Language, the Mega-Variable


Email Sandra Nichols

  " I'm fairly sure you will hear ABSOLUTELY used frequently by politicians and other movers and shakers whose opinions are asked by the media. That's because it is the power word. They must use it to confirm their power."

have always been a fan of language. I appreciate a clever turn of phrase. And so it was only natural for me to become a "Language Specialist".

Language, the mega-variable, is the special phenomena that distinguishes us of the human persuasion from other animal species.

Yes, of course, animals communicate. They put their ears back, show their teeth, wag their tails, make animal noises. A chimpanzee can even learn sign language and actually express thoughts and feelings using symbols they have been taught. But animals do not create highly symbolic, coding systems meant to share information with others, which is what human beings have done over the centuries, in developing human language. (My apologies to any species who may be using language, unbeknownst to me!) Moreover, animals never sit around and chat about language!

Language, the mega-variable, is one of the deep connections we have with our past, our families, our culture and our countries of origin.

Our own native language sounds good to us. We heard it when we were babies! It is strongly associated with love and having our needs met. It is in our linguistic comfort zone.

Language, the mega-variable, can bring us together or it can separate us into distinct groups which have little chance of inter-relating socially and professionally.

Language is what enables people to connect with each other via verbal interaction. Through language we negotiate our difficulties, seeking a peaceful and just solution to those infernal problems which come up.

The fact is that people don't always speak the same language and this hinders our chances of connecting in a significant way.

While dining with some old friends who have recently become new neighbors, it came to light that several want to learn Spanish. In moving to Watsonville from their previous residence in an English-only enclave, they expressed being touched by the fact that their new community has large numbers of people with whom they can not talk. They hope to break the language barrier and reach out to all their new neighbors. They want to communicate directly with the whole community.

I was encouraging them to sign up for an intensive Spanish class at Cabrillo. One commented, "I'd do that, but I'm afraid I'm just too old to learn a second language."

You are not too old to learn a second language. It's not dangerous! It doesn't hurt! Learning a second language is a mental challenge which is good for you at any age. And besides, this belief about children learning language so much better than adults isn't really true - although so many people believe it. Adults can learn language as fast as children, as long as they aren't afraid to make mistakes.

Of course, children are used to making mistakes and adults are used to being competent, so a paradigm shift is required. If you get over that issue of feeling embarrassed for making a mistake, you can learn to speak another language. It just takes time, desire, and an opportunity to practice where you are not overly humiliated for limited competence.

I have to admit that adults do have more difficulty than very young children mastering new sounds, which generally makes them speak with a strong accent in the second language.

Language, the mega-variable, and your use thereof, can impress or annoy, delight or harass. It can deceive. It can cut to the heart of the matter. It can amuse.

I like to "watch my language" and that of others. I am frequently amused by language. And I will end this outburst regarding language by sharing one of the things which is amusing me these days about language.

You've heard of the power lunch and you've seen the power tie, but have you noticed the emergence of the power word? Currently, the power word is ABSOLUTELY.

Now that I mention it, I'm fairly sure you will hear ABSOLUTELY used frequently by politicians and other movers and shakers whose opinions are asked by the media. That's because it is the power word. They must use it to confirm their power.

Somebody asked, "Is it a power word in Spanish, too? ABSOLUTAMENTE!

You can use the power word yourself. No charge! Use it in situations in which you are put on the spot to defend a position or answer in the affirmative. Use it when a simple "yes" won't do. It shows forceful confidence. It insinuates that you have considered all sides of an issue and now you know there is only one right answer. It exudes omnipotent strength and wisdom.

Yes, language is a mega-variable in our community. The bottom line is a picture of people reaching out across language barriers making connections and learning to talk to each other. Should we all get together and communicate? ABSOLUTELY.

Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist and the Vice President of the PVUSD School Board. Her opinions are not necessarily those of the school board or of the Register-Pajaronian.

Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools in Santa Cruz, California and sits on the Governing Board of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. This essay was first published in the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian, ***date***. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

© Sandra Nichols 2002