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Language and communication


May 30, 2016 by Akane Kuma

During my CAS Trip to Qingdao, I had a chance to interact with people with autism and down syndrome. I enjoyed my stay there and they taught me many things in return but as I think back, one of the biggest challenge was communication. As a non-native Chinese speaker, using and listening Chinese was a huge difficulty given that some of them spoke in dialect and some of them simply could not speak clearly. Language is one of our ways of knowing and plays an important role in communication. However, during the trip, they seemed to understand what I meant. This experience lead me to wonder how communications are done. How do we understand each other when language cannot be shared?

To think of that, I first wondered why and how did I know they understood me. I knew they understood what I meant because they replied me with words and sometimes laughs. This sounds more like sense perception. Those words and laughs are expressed and I caught those messages–hearing, feeling, seeing and talking. When I could not understand their words, I focused on their body languages and the tone of their speech. Smiles and laughs are universal language for happiness. I started to do what entertained them, using their body language as feedback. Then I realized that they are doing the exact same as I was doing. One child showed high concentration to my gestures and facial expression. He seemed to do things which made me laugh or smile. This was so similar to what I was doing!

This realization derived by empirical reasoning lead me to think languages less important when doing simple communication. Language is important, of course, when translating personal knowledge into shared knowledge. Mathematics, literature, economics, biology…textbooks are written in languages. To share what we know personally, we must (at least for current technologies) first edit our language so that others could understand. Without language, it would be extremely hard to communicate complex ideas.

However, language is not everything. Speaking of my own experiences, experience such as how to ride a bicycle can be shown but cannot be expressed though languages. I guess my interaction with people with autism and down syndrome are experiences similar to riding a bicycle. Communication between me and them did not require language because I showed them and they showed me back. And I thought, that repeated gesture is our common language.

When we told them that we are not coming back, one of them immediately started crying. There is so much going on that moment which makes me come back constantly. As soon as I saw him cry, tears rushed through and I had no control over it. The next thing I know is that we hugged each other and both of us could not stop crying. Now, thinking of that moment from the perspective of language, that is a moment when emotions are shared through common language of sadness–crying. If we did not share this sign of sadness and if one of us did not understand what that tears meant, this moment would not happened. Non-verbal communications can communicate complex ideas such as sadness. Power of verbal and non-verbal communications both have limitations and they work complementary.


  1. Nancy Jung says:

    I enjoy your post! I agree on your idea that language, one of WOKs, plays a vital role on communication. I also experience the similar situation like you do. When I am petting a dog, I can understand that the dog with shaking its tail is happy. On the other hand, when the dog is growling and showing its teeth, I can understand that the dog is not pleased with my action. At this moment, I judge the dog’s emotion by its (body) language according to shared knowledge.

    You mention about the common language, and state that smile and laugh are the universal languages for happiness. Our personal knowledge often reflects the shared knowledge of our communities. But do smile and laughs really are the sign of happiness? There is a Chinese word called 笑里藏刀. It generally means someone behind the smiling eyes lurks the evil. I don’t think ‘smile’ indicates happiness in this case. Then we can investigate the relationship between shared and personal knowledge to understand how two types of knowledge interact to create people’s worldviews. How does the shared knowledge form? How the shared knowledge shaped personal knowledge?

  2. cathyk says:

    Language certainly plays a key role in communication, as it allows you to express your thoughts and feelings. However, like you said, it’s not the only means for people to interact. Your observation that body languages is a way for people to communicate ideas led me to think of how paintings–as in arts as an area of knowledge–can also do the same.

    People say “a picture is worth a thousand words.” This form of non-verbal communication could indeed be very powerful at times. Think about propaganda, such as the posters in the Soviet Union during the Cold War–they all condemn capitalism and portray the west as a menacing nemesis. Even though propaganda has limited language, it can still convey messages to people and evoke patriotic emotions. Also, if you walk into an art museum and see a piece of work, though you cannot hear the artist’s explanation of the work, you may still understand his or intentions, feelings and the messages he or she is trying to tell you. It will also evoke your emotions, and that’s what makes art so powerful.

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