The Importance of Language

Dear Alan,

How often have you heard the argument “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it”? Whether we’ve heard this much in your own life or not, chances are that you understand and agree with the sentiment. It’s totally different to scream “I don’t care” at the top of your lungs and slam the door behind you than it is to say “I don’t care” nonchalantly when asked what time you want to eat dinner. What you say absolutely matters, but HOW you say it perhaps matters even more.

PinterestI apologize in advance that this topic brings out the English teacher in me and, particularly, the vocabulary that goes along with it. However, stick in there with me! Understanding the importance of the language you use is something that will help you thrive in every aspect of your life—from conversing with your partner to writing an important report to communicating in a foreign language and beyond. This lesson is one it behooves you to learn whether you’re living across the globe from your home country or in your childhood home. Let’s start with the most basic elements of speech (and writing) and work through to the ones you may have never contemplated before.



The most obvious aspect of “how you say something” that comes to mind is tone. Just like in my initial example, the tone of voice (and the accompanying facial expressions, gestures, or actions) tells the person listening to you a lot about what you’re saying. It is through your tone that people can pick up on your intentions (ie. Are you telling a joke? Are you trying to persuade them of something?) and your mood (ie. Are you angry? Are you excited?). When communicating in person, it is relatively easy to ‘read’ this tone as you can compare the words being said to the indications of meaning accompanying them. Inferences into how well the two correlate can indicate to the listener if you’re being genuine, deceitful, sarcastic, etc.

Unfortunately, a lot of our communication these days does not happen in person and so we are left to convey tone only through the words on a page or screen. This can be dangerous, especially in the fast-paced world of texting and Whatsapp (read our tips about using this app in Spain here), because people often read a lot into the short messages we send to one another. It’s easy to infer a different tone than the writer intended and to get our feelings hurt or take offense to the intentions we thought they had. Write to someone in a language that is not your mother tongue and the trickiness multiplies exponentially! It can feel near impossible to convey your message clearly relying on tone alone so, hopefully, we make intentional choices about the following aspects of language, too.



Diction is essentially just a fancy way to say “word choice.” I could have simply said “word choice” but I intentionally chose to say ‘diction’ as you might feel slightly less familiar with ‘diction’ and therefore choose not to gloss over this section. See? Diction can be effective! While we tend to be rather thoughtful about our diction when we are writing we’re often far less conscientious with this when talking out loud. Based on the words I use, you’re probably making a judgment about my intentions and mood as well. Am I trying to impress? Am I trying to get a laugh? Your interpretation is subjective but if I choose my words mindfully it will hopefully be closer to my intended mood than not.

Communicating tone effectively over text can be very difficult.Paying attention to your diction can be especially important with communicating with someone who has limited understanding of your language (read more of our tips on that here) or when communicating in a language that is not your native one. Of course, it can be much harder to choose the most appropriate diction in a language you’re less familiar with but simply being aware that your language is too informal or formal for the occasion is a great start to expressing yourself more effectively.

Alternatively, when speaking to someone who does not share the vast knowledge of your language that you do, you’ll likely have to rely on more simplistic word choice. While this may sound easy I guarantee you that, in practice, it is a really good test of your abilities in your own language! Having to answer questions or explain more complex topics without the accompanying advanced language can be difficult! However, it is a great exercise for you to better consider the meaning and connotation different words can carry.


Certain words, just like symbols, carry different meaning for certain communities.Connotation

Finally, I’d like to speak about the importance of connotation. This is a term used in a number of different ways so the definition that I would like to focus on today is “commonly understood cultural or emotional association that some word or phrase carries.” While Cambridge and Merriam-Webster choose to define “connotation” in different words, I’m drawn to this definition because it speaks directly to the reality that the feelings or ideas associated with a word are often drawn along cultural lines. This can make it difficult to “get it right” in a language that is not your mother tongue. However, it can also make it easier to reach people who DO share your cultural or emotional associations.

There are many examples of how this can play into communicating in foreign languages but let’s take a more basic example of using our own language for now. Have you ever noticed that there are countless people out there—from influencers to researchers to religious leaders—spreading the same message but that you are inherently drawn to one more than another? Many of the core values of our religious philosophies are the same values many of us would agree with if the word “God” was left out of it all. In this way, tone and diction really come together to allow us to reach a particular population based on the message and way in which we believe they want to hear that message. There are definitely “buzz words” out there that appeal to certain communities and by recognizing them and choosing to use (or not to use) them according to the connotation they carry is an excellent way to target a certain audience.

A final example of this that I find around this time of the year is the term “new year’s resolution.” Personally, I find the idea of reflection and goal-setting at the beginning of the year to be useful. However, I recognize that many people feel it’s arbitrary to set goals simply because we’re changing out our calendars and that we could in fact do this just as effectively at any other time of the year. For this reason, I’ve actually grown a bit hesitant to talk about “resolutions” and instead opted for “setting intentions” as I feel like its connotation is more aligned with the meaning I place on these goals.


I try to keep all these connotations in mind as I plan my year’s goals or “intentions” as well.I don’t want my intentions to be grouped with the stereotypical new year’s resolutions that get binned after the first month of the year; I want them to be viewed as more serious undertakings. At the same time, the base of “resolution” (resolve) feels a bit harsh to me, like it will take great strength to change my ways. Of course, this is not the exact definition of “resolve,” but rather the feelings I have about it. On the other hand, “setting intentions” feels lighter to me; it feels more realistic and attainable as I’m articulating what I intend to do and therefore where I plan to put my (positive) energy. Again, this is not directly related to its definition but rather the connotation it carries based on who uses this terminology and in what way.

Do you find you’re making conscious choices about your language or is this something you could work on? Why is language important to you?


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