Language is inarguably one of the most important things we learn over the course of our lives. Nearly every creature on Earth has some way to communicate with others of its species (and even other species altogether), and humans are no exception. Without language, we can’t communicate, learn, express our thoughts, socialize, and much, much, more on the level that we do now.
Imagine, for example, that everyone in the world could neither speak nor write to each other for an entire day. Sure, we would be able to communicate somewhat through gestures and visual cues, just as some primitive species do, but we wouldn’t be able to socialize and bond like we do today.
That’s not the only reason why language is important, though. If we could no longer communicate, our lives and our abilities to bond with others would be changed forever. In this guide, we’ll teach you all about why language is so important.
Language as Communication
The most common purpose we use language for in our daily lives is communication. We use the written word to text our friends, family, and co-workers from our smartphones every day. We communicate complex humorous stories and ideas through memes, videos, and drawings. We can even write in precise ways and turn it into art.
Spoken language can be just as useful. If you add in the moderation of the human voice, you get music through language. If you take two people, you get conversation and socialization. If they talk long enough, a bond might form, or even a deeper sense of interest.
Language doesn’t have to be explicit, either. We communicate through our vaguer body language, too, and through various cultural and regional cues. These aren’t as easy, and they can differ from region to region, but they’re still considered a part of language.
If we didn’t have any of these methods of communication, humans would effectively be isolated. As social beings, we would develop new ways to communicate in short order if our current ones became unusable. Additionally, there are so many communication styles ingrained into us from birth that it’s impossible to unlearn all of them.
Take smiling, for example. A soft smile is biologically wired into our brains to represent friendliness or interest. Since we learn this from the moment our parents start smiling at us, it’s not something we could weed out of language at all.
As human beings, we’re meant to communicate. While humans are the ultimate apex predator, we’re not designed to be solitary creatures. Even bears and big cats who live on their own have plenty of ways to communicate with each other.
However, more so than any other species on Earth, the interconnectivity of spoken and written language is one of our most magnificent masterpieces. Without a written language, you wouldn’t be able to read and understand this guide. However, without spoken language, you wouldn’t be able to hear the words spoken in your head as you read. While written and verbal communication are vastly different, they’re intertwined in too many ways to truly separate them.
There are more ways to use language as communication than we can possibly cover in one guide. However, we’ll try to cover the most important and the most obvious of them here.
Language as Socialization
Of course, the primary use of spoken language is to socialize with one another. By talking and being social, we can make friends, form bonds, exchange information, find a mate, and much, much more. Words are tools that we can use to transfer our ideas to others, whether those ideas are thoughts, opinions, feelings, or anything else.
The primary role of socialization as we grow is to learn social norms. If you’ve ever visited a different country (or even a different city or state, in some places), you’ve probably noticed differences in the norms around you. You might end up saying or doing something that no one understands in this new place. At worst, a friendly gesture that might be sociable in one place might be considered rude somewhere else.
However, by speaking or writing the same language, we can briefly overcome these barriers, at least partially. While some things might be lost between cultural and geographical boundaries, the ability to talk to each other through language is an inalienable part of our humanity.
In the link above, you’ll see a story about a girl who was locked in a room from the time she was born until she was thirteen years old. Her name was Genie. While this is an incredibly sad story, it shows what the terrifying results are when human beings aren’t allowed to socialize. If we can’t socialize with other people, we become something other than human.
Indeed, in said article, it even says how Genie was eager for human contact as soon as she was rescued from her captor. Even when she was isolated from humans for most of her life, Genie craved something that she knew she lacked. The desire for inclusivity is coded into our DNA.
You may have heard the term “socialization” used in conjunction with animals, too. Like Genie, if an animal isn’t exposed to human contact when they’re young, they may never be comfortable around human company. Unfortunately, this is often the case with dogs and cats who are born in the wild and don’t make it to human homes until their later years.
As such, socialization is most often used in conjunction with young animals, though older animals can be socialized, too – just not as quickly or thoroughly. When we’re young, we start to figure out what around us is healthy and safe. If we weren’t to be exposed to socialization until much later in life, like Genie, the results would be unpredictable. In animals, this often results in fear or even aggression towards humans.
Part of the reason why Genie was unable to be socialized later in life is that she was never able to gain a healthy adult’s grasp of human language. Just like many bilingual people retain an accent in their non-primary language from using it less, it’s difficult to erase or change from the things we learned early on in life. Without the ability to talk at length with other humans, Genie couldn’t form bonds with others or acclimate to society.
While socialization is a word with a lot of connotations, it’s not particularly hard to figure out. Just like Genie, we all have some innate desire to be social, no matter how private we are. Sure, we can go without it for a while if we try, but if we go too long, we revert to something a little less than human. And, of course, the use of language is the key to socialization.
Language as Sharing
The next most important use of language is in the sharing of ideas. If we weren’t able to speak or write to each other, the concepts of geniuses like Einstein and Tesla might never end up being shared. Diagrams are one thing, of course, but imagine if Isaac Newton was unable to write about gravity after he discovered it. We might have little or no concept of it today if that were the case.
Language is used to share things all over the world, and not just ideas, either. When we watch the news, we’re experiencing the sharing of thoughts, feelings, and information. When we listen to someone speak to us about something that’s bothering them, we’re sharing both information and emotion. We’re sharing empathy with each other, too.
However, the language used in sharing isn’t always a good thing. We can overshare, share bad things, and incite offense and harm in others, too, if we’re not careful. Imagine one country declaring war on another via a global broadcast, for example – something that’s incredibly possible today with the prevalence of the Internet.
As such, sharing things through language is a responsibility just as much as it’s a gift. While a domestic cat might not be able to say “I declare war” to another in as many words, they can do just as much through their body language. They might show signs like:
- Hair standing on end
- Puffed tail
- Tense body
This is the cat’s own sense of language that allows them to communicate this way. Granted, a cat’s language isn’t nearly as complicated as a human’s, and they don’t have access to a written language, either. However, their primitive form of body language helps to illustrate just how far humans have come in terms of language and communication.
Like we talked about above, humans seek to form bonds between one another. However, if we couldn’t share our thoughts, feelings, and aspirations with one another, this would be much easier.
The level of detail humans can share is a double-edged sword, of course. While we can talk deeply about ourselves and others, we can also share thoughts and aspirations that don’t line up with someone else’s. Because we share such deep parts of ourselves, we’re far less compatible than prehistoric humans ever were. They never shared the deepest secrets of their hearts with each other.
However, in the same way, prehistoric humans weren’t able to discover and share the laws of the universe, either. Interestingly, primitive cave drawings show that even ancient humans had written ways to communicate, though they can’t compare to modern language. It seems that humans have always had the capacity in them to record history, share information, and evolve.
This article is taking advantage of humans’ ability to share information through language right now. Without written communication to convey ideas accurately, we would never be able to create and share something like this article. We wouldn’t be able to write books, either, regardless of whether they were instructional or fictional.
Of course, this is one of the main contributors to humanity’s evolution as a whole. Even past cultures with more primitive languages and writings were able to leave information to those who came about hundreds of years after them, though not without some translational difficulty.
Take memes, which are a popular cultural quirk in the present day. A meme, necessarily, is a relatable image, video, phrase, or another form of media that works something like an “inside joke.” Depending on the meme, some can be incredibly in-depth, while others are easy to understand.
Surprisingly, memes have been around for hundreds of years, despite the word only being defined in 1976. When a meme spreads between two people, it brings them closer together through a mutual feeling or idea. However, memes are not universal, especially since they can piggyback off of each other. Savvy creators can make memes of memes, and memes of those memes, too.
If the consumer of the meme has seen it before, they may understand what the meme is referring to. However, they might not, since they come in varying degrees of understandability. Memes are usually humorous, and they combine references and ideas from one or more popular sources to create puns and jokes.
Language as Art
In several paragraphs above, we talked about memes as a method of conveying information between individuals. However, even more than that, a meme is a use of language as an art. By altering the way we use and understand language, both in written and spoken forms, we can turn it into something entirely different. This is what art is.
Consider a book of poetry, for example. Poetry is a universal art form where words are used to evoke more than they actually mean. Poetry has no set formula; one poet might simply use a lot of descriptive words to invoke a vivid scene in the reader’s mind, while another poet might tweak the way some words are used or conveyed to invoke feelings in the reader or listener.
Consider The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, for example. This poem isn’t too fancy in terms of language, but it does tend to evoke feelings of wonder in the reader or listener. In it, Frost describes a beautiful environmental scene. However, the wonder of this is that the entire poem is a metaphor.
The ability to create metaphor and simile, implying things that aren’t necessarily understood through the use of words alone, is one of the foremost strengths of language. The Road Not Taken is a metaphor for making choices. In the poem, the speaker is choosing the more difficult option between two alternatives. The “road less traveled by,” or a path that’s overgrown and seldom taken, represents a rewarding or uncommon choice, but one that’s also a lot of work.
On the other hand, the well-worn path represents the path that most people will take – in this case, the easy option. The poem itself is a metaphor for the personal reward you can find within by refraining from choosing the most comfortable option every time you make a choice.
On the other hand, let’s consider the poem The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, which is another incredibly well-known piece of poetry. Instead of evoking bright, happy scenes like The Road Less Traveled, The Raven seems to be set in something more like a dungeon. It’s quiet, dark, and spooky in Poe’s poem.
The Raven can act as a metaphor for many things, but the most obvious one is sadness and distress. In the poem, the narrator and speaker is lamenting the loss of a lover named Lenore. It appears that he was deeply in love with her, but alas, she’s no longer around.
However, within the poem, a raven – considered in many cultures to be a powerful omen of things to come – appears and raps at the man’s window continually. The raven seems to imply that the man will never find peace as long as he holds onto his Lenore.
The man becomes irate at this, trying to get the raven to leave, but it does not. Instead, it just continues saying, “Nevermore.” This could be an allusion to insanity, too.
However, take a minute to look at the language in both poems. The writing in The Raven is done in an older style, and it’s far more intricate and flowery than that of The Road Less Traveled. However, despite this, both poems can inspire visions and feelings in the reader.
These two poems illustrate the versatility of language as an art as its best, and that’s only one language art medium, too! There are more out there than we could possibly fit into this guide, but some examples include:
- Singing and songwriting
- Acting (or voice acting)
- Creative writing
- Motivational speaking
Language as Identity
Depending on where we’re born and what cultures we grow up with, language can play an enormous role in our identity, too. Even between the different states in the USA, cultures tend to vary subtly and differently. An exciting way to visualize this is through regional use of words.
Consider the pop-soda-coke debate, for example. This is a typical example that’s also seen in memes from time to time. Depending on where you go in the USA, people tend to use the terms soda, pop, or coke to mean the same as some soft drinks.
While all three words mean the same thing contextually, you might get some weird looks if you use the wrong word in some regions of the USA. At best, however, it can definitely be a conversation starter! If you ask for some pop at a restaurant in the South, for example, you might get a comment asking if you’re from the northern USA. On the other hand, if you try to order a coke in that same area of the USA, you’ll likely be brought a Coca-Cola instead!
Even small quirks like this are essential parts of your language identity. Regional accents can account for this, too. Even across the US, accents are common. Next time you visit another state in the USA, especially one that’s far from your home state, make sure to ask whether you have an accent. You might be surprised by the answers you get!
The exciting thing about your language identity, however, is that this doesn’t come across in writing the same way it does in spoken language. While you can write in such a way to illustrate an accent if you so choose, pronunciation isn’t generally conveyed through professional writing. The writer’s regional word choices might be, but not the way they say them in conversation!
If you’re bilingual or multi-lingual, this can play an enormous role in determining your language identity, too. Since language identity tends to relate closely back to cultural identity and ancestry, it’s common for children of bilingual parents to learn two languages fluently from the time they’re born.
Your language identity can be affected by how you command your native language, too. For example, a writer or poet’s language identity might be entirely different from a non-writer’s. In the same way, a professional speaker’s language identity will be very different from that of someone who fears public speaking.
Anyone who’s put a decent amount of time into writing has developed their own personal writing style. If you haven’t historically spent much time writing, you might not feel that you have one, but if you take the time to do so, one will inevitably develop. However, the same applies to spoken language, too.
Both the words we speak and the words we write are influenced by the language all around us. If we read a lot, our spoken and written words will take on characteristics of what we like to read. Our style can even take on aspects of other media; if we like a particular TV show, for example, we might find ourselves picking up words used in it often.
In the same way, the more we talk to other people, the more our own language identity changes. When we speak almost exclusively to someone who has a British accent, for example (one of the most identifiable and well-known accents), we eventually end up taking on that accent ourselves without noticing.
The same applies to the words we use, too. If you were born in a state where the word pop is used to describe a soft drink, but you moved to a place where soda was used instead, you’d probably find yourself switching over eventually!
Language as Direction
One of the final essential properties of language is its ability to be used for direction. While direction falls under communication, it’s a bit different in that we can “direct” people to do particular things.
Let’s compare humans and animals again. If a human were to give a dog a series of commands to navigate a maze, they could probably do it with enough time and training. However, if the same human were telling another human to navigate a maze, they would be able to give them very detailed instructions on how to escape with no prior training whatsoever.
On the other hand, if the two humans spoke two different languages, the entire ordeal would be much closer to helping a dog through the maze because of the communication barrier. However, just like with the dog, it would be doable eventually.
In the same way, we can direct others to do very specific, unusual things. Take cooking recipes, for example. Without particular ways to take down ingredients, measurements, and cook times, we would never be able to pass down detailed recipes from one generation to the next.
However, because of our robust written and spoken languages, we can write down a very involved, specific recipe, and someone we’ve never seen or talked to halfway across the world can reproduce that same dish with perfect quality. This directive quality of language is something that’s common throughout the animal kingdom, but never to the degree that we utilize it.
Recipes are a great example of directive language because they’re all directive in quality, but they can vary in degree by a wide margin. An example of a highly directive recipe might be:
- Start by adding 1 cup of flour to a large mixing bowl.
- Slowly beat in egg whites until the mixture is just combined. Do not over-mix.
- Add ½ cup milk first, then combine, doing the same for the butter and sugar in sequence.
However, on the other hand, a much less directive recipe, though one that could be used to make the same dish, could be something like this:
- Add egg whites to the flour and combine.
- Add milk, then butter, then sugar, mixing after each addition.
Clearly, the first recipe is far more detailed than the second. While recipes tend to favor specificity, especially for complicated ones, this is merely an excellent example of how flexible the commanding nature of language truly is.
We can choose what to say when direction someone through language, yes, but we can further decide how to say it, too. The two recipes above illustrate this duality excellently. While the first recipe is detailed and matter-of-fact, the second is fast, terse, and assumes that you already know how to assemble it correctly to some degree.
The second recipe is something more reminiscent of something a chef might jot down to remind themselves later, while the first is something that you might find in a cookbook.