Why does language matter anyway?

For most people, language is their primary way of interacting with the world and one another.

It is a way to make our thoughts visible for those around us and, as a way of making sense of our inner workings too. It is important to note at this point that not everybody communicates verbally and, although this little series will be focusing primarily on spoken language and the impact that it has on the way we think, this effect is not restricted to those who don’t use spoken language as their primary means of communication (because the language we use informs the way we think, which in turn affects the way we behave both at a conscious and subconscious level, which ultimately impacts those around us).


Continuing with the Total Communication Approach, I’d like to think about the communicative aspect of language that isn’t the method of transmission (non-verbal, language-based, symbol-based).

I’d like to think a little bit about ‘expressive communication’ and ‘receptive communication’.

Expressive communication is sending a message. Receptive communication is receiving a message.

All parties involved in an interaction will likely participate in both expressive and receptive communication, regularly switching and sometimes simultaneously inhabiting both roles. As expressed in a previous blog in this mini-series, communication includes body language, so a participant in a conversation could be communicating explicitly as the expressive communicator and the recipient of this message could be receptively communicating a direct response through their body language before providing a more explicit or deliberate receptive response through their preferred language. 

The ability to effectively communicate in either mode relies on several factors, such as: the communicators’ proficiency in the language(s) they are communicating in, the prior knowledge required to be communicating about the topic at hand and/or the environmental factors that may impede transmission of communication.

The other factor at play here is the balance between expressive and receptive communication skills. Some SENDs such as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) and others, mean that an individual may be able to be incredibly expressive, verbally or otherwise, in a way that is seemingly beyond their years.

Their receptive communication skills, however, may not match this, particularly, with unfamiliar people, in unfamiliar environments or under pressure.

For all individuals, receptive communication is often not as good as it would be otherwise in these conditions. This is something to bear in mind with all our students, but especially in those early sessions where we are getting to know our learners. It’s also something to hold onto when the communication appears to be poor: can we step back and be objective about the clarity of our expressive communication, as well as the environmental factors that might be impeding their reception at the other end? 

Communication is much more than language and requires a gigantic amount of brain power, as we constantly transmit and receive messages. So be gentle with yourself and your learners when you are tired – they probably haven’t missed the point on purpose!