What is Language?

I’ve discussed many different tips for learning new languages, but on my site I’ve never covered one of the most basic questions:

What is language?

I answer this question in depth in my book Language Master Key, but here on my main site I want to look at things from a different perspective.


Image Source

Hampi Ruins – India
Image Source

Where I’m coming from

Before I get into it, let me say that I’m not a linguist (a scientist who studies language).  So what you’re getting here is not any kind of textbook definition, but rather a discussion based on my personal experiences and observations.

Also, I’m not going to cover programming languages or body language. I’m going to limit this discussion only to spoken languages.

Show me what you can do

Instead of coming up with a glib one-line definition that you can read in a dictionary, I think it’s much more useful to describe what a language actually does.

A language:

  • Communicates ideas among people. The key word here is “people,” plural. Spanish, French, Chinese, and Arabic do not exist without people to speak it, write it, hear it, and read it. And a language requires more than one person. Even in a single exchange, someone has to send out a message and another person has to receive it eventually.
  • Represents the “real” world. When a toddler wants the banana that’s tucked away in the cupboard, he’s not able to point at it and grunt. He has to say, “Banana!” or “Nana!” or “Bana!” for his mom to understand what he wants. The word stands in for something that’s beyond his senses and allows him to let his mom know what’s on his mind. Similarly, when you say you “love” someone, the word “love” stands in for the emotion you’re feeling, which is also beyond your senses. So in one sense, language isn’t “real.” Language is like a play and the words are the actors, and they’re all removed from the “real” world they’re imitating. (Remember this the next time someone lies to you. Instead of being upset that you were deceived, appreciate what a miracle it is for language to be accurate at all.)
  • Follows patterns consistently enough so that entire communities can understand each other. You and your friends might not be using formal grammar when you talk to each other, but you’re using some kind of grammar. Your speech follows some kind of pattern. If your rural friend told you, “I ain’t got no money,” his speech might not be “correct” but you understand exactly what he’s saying.
  • Helps people fulfill their needs and their wants. Language is one of our primary ways to take care of our needs, such as food, shelter, and love, as well as our wants, such as entertainment. When I lived in Germany and didn’t speak the local language, I became extremely aware of this reality. Hungry? I needed to know how to talk to a waiter, read a menu, or even read store signs telling me where the grocery store is. Wanted to rent a house? I had to talk to a landlord and understand the lease (which was thankfully translated into English). You probably take for granted how much language helps you get by in your day-to-day life because it is as ubiquitous as air.

So what?

Let’s bring this back around to the studying of foreign languages, since that’s the focus of my site.

With all this in mind, what can you do with this info?

Maybe keep a few things in mind.

First, pay attention to the fact that languages begin and end with people. When your nose is in a textbook or you’re learning vocabulary words, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that what you’re ultimately after is communicating better with other people. For example, you can study Spanish grammar and absolutely master subjunctive sentence constructions, but what good is that skill if you don’t have any sense of how it will help you communicate with shopkeepers during your visit to Spain?

Hong Kong at Night Image Source

Hong Kong at Night
Image Source

Second, remember that you don’t need to be perfect to get 90% of the benefits of a language. You just need to be good enough. As a resident of the United States, I see people (even in my own family) who come here speaking imperfect English, who are able to work, go to school, make friends, start and maintain romantic relationships, and basically live. They use what they’ve got, as well as a hefty dose of common sense. If you’re planning to become a language professor or work in a communication-heavy field, you probably need to hold your language to a higher standard. But if you’re not, then experience shows that you can get by even if your language skills are far from perfect.

Third and finally, understand that since languages aren’t “real,” it is extremely difficult to communicate accurately and truthfully. For example, let’s say that your wife asks you, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” There are multiple truthful answers to this question. You could say, “Yes,” which might be truthful because it accurately reflects your opinion. Or you could say, “No,” which might be truthful because it accurately reflects that you love your wife and you don’t want to hurt her feelings. Both options are truthful in their own way. Whether you learn a lot of a new language or a little, you have to figure out how to use what you’ve got with the finesse required to navigate communication’s tricky waters.

Wrapping Up

Now it’s your turn. What do you think language is? Leave your thoughts in the comments.