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Language as A Social Construction

June, 2008
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For my final article this academic year, I determined I could be a little indulgent and write about something that is one of my passions in education, the social construction of language and how we make meaning of this language. Here, I am mindful to express that it is dangerously easy to talk about universals and to speak too readily about absolute and eternal values. I need to preface this article by stating that I discuss the topic of language using a certain ‘public domain’ of knowledge and language.

  As part of literature studies, students learn to not only analyse language, but to look at the origins of language and indeed the epistemological questions of what are the origins of knowledge, and how language operates within this paradigm. Students learn to embrace the notion that language is a constructed means of communication that has been invented, to not only convey meaning but to influence readers in how they might view the world.

  We learn patterns of thought through learning language in a social context; it is this familiar world that the writer animates. This would suggest that if language were a social construction created as a patterned system of communication, reflecting our social context, then, it follows that language is culturally ordained. The forms and the categories of language, therefore, reflect the social mores and codes of the society in which we live. At this point, there exists a plethora of schools of thought, which present the role of language in different ways. The French led the way on the deconstruction of language, viewing it as a socially class-conscious voice of influence. Of course, Karl Marx bares a mention here, but it was really the Post-Structuralists and the Post-Modernists who viewed language as a powerful tool of class consciousness and clandestine class control. In short, language brought about a “cause and effect” process. In the very early writings of Jean Paul Sartre, he took the function of language as a system of maintaining society’s class structure status quo. Sartre supported this argument by looking at early writings, and asserted that literature was written and viewed by the privileged, and that its purpose was to keep language (and knowledge) as accessible only to its contemporaries who were given to understanding the socio-cultural content.

  The French Post-Modernists and Post-Constructuralists who followed continued to develop this idea, that language was a consciously systematised process, designed to promote the interdependence of all parts of society (through language) in order that society may maintain subversive control over the masses. The Post-Modernist and the Post-Structuralist argue that language systems of knowledge were developed to perpetuate a particular balance in our class-conscious world. Therefore, those with access to higher-order language skills and thinking were likely to be the privileged classes, who would maintain control. The likes of Derrida, Lyotard and Focuault (early Post-modernist and Post-Structuralist) supported this idea.

  In the classroom, the students read literary extracts and look at the discourse and ways of making meaning. We ask the question:

  What are the possible readings of these texts?

  How might this text be viewed in a different social context?

  What language does the text support which gives a particular dominant reading response? Does the literature support a marginalised reading, that is, a response that supports a marginalised group of people?

  In writing and reading literature, we establish the norms for the kinds of thinking that are valued and appropriate in our social context. As a cognitive reading process, writers can exploit our constant readiness to posit a mind whenever we observe certain behaviours that are culturally familiar to us in a text. We, as readers, are called upon to supply the missing information. In Literatrue, we call this “filling in the gaps”. In its simplest form, we can consider, any “happy ever after” story, which provides a princess and a prince, a conflict and a conclusion to the conflict which, in turn, unites the two central characters. This genre is a well-understood discourse in given social contexts. As readers, we fill in the gaps because we are familiar with the dominant reading response. We could argue that this type of story defines it audience.

  Literature and meaning-making become more interesting when we enter into the analysis of more complex literature that demands us to actively become a meaning-maker in the text. This can be the result of being given a series of actions or fragmentary comments and we, as readers, have to construct a mental analysis from the observable actions and from what the protagonist chooses to report. Therefore, reading fiction allows us to try out different ways of viewing the text. Clearly the role of the reader here is to take an active reading role, to bIMG_2674ecome a part of the cognitive process, and to construct a state of mind behind a character.

  Moreover, the relative popularity of literature depends on the specific cultural circumstances in which it is produced and disseminated, and the tastes of the individual readers. What is clear is that we never approach a text as tabular Rosa; we come to a text with social and historical assumptions that influence how we view a text. I think as a subject area this nebulous understanding of literature is what makes literature more interesting as a subject, but as a reader, we have a historical character, and we are consciously and unconsciously immersed in this history. As writer Blaise Pascal wrote, “We are in the thick of it……marked and compromised down to the deepest refuge.”

By Laraine Reason

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