated, or even bamboozled, with probably too much digital imagery. We should not just sit there contemplating passively as the value of verbal communication and human interaction is obstructed by the digital divide.
Invest in words!