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What Is the Special Significance of Language?

We learn language completely from audio cues—by listening. We do this because human brains are hard-wired, or genetically prewired, to learn language by listening as infants. Interestingly, we are not even consciously aware that we are cognitively learning. Before we had the ability to speak words, others could understand us. Our species survived and advanced by making other members understand with nonverbal cues. For more than a million years, children communicated to their mothers that they were hungry. Men communicated to women, and women to men, that they were interested in each other as partners. Hunters collaborated on big animal kills long before a word was spoken. Man even showed others how to start and keep a fire going long before there were words for such things. Anthropologists believe that the spoken word appeared on the scene between 350,000 B.C. and 160,000 B.C.—that’s a long time spent using grunts, pointing, and relying on body language.

The special significance of language as a great idea lies in the fact that it is related to all other great ideas, insofar as ideas and thoughts are expressed to other persons mostly in language.

In his dialogues, Plato used Socrates as a character and continually called attention to the slippery nature of words and how sometimes words conceal thoughts as well as express them. In more modern times, philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke wrote about the abuse of words and how to use language. Today we view language a bit as an enemy—a barrier to communication and a tyranny of words. Debate even centers on whether communications and speech are the same thing.

A time will likely come when you have to give a presentation or speech. If you do not capture the attention of the audience with your communication skills, you will hear the crickets chirping because no one is listening to you. Then you will become another example of what not to say in a presentation. Maybe you are one of the lucky individuals who will not have to endure an interview or give a presentation. Nonetheless, you will have to communicate at some point. With the addition of texting, instant messaging, email, and social networking, we have few reasons to physically write a complete message and send it to a recipient anymore. However, if you choose to send a message, remember that it is a permanent reflection of you. This is how this book can help you.

History has seen many examples of memorable quotes that demonstrate that how someone says something is just as important as what he or she says. For example, when Lyndon B. Johnson was stumping for political office, he was asked the difference between himself and his opposing candidate. He famously replied, “He matriculated and I never matriculated.” Some of the most famous speeches Abraham Lincoln made are memorable not just for their message, but also for the fact that Lincoln condensed an enormous amount of information into them. His second inaugural speech was a mere 700 words, and the Gettysburg Address was just under three minutes. Beyond his words, his cadence gave those speeches more power.

Power verbs express an action that is to be taken or that has been taken. Used correctly, a powerful verb has the power to impact your life, whether you are going into battle, running for president, or simply interviewing for a job.

Researchers have observed that, when students are given standardized tests and told that the tests are “intelligence exams,” the average scores are 10 percent to 20 percent lower than when the same exam is given to similar students who are told that it is “just an exam.”

We know that words create ideas, impressions, images, concepts, and facsimiles. Therefore, the words that we hear and read influence how we think and, consequently, how we behave. Thus, there is a correlation between the words we select and use and the results that occur.

The words we use, and the impact they have, can even be impacted by our background and other influences. Consider the words buy and invest. If you are selling life insurance, you want the customer to buy now, but in your mind, the purchase is a long-term investment. The premiums will be invested, the face value of the policy will grow, there will eventually be loan value, and the investment will appreciate beyond the purchase price. However, the customer thinks in terms of a purchase decision and how much it costs. The issue comes full circle if the customer does buy and wants the insurance company to make good investments with the premium.

Nan Russell, writing for Career Know-How, introduces this word choice: problem or challenge? Would you rather have your boss see your mistake as a problem or a challenge? Is it just semantics? Problems are fixed; challenges are met. Different words evoke a set of different emotions and different feelings. People usually have a much more positive feeling about “meeting a challenge” than “fixing a problem.”

Power verbs can have medicinal benefits if used correctly, but consider this warning about words used inappropriately: They can actually cause individuals to become ill. In a published study on pain, researchers used functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRI) to examine how 16 healthy people processed words associated with experiencing pain. The brain scans revealed which parts of the brain were activated in response to hearing the words. In the first experiment, researchers asked the participants to imagine situations that corresponded to words associated with pain (such as excruciating, paralyzing, and grueling), as well as situations that corresponded to negative but non-pain-associated words (such as dirty and disgusting) and both neutral and positive words. In the second experiment, the participants read the same words but were distracted by a brainteaser. In both cases, the results showed a clear response in the brain’s pain-processing centers to the words associated with pain, but no such activity pattern arose in response to the other words. Researchers say that preserving painful experiences as memories in the brain might have been an evolutionary response to allow humans to avoid painful situations that might be dangerous (www.webmd.com/pain-management/news/20100402/words-really-do-hurt).

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