Why Language Theory Should Be a Required Course

Swans on our Rhine River cruise

Effective communication is not always a cruise down the Rhine.

Saturday I witnessed a conversation that went something like this:

Husband: I’m concerned it will take something egregious for him to see the truth.

Wife: Egregious? What?

Husband: As in bad . . .

Wife: I know, I know. So why didn’t you just say bad? Just talk so people can understand you. Don’t you remember I teach third-graders* all day? (*Grade has been changed to protect the obvious.)

Husband: But egregious says exactly what I mean.

Bill and I smiled at one another. We, too, have our irks and quirks with each others’ conversational styles. My dear husband has a problem with others’ repetitive redundancies. It’s almost ironic that I’m the queen of restatement, having mastered it for a good reason, a very good reason.

I justify this quality of mine because I do it purposely, trying to teach not only to the multiple learning styles of my students but also to the innumerable ways they all communicate. Thus, I explained something in class, only to turn around and re-word it for other students. It was still the same thought, just creatively re-interpreted.

Or so I thought when I continued its practice at home.

Many times when I was sharing a thought with my husband, he’d blurt out, “I got it the first time!” even while his eyes were still focused on the newspaper.

That only gave rise to my greatest conversational irk: those who speak in a rude tone of voice. I’m HUGE on expressing things politely. It’s all about how we say things cordially. (Did you get it better the second way I said it?)

That’s why I advocate that all humans who care about effectively communicating–as they should –should be required to take Linguistic (Language) Theory. Stay with me now; don’t fall asleep just yet.

Think John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, just deeper, centuries deeper.

Introvert or Extrovert?

For throughout time, dating back in practice to the Old Testament Bible and the Greek philosophers’ writings, linguists have more than proven that when words and their intended meanings are confused, workable relations stop working, even for those with the best of intentions.

Just look at the category headings that complicate our way of talking and hearing what’s being said. They include gender, ethnicity, religion, as well as social, educational and economic class backgrounds. Add in diverse age groups, professions, and geographic regions, and our dialects, slang, and jargon too easily keep us walled-off, most likely offended by our most recent email or text from our now former best friend.

If only, we could offer our intended pleasant tone of voice to all of our written messages. But that’s a dilemma and emoticon we’ll tackle another day. Yet, even in our one-on-one face-to-face verbal exchanges, confusion proliferates, as in snowballs, mushrooms, runs riot.

For instance, I was taught growing up that it was rude to ask others personal questions.  In turn, I was programmed to wait until you shared what you wanted me to know about you. Maybe you were brought up to ask questions to show you care. So while you’re asking me personal questions, I’m considering how impolite you are. You finally decide I’m uncaring by my disinterest, and so the cycle of miscommunication swirls with no remedy in sight.

Or is there? Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen states, “Relationships are made, maintained, and broken through talk, so linguistics provides a concrete way of understanding how relationships are made, maintained and broken.”

Are you sold yet?

I know I was after I had to take Linguistics Theory as a required graduate class while Bill and I were dating. Since we lived in separate cities, we spent several hours each night talking long distance. Because I was taking this class, we talked about our differing backgrounds and how we could understand the whys and hows of breaking the social mores that weren’t working, as in I learned to ask personal questions.

What made it okay was that it all journeyed back to our intentions.

According to William Stern’s theory of language development, intention is one of the roots of speech. Did you know that out of the three–expressive, social and intention–the first two are observed in animals, and the third–intention–is strictly human?

Consider this: if intention is strictly human and my intention–my aim, my purpose–is to communicate, I have to figure out how to do so best with you, which brings us to dialogue.

This is where it gets funny, as in comical, peculiar, and questionably dubious. For it is in The Human Connection that the authors recognize intention as the major factor in Martin Buber’s three kinds of dialogue. See if your conversational style fits in one of them.

The first is genuine dialogue described as “the real thing . . . where each of the participants really has the other in mind. …with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation. … rare in the modern world; perhaps it will always be rare, for it requires a heightened capacity for giving.” (136)

The second dialogue is technical dialogue and it’s like it sounds: the exchange of information, the basics. Buber believes this is the most used dialogue since it expands across most of the fields of communication with the intention being “the reciprocal exchange of information.” This so-called form of integrity is most prevalent, and it is tagged as “superficial authenticity … in the contemporary world of commerce, advertising, and everyday relations.” (136-7)

This third one is sadly one we hear too often, especially from our own lips. Buber termed it monologue disguised as dialogue. In a nutshell that’s when our conversation is not intentionally meant to communicate or inform, influence or connect with another.

The sole desire is to make an impression about one’s self.

Yikes! I believe that to be egregious in the appalling, atrocious, abominable sort of way. Should we presume that it is only when all of the manipulating and self-seeking intentions are removed that real dialogue can transpire?

It seems it is the key to understanding–understanding the what we want to say, the how it is best to say it, and the to whom we want to say it to.

So this is where I get to finish up by plugging my conversational irk: the way we say things.  Amazingly enough, even back in the fifth century B.C., Aristotle realized not only the importance of word choice but also in the power of how we say it. Thank you, Aristotle.

Right after I sent out my first email about beginning this blog, I ran into a friend.

She said, “I got your email about your new blaaawwwg.”

Her intonation implied her negative opinion about blogs.

I got her point and was instantly offended. I reasoned later that I too dislike the word blog and immediately defined it to be “monologue not even trying to disguise itself as dialogue.”

However, that’s where we both were wrong at some point. I set up this blog not as a website where you as a reader can’t respond, but as one where you can. I invite your dialogue, seeking for honest responses, intending for the “real thing” with the greatest of hope we can use this growing age of technical dialogue and superficial authenticity for the workplace to develop the rare selfless art of communicating and deepening relationships.

With work we should be able to get the equation perfectly: the right intention added to the correct voice and words equal true meaning. It can be done. I read it in those books I quoted, so I’m sure it can be done.

Your thoughts?

Streets in Charleston

Streets in Charleston

4 thoughts on “Why Language Theory Should Be a Required Course

  1. I love this post. I am a huge fan of Deborah Tannen and linguistics in general. You expressed yourself so well and I agree that linguistics should be a required college course.

    When I taught Anthropology at Harding, I had a unit on Linguistics but it only scratched the surface. When we developed our new Cognitive Neuroscience major, we put a required Linguistics course in the core curriculum. The person we talked to at Midnight Oil (Pat Garner)teaches that course and I hear great things about it.

    I loved the way you developed the topic. What diverse talent you have! Keep it up.


    Sent from my iPhone



    • Kathy, Isn’t it fascinating! Always so much to learn. I took the class 20-plus years ago and now can only imagine what all can be taught. Pat Garner could make anything interesting. I’d love to hear more about your Anthropology class, too. Thank you thank you for reading and connecting with it–my purpose!


    • I love this Ann! Sometimes it feels like communication through words is a lost art! I know that it’s not and can change hearts and minds if we are willing to take the time! I’m so glad you are! Love to you!


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