Human speech is a complex matter that has been subject to extensive study and debate. When considering our use of the spoken word it is helpful to take into account the wider context that affects and influences verbal communication. (There is not scope here to address language delay as part of specific psychological difficulties)
Our own emotional state influences our perceptions of what is being said to us, and can block the communitive process altogether. If we are wrapped up in our own feelings or concerns, we will not be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. Communication can be seriously hampered by a lack of awareness to the emotional climate. We need to be responsive to the feelings of those we work with colleagues as well as young people so that the quality and effectiveness of our interactions can be maximised.
In listening to young people we must make sure we hear their voices and respond with an open mind, not one that is closed by unquestioned assumptions.
We need to be attuned to the developmental level of the person or persons we with whom we are conversing. This relates to:
• Different levels of understanding between adults and children.
• Differences amongst children according to their level of maturity.
• Differences amongst those in terms of intelligence, educational attainment and life experience.
Failure to address these issues can undermine any attempts to develop rapport and make peoples’ problems worse by alienating them. Examples of how we do this are: speaking at a level above their heads (thereby undermining confidence and self-esteem) and by patronising them through speaking down to them.
There are no simple formulae to follow in judging the appropriate developmental level, so we need to become sensitive to such matters.
Language is a very powerful vehicle for reinforcing peoples’ low self-esteem. For example, use of critical and insensitive language by people in positions of power.
A considerable amount of information is conveyed not through what is said, but how we say it. The rate of speech, pitch, loudness and timbre of the persons’ voice speaks volumes. Try saying “Go Away” or “Shut Up” in as many different ways as possible and it is easy to recognise that often it is not so much what is said that matters, but how it is said.
The potential to reinforce or exacerbate discrimination and oppression is often misunderstood and frequently trivialised. Language transmits the dominant ideas that perpetuate inequality and disadvantage. For example, socialising children into sexism by the transmission of sexist ideas and assumptions from one generation to the next.
One problem with developing sensitivity to the discriminatory potential of language is that this is often trivialised. Many people see it as a simple matter of identifying ‘bad words’ and trying to avoid them, without necessarily understanding why they should be avoided.
This approach is characterised by the term ‘political correctness’. This term is itself indicative of the deeper problem. The fact that ‘political correctness’ has become a term of ridicule illustrates the basic point: the power of language to reinforce existing power structures. Because the development of anti-discriminatory practice has cast a light on the oppressive potential of language and the need for linguistic sensitivity, a new term has been coined to undermine and discredit the focus on the power of language.
Why is language so important?
Many of the young people we work with have not had the opportunity to learn the elaborate language-code of relating. In childhood they have often missed the chance of learning productive language skills in day-to-day dialogues and conversations with adults. Many of the adults who have cared for these children in the important early years of development may themselves have had restricted opportunities to develop this elaborate language-code.
Most of the young people with whom we work need to learn the skills of relating to people, to conduct satisfying relationships by applying recognisable verbal and non-verbal skills. Children learn by example, we are their role models. We need to encourage and enable the young people to understand that there are other ways of relating and to recognise the power of their language. They need to know that it is not only desirable, but also possible to change the way they speak.
It has been suggested by some language experts that up to 85% of communication is non-verbal, through tone of voice and inflection, body language, etc. It is helpful to reflect on the language that we use and the way we use that language.