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Mar
13

LANGUAGE & POWER

rhetoric-words-politics-1348800099

THE POWER OF LANGUAGE

Published in The Sun 18 March 2013

CURRENT engagements with English language students and teachers in an international university reaffirm my view that regular use of the language – any language – is necessary to reinforce one’s proficiency.

Continuous reinforcement through reading and listening, speaking and writing is the key to raising one’s level of proficiency. Even at the highest levels of competency, consistent use of the language increases one’s communicative resources viz vocabulary, expression and discourse skills.

When asked how writing and speaking tasks are best managed, the mundane answer I often give is “preparation and practice”.

Nothing comes easy as I’ve learnt over the years as a student and teacher of English in the classroom, and now as a writer and speaker at more formal levels of discourse. Yes – no task is too mundane not to require the greatest attention to detail and in this, self-training and regular practice will up the ante in one’s language and communication skills.

For students in the classroom, drills are still the best method to hone the listening and speaking skills; regular practice in writing out phrasal collocations, sentences and paragraphs is the best way to consolidate their language use. In this there is no compromise.

That there is an inextricable link between language and communication is a tautology. The link, however, is so crucial to societal development that the truth of it has to be reiterated and reinforced in every aspect of our lives.

Language is at the nerve centre of human communication. Without basic competence in language, we are toothless tigers. With proficient and efficient language use we are empowered cats able to take giant leaps forward.

The role of language in effecting communication has long been touted by linguists and language educators. In every sphere of society, communication is essentially about how language functions to bring about certain effects or results in human endeavour, be it the academic pursuits of students or their leisure activities; social interaction or commercial transaction; legal argumentation or political rhetoric; religious sermon or media propaganda.

Effective linguistic communication in each of these fields ensures that some measure of success is achieved. Sometimes the success is tremendous.

Ideas and opinions couched in the most appropriate language viz choice of vocabulary and turns of phrases, logical structures, stress and emphasis, can move mountains.

Language use, like any other socio-cultural phenomena, is very much determined by conventions and rules of behaviour. Fairclough in Language and Power (1989) says that discourse is not only determined by social structure but has effects upon social structure and contributes to the achievement of social continuity or social change.

Just as economic advantage determines social class and power, linguistic agility in different discourses opens doors to the same power relationships. In fact, discourse is widely recognised as a place where “relations of power are actually exercised and enacted”.

Whether it’s in the face-to-face teacher/pupil talk or doctor/patient interaction, or the talking-down in political rhetoric or the one-way media discourse, control and power is exercised through their established patterns.

In the same way that there is overt power relations between communicators in face-to-face interactions, media discourse and political rhetoric designed for mass audiences who are largely anonymous, can be singled out as the language and communication arena where the exercise of power is tremendous.

One has only to listen to the speeches of certain politicians at home and abroad to realise the power of words. Leaders skilled in the art of rhetoric can hold sway over their audiences, influence their thinking and move them to do their bidding.

Those with the gift of the gab are likely to mesmerise their listeners, the most gullible being the semi-educated and under-exposed whose powers of discernment are untested.

At home, one has to observe the way some politicians condescendingly talk down to the people to realise that democracy and egalitarianism are still very much the slogans they tout rather than the principles they uphold.

The Malaysian people, on the other hand, need to be better trained in their listening skills. They must be able to pick out the substance from the mumbo-jumbo spewed by their leaders; they must see the wood through the trees and not be lost in the jungle of political rhetoric.

In this era of rapid communication where information can be accessed and assessed immediately, it is all the more urgent that people’s use of language is suited to the context.

While casual, informal communication or literary pursuits gives one the latitude to use language in creative ways, in formal situations one is convention-bound to exercise brevity.

Which means that before speaking or writing, one must be fully aware of the audience/readers and the level of their linguistic knowledge and skills so that the discourse is pitched at the right level. The audience/readers, on the other hand, should expect nothing less.

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6 Responses to “LANGUAGE & POWER”


  1. 1 Thumb Logic
    March 19, 2013 at 5:29 am

    Language is only a tool and we should not give it more importance than it deserves. Power comes from knowledge. And you can get it by using any language. English is an important tool because it is the language of the internet and knowledge. If one looks around you will find that many great minds of today and yesterday come from the non english speaking world.

    Our objective should be to create an informed society. But unfortunately we have been caught up in a debate over which language to use. I am inclined to believe that given our situation we need to know Bahasa Malaysia but at the same time we must also master the English Language.

    I hope that God will give the wisdom to our leaders to implement the Language Policy for the right reasons.

  2. 2 ninitalk
    March 20, 2013 at 8:27 am

    Agreed language is a tool – a very important tool whose importance cannot be underestimated. And I’m not disputing the importance of other languages.

    I’ve always argued that Bahasa Malaysia’s development as the national language and the language of official communication and academia will enhance its growth. It has the potential of being a world language if its community of users get bigger.

    Thumb logic – my point it, how else do you impart knowledge or acquire knowledge but through language? An “informed” Malaysian society as you put it can use English or Malay, or the other vernaculars to communicate thoughts, opinions, ideas, information, facts, knowledge etc if the audience/readers understand them. My point is you can convince, influence, sway, turn away etc your audience/readers if your language use is not properly managed and organised.

    I think there’s still a lot of room for Malaysian language users to raise their level of competency and sharpen their language skills.

  3. 3 Thumb Logic
    March 20, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    I fully agree with you that we can gain knowledge through the use of Bahasa Malaysia. But in matters related to language, if one of the objectives is to level the playing field then you have turned language which is only a tool into an ideology.

  4. 4 ninitalk
    March 20, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    You brought in politics Thumb logic – I didn’t

  5. 5 Thumb Logic
    March 23, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    But you did it first. It was politically undiplomatic of you to post such a photograph of the President of the US. He is a Head of State and has done minimal harm to Malaysia.

  6. 6 ninitalk
    March 23, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Thumb logic – the caricature is to illustrate political rhetoric, one use of language mentioned in the article. It could have been Churchill, Thatcher, Reagan, Clinton, Najib or even Anwar for they all had/have their own rhetorical style in making political speeches. Language has numerous other uses – literary, expository, statistical etc each with its own style and effects


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