Communicating-or getting our message across-is the concern not only of second language teachers but of us all in our daily lives in whatever language we happen to use. Our successes are a continual source of jubilation- This time he got the message!-and comfort-You really do understand, don’t you? Our failures are a source of frustration-I wonder what he meant by that?-and discouragement-somehow I can never seem to make them understand. Learning how to be better communicators is important to all of us in both our private and public lives. Better communication means better understanding of ourselves and others; less isolation from those around us; and more productive, happy lives.
We begin at birth by interacting with those around us to keep warm, dry, and fed. We learn very soon that the success of a particular communication strategy depends on the willingness of others to understand and on the interpretation they give to our meaning. Whereas a whimper will suffice to bring a mother running with a clean diaper and warm milk in one instance, sustained screaming over long stretches of time will be ineffectual in another. We learn, then that meaning is never one-sided. Rather, it is negotiated between the persons involved .
As we grow up our needs grow increasingly complex and, along with them, our communication efforts. Different words, we discover, are appropriate in different settings. The expressions we hear on the playground or through the bedroom door may or may not be acceptable at the supper table. We may decide to use them anyway to attract attention. Along with words we learn to use intonation, gestures, facial expression, and many other features of communication to convey our meaning to persons around us. Most of our repertoire of communication strategies develops unconsciously, through assimilation of role models- persons we admire and would like to resemble to some extend- and the success we experience in our interactions. In childhood, peer as well as adult reactions are usually quite spontaneous and direct; they give immediate feedback on the way our meaning has been interpreted: That’s no way to talk your father! Just for that, I’m not going to play with you anymore.- All you ever do is talk about how great you are. You think you’re so smart!
Formal training in the classroom affords an opportunity to gain systematic practice in an even wider range of communicative activities. Show and Tell, an activity that has become an integral part of most preschool programs, provides an early opportunity to report to a group in a formal setting on a previously prepared topic. Group discussions, moderated by the teacher, give young learners important practice in taking turns, getting the attention of the group, one’s views, and perhaps disagreeing with others in a setting other than the informal family or playground situations with which they are familiar. Classrooms also provide practice in written communications of many kinds. Mother’s Day, business letters, and job application forms are routinely included in many school curricula and provide older learners with practical writing experience.
A concern communication extends beyond school years and into adult life. Assertiveness training, the development of strategies for conquering stage fright, and an awareness of body language-the subtle messages conveyed by posture, hand movement, eyes, smile-are among the many avenues to improved communication as adults. The widespread popularity of guides to improving communication within couples and between parents and children attests to our ever present concern with learning to communicate more effectively in our most intimate relationships, to understand and to be understood by those closest to us.
One of the important lessons to be learned here, as in other communicative contexts, is that what matters is not the intent but the interpretation of the communicative act. Conveyance of meaning in unfamiliar contexts requires practice in the use of the appropriate register or style of speech. If a women wants to sound like a business executive, she has to talk the way business executives talk when they are on the job. The same register would of course be inappropriate when talking of personal matters with a spouse or an intimate friend. Similarly, executives who must cope with an investigative reporter may be helped to develop an appropriate style. They need to learn how to convey a sense of calm and self-assurance. Effective communication in this particular context may require the use of language to avoid a direct answer or to hide ones intent while appearing to be open and forthright. In both instances an understanding of what is really happening, as opposed to what one would like to see happening, is the first step toward improved communication .
Communication, then, is a continuous process of expression, interpretation, and negation. The opportunities for communication are infinite and include system of signs and symbols (which we cannot begin to classify or even identify), of which language is but a part. The color of our skin, the way we dress, the way we wear our hair, the way we stand, smile, listen, nod, and pause all communicate to others along with the sound of our voice and the words we speak. We are concerned with communication from birth, and we learn to respond in new contexts as we accumulate life experiences. The meaning we intend and the meaning we convey are often not the same. In going from thoughts and feelings to their symbolic representation-in written or spoken words, gesture, design, color, movement, or sound-choices must be made. We make the best use we can of the symbolic systems we know. The meaning we convey depends on others who share an understanding of these symbols and who may or may not interpret them as we intend.
1. Matthews, P. H.(1991). Morphology (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. Pennington, M.C., & Stevens, V. (Eds.). (1992). Computers in applied linguistic. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.