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Interpersonal interactions occur through symbols or gestures. During communication, the sender is often unconscious of the subtle symbols he or she is communicates to the receiver. These symbols form the unconscious communication that develops into language.
Thus, ‘language as communication’ is the “communication through significant symbols” (Márkova & Foppa 2007, p. 11). Significant communication takes place when an individual is aware of the significance or meaning attached to his or her communication gestures by the recipients of the message.
According to Harris (2006), Mead, in his theory of communication, describes communication as “an evolutionary social process” that occurs in all interpersonal interactions (p. 15). In Mead’s view, language is similar to communication as it involves the use of symbols. Significant symbols are the gestures, vocal or otherwise, that elicits a relevant response or reaction from others to whom the message is intended.
Mead, in his classical work, Mind, Self and Society, details how social interactions shape an individual’s mind and self. The process of human interaction, from this perspective, is “an essential component of social order” (Harris 2006, p. 89). For Mead, an individual’s self-consciousness is a product of a social process, which precedes an individual’s personal experience.
In this regard, the ‘mind’ (an individual’s psychology) emerges within a social context of the process of communication. Mead identifies two stages of the communication process: (1) the communication gestures and; (2) the significant communication gestures, or language (Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch 2002). The two stages occur within a social context of interpersonal interaction.
In the exchange of gestures, the participants are often unaware of the responses their conversational gestures may evoke in others. In this regard, the individual cannot predict the others’ responses to his or her communication gestures. This constitutes the unconscious communication.
Language develops from the symbols conveyed unconsciously during communication. This indicates that communication is an evolving process. In this regard, language is a more advanced form of communication compared to non-significant gestures. It represents a shift to significant forms of human interaction.
In Shukla’s (2005) view, “language is communication through significant gestures” (47). Significant symbols are symbols (language) that elicit the same response or meaning both in the individual communicating the message and the others for whom the message is intended. Thus, in a significant communication, the participant comprehends the significance of his or her conversation gestures.
According to Vanderveken (1990) communication is a social process as it involves interpersonal interactions at different levels. It is through these interpersonal interactions that meaning emerges. No meaning can be associated with communication gestures or language unless two or more people interact.
The entire process of communication consists of the following elements: (1) an initial conversational gesture from one participant; (2) a response gesture from a second participant; and (3) the outcome of the exchange (Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch 2002).
In significant communication (language), an individual can predict the others’ reactions and thus, can intentionally communicate gestures that will elicit a certain response or reaction from the others. This differs from the non-significant conversational gestures as in the latter the individual is unaware of the meaning attached to his or her gestures.
It is this consciousness of the meaning of one’s own gestures that enables an individual to preempt the others’ responses to his or her gesture. This means that a communication symbol must evoke a response on the part of the receiver. In this context, the reaction refers to the ‘meaning’ attached to this gesture.
Significant gestures, which include language, “implicitly arouse in the individual making them the same responses as those explicitly aroused in the others to whom they are addressed” (Searle 2001, p. 67). This means that if the person to whom the gesture is intended fails to act, the sender can perform the same action. It is at this point that communication gestures become significant.
The significant symbols that have meaning to both the sender and receiver of the message form language. Mead relates the communication of significant symbols to the development of individual psychology. Mead argues that the communication of significant gestures or language defines one’s ‘mind’ or intelligence as it is only significant symbols that evoke thought processes in an individual (Leech & Thomas 1990).
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This implies that significant symbols constitute an implicit conversation that occurs within an individual. As such, the mind is a part of the interaction process. It is the product of relating the others’ responses to one’s gestures. Thus, the mind must involve an exchange of gestures via significant symbols or language.
Mead’s ‘social behaviorism’ theory describes the ‘mind’ as a product of the social interaction between individuals. In Mead’s view, the mind is not a distinct element that exists outside the human physiology, but rather it is a component of the human physiology (Blumer 1990).
Thus, Mead discredits both the behavioral view, which characterizes the mind as a component of neurology, and the traditional view, which holds that the mind is a distinct, separate structural entity. The behavioral perspective perceives the mind as a part of the human system. Therefore, mental behavior is characteristic of a physiological being (Wilson 1991).
In view of this, the process of internalization of conversational gestures is only possible if the mind is a component of neurology. In other words, the comprehension of significant communication (language) made possible through mental processes. The significant symbols are created through the social process of interaction.
The interpersonal interactions within the social contexts create the mind. Thus, it is only through involvement in communication that a person comprehends the social meaning of the significant symbols. The mind plays a role in the internalization of the significant symbols and organization of thought processes (Halliday 1990).
In Mead’s view, the mind is “the linguistic behavior of an individual” (Ramus, Nespor & Mehler 2000, p. 89) during interpersonal interactions. As such, there can be “no mind or thought without language, which is a product of social interaction” (Ramus Nespor & Mehler 2000, p. 192). In this view, language is the emergent communication that arises from a continuous social process that shape individual experiences.
Communication occurs when one person conveys or transmits meaningful and significant symbols to a receiver, with an aim of eliciting an appropriate response or reaction (Anderson & Lightfoot 2002). The symbols make up the message. An example of spoken word is the delivery of content during a classroom instruction or a university lecture.
This example is described by Anderson and Lightfoot (2002). This activity involves the communication of symbols, which can only be understood by members of a particular class, group or culture. Furthermore, the individual making the delivery (the teacher or lecturer) must understand the need for conveying such a message to the members of the group.
This implies that he or she must be conscious of the response or reaction his or her communication will elicit in the target group. Likewise, the receivers (students) must understand the meaning attached to the symbols (words) delivered through verbal communication.
In Mead’s terms, the symbols must be significant and possess meaning. The symbols delivered during a lecture must be understood and internalized by the members (mind) for communication to have meaning. Moreover, both the sender (lecturer) and receiver (student) must be familiar with the circumstances (language or symbols).
Communication is a form of social interaction that involves two or more people, the sender and the receiver(s). An example of written communication is a report by a committee as described by Bach and Harnish (2001). The report, which is authored by all committee members, contains the set of symbols that the committee wants to communicate to the receivers.
It is, therefore, a form of written communication from the senders (committee) to receivers. Listening to the presentation and responding appropriately is a social process that gives meaning to the significant symbols (language) exchanged during the interaction.
Mead states that for communication to take place, the symbols must be significant and meaningful. This means that the sender and the receiver(s) must both be familiar with the meanings attached to the language symbols (Bach & Harnish 2001). It is after comprehending the meanings attached to the symbols that the receiver can act in an appropriate way.
This implies that, in any language, symbols must be arranged in some form of schema for them to have meaning to both the sender and the receiver. This also applies to non-verbal communication that uses conversational gestures.
An example of non-verbal communication relates to the use of facial expressions. This example is drawn from the non-verbal symbols described by Bach and Harnish (2001). Facial expressions are used to display anger, disgust or joy, which are non-significant gestures, but have meaning. The meaning assigned to these symbols is specific to certain social or cultural contexts.
This paper presents the perspective of “language as communication” and analyzes the interpretation of communication symbols in interpersonal conversations. This perspective holds that the conversation of significant symbols (language) is what constitutes communication.
According to Joas (1990), the mind facilitates an individual’s internalization of the significant symbols, which must have meaning. The ‘language as communication’ perspective differs from the traditional view, which states that the mind is a separate entity that exists outside the body (Joas 1990).
It also discounts the behavioral perspective, which holds that the mind is a component of human neurology and physiology (Joas 1997). The ‘language as communication’ perspective is consistent with the behaviorist view that the mind is an innate function of all humans. The neurological and physiological components, though necessary, do not determine mental behavior (Joas 1997).
It is the mind that facilitates the internalization of significant symbols during a communication process. ‘Language as communication’ involves significant symbols or gestures. It is only when the symbols are understood by the receiver that they have ‘meaning’. ‘Meaning’ implies that the conversation symbols evoke an appropriate response as the one anticipated by the sender.
Mead’s use of the words “significance” and “meaning” interchangeably raises ambiguity. Mead implies that significant gestures must be meaningful. However, in some instances, the meaning of a non-significant gesture is the response that is received from the others and vice-versa (Marcus 2004). This means that a non-significant gesture can also have meaning.
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