Language beyond words

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Sometimes I don’t pay attention when you talk to me.

I ask you a question, and you start answering, but I don’t really process exactly what you’re saying.

It’s not because I’m checking my email at the same time, and it’s not because I’m spacing out and paying attention to something else more interesting in the background. It’s because I’m focusing on the sounds of your vowels and consonants, the subtle intonation shift in the middle of your sentence, your body gestures, even the number of times you say “like” or “uh.”

There is so much to take away from your words than just the meaning of them.

Yes, I’m a linguist, and yes, I study language. But I hope that I’m not the only person that thinks language is the most powerful thing we’ve created.

Communication is key. That’s a lesson that I’ve learned many times over my life, and especially at Stanford. Communication resolves conflicts, empowers people, creates opportunity for growth and understanding — language is at the heart of it all. And ironically sometimes words fail to describe just how important language is to us.

So, I ask you — not as a linguist, but as a person — to live your life by the conversations that you have with people.

Listen to people. Not just the meaning of what they say, but the natural pauses they make in their sentences, their choice of words, the stress patterns of their sentences, how they’re using their hands to accentuate what they’re saying. What do they assume is common knowledge between you and them? Why do they trust you to interpret this particular meaning if their sentence is so ambiguous?

You might find that you discover so much more about their backgrounds and thoughts –- pick up on aspects that you don’t get from what’s coming out of their mouth.

And after you think you’ve figured some things out, don’t assume or suspect. Just ask.

Ask them what this word means to them. Tell them that you noticed that they hesitated before they continued talking and ask why. Tell them your side of the story and why you interpreted something the way that you did.

I promise you — you might get into a conversation more interesting than the standard small talk about struggle-busing through classes or not sleeping enough.

Listen to people. Not just in how you’re reacting to the words people say to you as an individual, but also how someone else might react to those same words. How would those same words be said to you if you looked different? If you thought differently? If you were different?

Language isn’t used equally from person to person, from relationship to relationship, from time to time. We talk in higher pitches when we’re approached by babies, we talk with higher number of syllables in academic speeches and we talk with different mannerisms when talking to family members.

We change our language according to who our audience is, almost naturally.

So when people talk to you, notice how they talk to you and how you talk to them.

Understand the specific relationship that you share. It’s unique, and it’s something that you don’t share with anyone else.

Listen to people. Not just Stanford students or the people that you respect. Even beyond the bubble, even beyond the bubbles that you’ll be in, there are more than enough conversations to remember, more people to meet, more stories to hear.

You’re not the only protagonist, and the combination of everyone’s narratives bumping and colliding makes the world that we know.

Value each one of them, and value your own.

So listen to people. The complexity of our language is one of the most unique things that we have as humans to interact with each other. I urge you to enjoy it.

Catherine Zaw

Contact Catherine Zaw at czaw13 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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Catherine Zaw was formerly the Managing Editor of News for Vol. 245 and Vol. 246. To contact her, please email [email protected]