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The Social & Cultural Functions of Language

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  • 0:05 Definition of Language
  • 0:45 Social Function of Language
  • 2:47 More Examples of…
  • 3:20 Cultural Function of Language
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
How or why do you say something? Do you ever relay the same message to different people in different ways? This lesson discusses the importance of language in interactions between people and how culture and language influence each other.

Definition of Language

Pretty much all of us use this in one form or another on a daily basis. It's not a fork, or a computer, or money. It's language, which is a system that helps people express thoughts, feelings, and meaning through symbols and sounds.

You've most likely been in situations where, despite speaking the same language as someone, you were kind of confused about what someone was saying. Or maybe you yourself said something you knew could've been said better. Here's the thing, it may have been as a result of the social and cultural aspects of language.

Throughout history, language has played important roles in social and cultural functions. Let's see how this is the case.

Social Function of Language

The social function of language refers to the way we relate language to our relationships with other people. This means it's how we use language and how we communicate in a social setting.

Let's take a look at a concrete example of this, using word meaning and word forms. We're going to pretend that you're in college and just started a new internship at a hospital and have gotten sick on day three. You're going to call your boss and mentor, a physician named Dr. Eric Smith, and ask him to take the day off. How are you going to do this? There are an infinite number of ways we can phrase this, but let's stick to two examples that we'll analyze.

Hey Eric. I'm sorry, boss. I feel sick to my stomach. I'm gonna need to take the day off.

Hi Dr. Smith. I'm sorry, boss, but I feel very sick today. I'm going to need to take the day off.

Notice how both examples convey the same idea. The meaning of the word boss is the same. The meaning of needing to take the day off is the same. The direct meaning of what you're trying to say is the same.

However, which of the examples uses word forms that are a socially acceptable way to communicate with your supervisor, who is also a physician? Clearly, it's the second example.

Here, we're using terms like 'Dr. Smith', instead of 'Eric'. And 'I'm going to', instead of 'I'm gonna'. The first example is too informal for a newly formed boss-employee relationship between a student and his or her supervisor or mentor, so the second example is more apropos unless Dr. Smith says it's okay to be on a first-name basis.

These are examples of indirect social cues we use in language to express how we view ourselves in comparison to someone else in society. The way we form phrases or words, despite their variations having the same meanings, helps us understand things like social standing when two people interact with one another.

The point is, it's not just enough to use language to communicate. You must also use it in a way that fits the type of social relationship you have with your audience.

More Examples of Social Function

We can go on and on with these types of examples. For instance, politicians need to decide how to talk to one type of audience to convey the same message they would try to convey to a completely different type of audience. In other words, they may use lots of technical terms to talk about tax reform with a group of accountants, but would speak in a totally different way to a general audience.

Another example of this would be the way you communicate with your teacher. Do you write emails to them like you would to a best friend of your age in school? Or do you write in a way that shows respect and deference to your teacher?

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