Language And Communication

09 October 2020

If you have seen the film “2001 – A Space Odyssey”, you will know that at the start of the film, apes communicate with each other by making noises, along with body movements. Now we use more defined spoken languages, but whenever we can see the person in direct communication with us, we still rely on body language to fully understand what message they are sending us. There are folks I have known who wave their hands around whilst they talk, in fact it has been said that the only way to shut them up is by tying both their hands behind their backs! 

That is why some people don’t like using a telephone, as they cannot see the person they are communicating with. So it means they must rely on the tone of voice and perhaps such things as hesitation, maybe stuttering, all of which could be natural to the person talking but only realised by the listener if the person was in fact visible. It may also help to recognise an untruth if the person can actually be seen! But now we have video calls, which makes it easier to get a message across and with modern technology we can have a large number of people from all around the world seeing and listening to us, all at the same time. 

When I was a fair bit younger than I am now, there was a children’s tv series called The Clangers, which featured a family of mouse-like creatures who lived on, and inside, a small moon-like planet. They spoke only in a whistled language and only ate green soup (supplied by the Soup Dragon) and blue string pudding. It used a narrator to ‘fill in the gaps’, but all of the sounds these creatures made did make a lot of sense! If you have no idea what I’m on about, then might I suggest that you do have a look on YouTube or Wikipedia…

I believe there are around 195 countries in this world, but within those countries there are over 7,000 different languages. Except the vast majority of the world’s population use just 23 languages between them. It is fascinating that so many of them have a very similar structure or base and many words are quite similar. For example, in the French language ‘window’ is fenêtre, and in Welsh it is ffenestr. In Italian it is finestra whilst in German it is fenster. All are similar words. But equally, some languages are so very different. When I was young and learning English, “The cat sat on the mat” was taught as it rhymes and is easy to learn. But Spanish is very different, as that same phrase is “El gato se sentó en la alfombra” and just does not rhyme in the least!

When learning a new language, at first it can be difficult but then, once the basic structure becomes clearer and also more words are learned, generally things do get a bit easier. Though a friend is learning Hebrew and says it is unlike any other language in terms of structure. I shudder to think what Russian or perhaps Chinese is like, though the latter seems to be very much a ‘pictorial’ language. I’ll not try my hand at that, as my artwork in school was atrocious! Being left-handed also meant I ended up with blue ink along the side of my hand – so I turned the piece of paper I was writing on to an angle and wrote that way! It meant I wasn’t smudging the paper and I could see what I was writing. Result!

But an essential reason for language is of course communication. However, that can on odd occasions cause unfortunate events, like when an elder brother of mine was, with his wife, trying to teach their young twin daughters a few new words. Having bought them a light, folding chair to carry them around in, they taught them to say “buggy” – except the children didn’t quite get the pronunciation right, putting an ‘a’ at the end of the word instead of the ‘y’. It was an error that was quickly corrected!

I have concentrated mainly on the spoken language here, only mentioning the written part in passing. But there is also another form of beautiful communication that is known throughout the world and which does not necessarily need to be taught or learned for it to be at least appreciated. That language is music. As with any form of language there are many differences, with Western styles being very different to Eastern ones. But whatever our musical tastes are, whether they be classical, jazz, pop or whatever, music can quickly alter our mood. When I was driving my car, I’d a few different CD’s I could listen to but only certain ones were conducive to good and steady driving. Some music could make for aggressive driving! The same is for the spoken word, in that a tone of voice can convey how we feel. I remember going on holiday to Portugal and being pestered by street urchins who were begging for a bit of money. At first they didn’t know what language I spoke, so they tried greeting me in different languages. So, knowing a very few words of Welsh, I spoke to them (but in an extremely aggressive tone) in that language. The tone I used was as we would say “Go away, don’t bother me!”, but what I’d actually said was “Excuse me, may I sit down here please?”. The words meant nothing to them, but my aggressive tone conveyed a message and they went away.

I mentioned about me singing in different choirs and for a while I was a member of Leicester Bach Choir. It was fun, but hard work and sight-reading music was a must. But staying as I am in this Care Home at the moment reminds me of an event many years ago, it was at or around Christmas time and we sang at a place near Leicester. Before the concert started we were told about a man from a nearby Care Home who would be there and most likely sit at the front, near the stage. He would quietly listen, but if he didn’t like the music, he would politely get up and walk out. Then, when a different piece was sung, if he liked it he’d come back in and sit down to listen. It wasn’t considered the ‘right thing to do’, but I’ve often wondered – was he wrong in what he did? He didn’t like the music, so he left! He definitely communicated his feelings with his body language then, of that we can be sure. 

The art of good communication though is, in my view, remembering that we have two ears and two eyes, but only one mouth. It seems to me therefore that we should use them appropriately, looking and listening twice as hard as we talk. Sadly there are some who never seem to look or listen. They are also often quite selfish, always wanting things done their way and never considering others but sadly ‘using’ folk for their own ends. Interestingly, it seems that such people try to blame others when they don’t get their own way. It takes all sorts to make a world, but sometimes (as I have mentioned in a previous blog) they do not see any need to change their ways. 

All one can do is try and guide them, but if they will not see sense then one can either accept them for who and what they are, or walk away. I have known folk who seem to think everything said to them must have a deeper meaning. It may be that’s how their minds work, but often the question being put to them is simply that – just a simple question, requiring a just simple answer. 

Language and communication is a very complicated business. Will we ever get to the point of ‘instant’ translation, as found in the Star Trek series, or find something like the Babel fish, a fictional species of fish invented by Douglas Adams in his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, where putting this fish in your ear means that you can instantly understand whatever is said to you in any language…

It might happen, one day – and if my dear old grandfather were still alive, he would not believe the capability we now have of instant communication around the world compared to a hundred years ago! I guess he might also question how good this now is for us…

I shall finish with a thought:

If someone could have foreseen what was going to happen around the world this year, could it be said that they’d had a 2020 vision?

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