Language defines, it evaluates, it organizes perceptions, allows for hypothetical thought and allows for self-reflection. The best example of the perceptual aspect of language only requires one to examine the communication issues between a natural English language speaker and a foreigner who has acquired English as a second language. The native speaker will use terms, phrases, words, and slang to imply ideas, concepts, and abstract thought to communicate. The foreigner will interpret everything by its literal definition and have no idea what the native speaker may mean and has great potential for humor.
To illustrate, my husband recently purchased a rubber foot chew toy for my two puppies. One evening, during their nightly play session under my feet, my husband leaned over and commented that the male had just stuck his foot in his mouth and I immediately and looked at the dogs to see if injury had occurred. My responding confused look towards my husband resulted in gales of laughter when he realized I had no idea he was referring to the rubber foot.
I do not belief the use of language by anyone is clearly understood since communication reflects cultural values and perspectives, and because symbols are abstract, ambiguous and arbitrary, the meanings of words are never evident of absolute. When all aspects of the common language are equal (i.e. both people have similar cultural, ethnic, geopolitical, and social backgrounds), common frames of reference can be found with little difficulty. The unique experiences of each individual still require verbal interaction and feedback to establish common terms, phrases and language. With my German background and my husband’s south Texas heritage, we often spend hours debating a particular topic only to realize at the end that we were saying the same thing at the onset, just using different words.
Verbal communication is also patterned by broadly understood rules, governing communication via two main concepts: Regulative and Constitutive. Much like the rules for social behaviors, rules exist for language behaviors depending on the setting and interaction between the speakers and the listeners. Contextual clues from the setting, the people, and the environment indicate to all parties the scope and boundaries of appropriate language interaction. By understanding the subtle variances in the language rules that occur in these different situations, and by understanding that the context of the communication can alter the meaning of the words, phrases and concepts, I can filter the message against these rules, contexts, and variations and select the most probable meaning and use this as a frame of reference for feedback in the communication process.
This is one of my personal weaknesses in that I am extremely literal in the interpretation of language and generally the multiple meanings that can be associated with specific words or phrases, escape me. Therefore I usually misunderstand the implied or subtle inferences and end up with the “deer in the headlights look” when the literal fails logic.