- Distinguish between verbal and non-verbal aspects of language.
- Explain the role of culture in the creation and meaning of language.
- Identify the functions of language.
- Use language effectively in public speaking to a global audience.
“I was born in the Dominican Republic and Raised in the United States–you can imagine the integrative process that was for me. (…) I mean, think about it, a child of color, non-English speaking; attending school for the very first time. It was quite the holy grail for the all-American bullies. You’d think color would not be a factor, but it is. Assumptions are rapidly made from one’s appearance, and I can almost guarantee that my peers thought I spoke English as soon as they laid their eyes on me. Those children who possessed a native tongue looked down on me shamelessly. I was very much an outcast for the first few months of my attendance to this institution–more so fraternizing with Spanish-speaking teachers and staff. My peers made the assumption I lacked intelligence, hardly ever assisting me, if any struggle was evident, they would simply continue the discussion at hand; and I’d often be left in the dark.”
— Yuneiris Martinez, BMCC Student
As you can see from the testimony of Martinez, we communicate with others by using language. Language, as a tool of communication, can be used to do many things. For example, language can be used to define phenomena or to label people or things, to evaluate, to inspire, to inform, to persuade, to criticize, to demean, to uplift, to confuse, to deceive, to lie, and so on. To be an effective public speaker, it is important to always be aware of the diverse or heterogeneous nature of your audience, and use language that will be understood by the audience in the way that the speaker intends. This chapter will explore language in its verbal and non-verbal forms and show how each of these forms can be used effectively or ineffectively in speech, especially to a global audience.
Language is made up of symbols that are created by a community or group of people. The community creates the symbol and assigns the meaning of the symbol. These symbols can be verbal or non-verbal. An example of verbal expression is the word “table” which refers to an object that the English-speaking community has decided to call by that name. A Spanish speaking community, on the other hand, uses the verbal expression “mesa” to refer to the same object. If you do not belong to the symbol creating community, you will not know the meaning of the symbol unless you learn the symbols of other language communities.
The symbols created by a community may also be non-verbal. This means that a community or group may have other ways for exchanging messages without using words. Non-verbal symbols or codes include facial expressions, eye contact, time, body language, touching behavior, silence, space and distance, smell, artifacts, or objects people wear or put on themselves, and so on. Although some non-verbal codes in one community may be the same or similar in other communities, the meaning each community assigns to the non-verbal codes may not be the same. This means that even when there is similarity in the code, there is still a possibility of misunderstanding the meaning of the non-verbal expression across linguistic communities.
Meaning of Language
As far as the meaning of words is concerned, we will explore two ways to understand the meaning of language. The first is the denotation, this is the literal meaning of a word, the ‘dictionary definition.’ If someone says something to us using a word that we do not understand, we can find the meaning of that word by looking it up in the dictionary. The other way we can understand language is through connotation. The connotation of a word is the emotional response or feelings that words cause. The connotation of a word also depends on cultural context and personal associations. For example, the word “father” according to the dictionary is “a male parent”, that is the denotation of the word “father.” The connotation of the word “father” may have different associations to different people. If for example, someone had a negative or painful experience with a male parent, the word “father” may connote anger, resentment, and hate.
In other words, the meaning of language, besides being denotative, could also be connotative. Because of the connotative meaning of words, it is important for public speakers to be careful in their choice and use of words to reduce the possibility of misunderstanding. It is not always easy to know what your words may connote to someone or a group of people, but the more aware of and sensitive you are to the people you communicate with, the greater the possibility of reducing misinterpretation of your message.
We have just explained the verbal and nonverbal codes of language. However, it is important to note that when a person says something in words and the words are contradicted by the person’s nonverbal codes, the receiver usually believes the nonverbal messages over the verbal one. For example, if someone who just walked into my office wanting to have a word with me and I said “Sure, no problem,” but my body movements, posture, and even facial expressions give an impression to the person that I am not available to him/her, the person would believe my non-verbal behavior over what I said verbally.
Now that we have looked at the meaning of words or how language is understood (semantics), let us turn to what is called phonetics. The phonetic dimension of language refers to how the verbal codes of language are expressed in sound – pronunciation. Every linguistic community has a way they vocalize or put sound to the words. To be an effective speaker, it is important to pronounce words in the way they are supposed to be pronounced. Pronunciation can be a problem in effectively communicating to diverse groups if people do not understand what you are saying because of how you are pronouncing the words. It is important for public speakers, especially those who are not native speakers of a language, to make every effort to articulate properly and not speak fast. Articulation is a form of pronunciation that pays particular attention to making sure that all the letters of a word, especially the end consonants, come out clearly. For example, “I ought to prepare for the exam” instead of “I outta prepare for the exam.” Pragmatics
Another dimension of language that an effective speaker should take note of is called the pragmatics of language. Pragmatics in language use means the way language is used and understood on a day-to-day basis by a linguistic community. For example, a group of people may use language without paying attention to whether what they say follows the acceptable grammatical rules or not (syntax). Their way of expressing themselves may not pose a problem to them because the group members understand one another. However, in a diverse context, a pragmatic use of language may not be effective. For example, one linguistic community may say “It isn’t right for men and women to do the same job and earn unequal wages” while another linguistic group may say the same thing differently such as, “It ain’t right for men and women to do the same job and earn unequal wages.” Therefore, to avoid confusion in language use, it is always important to use the standard language that is commonly understood by many of the people in your audience.
Responsible Use of Language to a Global Audience
As a matter of ethical and responsible use of language, an effective public speaker should always be mindful of the diverse nature of the audience, and use language that is respectful of the audience. By a global or diverse audience, I mean that the people being addressed differ in many ways. The differences in an audience may be based on age, ability (disability), gender, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, nationality, religious affiliation, political affiliation, philosophical attachments, etc. Because of these demographic characteristics of an audience, an ethical or responsible public speaker should avoid using the following kinds of language:
- Obscure and unfamiliar words. For example, the word “niggardly” which means miserly or not generous or stingy is very obscure and mostly unknown to many people. So, why use it when you could simply say “miserly”?
- Language that ignores or demeans people by virtue of their race, sex, gender, sexual orientation. For example, the statement,:“These people think that they deserve free housing, food stamps, medical care, free abortions, and marital rights even though they are contributing little to zero to the economy and culture of this country.” Although the statement does not name the people being addressed, the audience is expected to know to whom “these people” refers in context.
- Language that has two or more meanings. For example, the word “hot” could refer to the temperature or temperament or spicy or even attractive. To avoid misunderstanding, it is always a good thing to use words that can easily be understood.
- Language that avoids making a commitment or a declaration, such as “weasel” words (maybe, allegedly, probably, etc.). This is more so in persuasive speeches.
- Language that is technical and belongs to a certain profession or field. For example, “The bane of postmodernism is the dethronement of God and the enthronement of subjectivity.” What does this sentence mean to an ordinary person?
Responsible and ethical speakers should use language that is familiar to their audience. Familiar language is down to earth and reflects the everyday experience of people. Descriptive or figurative language is encouraged because it not only embellishes the language, but it also makes it easy for the audience to visualize. Figurative language is also called rhetorical tropes. Examples of rhetorical tropes are:
- Metaphor: implicit comparison. He has a heart of gold.
- Simile: explicit comparison. After a good night’s sleep, I felt like a million dollars (this is also hyperbole).
- Personification: assigns human qualities or characteristics to non-human things. Life is a journey; travel it well.
- Hyperbole: exaggeration. I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.This is an exaggeration, you wouldn’t be able to eat an entire horse.
- Negation: saying something in the negative. Do not ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country (From Inaugural speech by President J. F. Kennedy). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5DODFhQ-H4
- Repetition: saying the same thing several times for impact. I have a dream… I have a dream… I have a dream (From I have a dream speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smEqnnklfYs
- Assonance: a play on the sound of the vowels. The Negro cannot find lodging in the motels of the highways and hotels of the cities (From I have a dream speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.).
Responsible and ethical public speakers should make sure that they know and use non-verbal codes appropriately. An example can be found in the Catholic Church. In Africa, many Catholic priests think that the longer they preach the better it is for them and their community. However, in many white parishes in America, the priest is often expected to preach for a maximum of ten minutes. So, an African priest who finds himself in a white parish in America should be mindful of the cultural differences regarding the use of time and limit the preaching to the time frame that is acceptable to the audience.
Another dimension of non-verbal communication that effective public speakers should be mindful of is eye contact. In many Western societies, it is expected that a speaker maintains a generous, direct, and sustained eye contact with the audience. This means that a speaker who is not a native Westerner should make every effort to connect emotionally with the audience by using eye contact.
In this chapter we learned that language is a structured system of symbols used to communicate meaning. Language is very important because it is the primary means of communication among humans. Language is much more than a collection of words. We use language to not only define phenomena or to label people or things, but to evaluate, inspire, inform, persuade, criticize, demean, and uplift. We use language both verbally and non-verbally. Our body language, eye contact, use of gestures, posture, facial expressions send messages to our audience just as much as our spoken language does. We define language through denotation, the dictionary meaning, and connotation, the emotional feelings that words evoke. We use language figuratively and descriptively to help our audience visualize our messages. As a matter of ethical and responsible use of language, an effective public speaker should always be mindful of the diverse nature of their audience, and use language that is respectful of the audience. Effective public speakers should aim to present their messages in a clear, concise, and purposeful manner while always keeping their audience in mind.
- In what ways do the verbal and non-verbal aspects of language differ?
- Explain the role of culture in the creation and meaning of language.
- List any five (5) functions of language.
- In small groups discuss and write down at least four ways in which non-verbal communication can be a source of misunderstanding between (among) people of different cultural backgrounds.
- Describe instance (s) when people have looked down on you because of how you speak. How did the experience make you feel or how did it affect your communication with others?
Lucas, Stephen. E. The Art of Public Speaking. 12th edition. New York, NY: McGraw Hill. 2014. Print.
Martin, Judith. N. & Nakayama, Thomas. K. Intercultural Communication in Contexts. 6th edition. New York, NY: McGraw Hill. 2013. Print.
Martinez, Yuneiris. “Language and Intercultural Communication”. Blackboard. March 8-12. Citation in Text: (Martinez). Web. March 10, 2021.
McCrowskey, James C. An Introduction to Rhetorical Communication. 8th edition. Boston, MA: Prentice-Hall. 2001. Print.
Rothwell, Dan, J. Practically Speaking. .2nd edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2017. Print.