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The impact of language and the words we choose

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There are approximately 7.7 billion people living in the world today and approximately 7000 languages (Nelson, 2021; Eberhard, Simons & Fennig, 2021). However, forty percent of these languages are thought to be endangered and the indigenous language of my own Cornish heritage is one of them (Eberhard, Simons & Fennig, 2021).

There is no doubt that language plays an important role in society. It helps people communicate, brings people together, and helps people share knowledge so that learning can occur. It also helps inform, comfort, and explain as well as aid identity as shared cultural practices and words connect people together from a specific area. Yet, when a language becomes extinct, a local community loses the generational knowledge and stories held within it, as well as part of their identity (Payton, 1997, Renkō-Michelsén, 2013).

On an individual level, without a language that is understood by those around you, you can instantly become isolated and unaware of how to make connections which can lead to a loss of belonging. Language loss can also take away a person's voice, particularly when there is a language shift due to political or social discrimination as a whole population becomes powerless to decisions and actions that take place through the dominant group, which can lead to discrimination and detrimental practices occurring (McLeod, 2011; Connell, 1989).

When we think about the number of languages there are in the world, it can also make you wonder how easy it could be for misinterpretations to occur. A word in one language can have a different meaning in another, or even have several meanings in its own language. Some languages have words that describe situations or scenarios that aren’t specifically translatable to a word known in another language. And then some languages have their own informal language code within it that misalign with its original meaning. With this in mind it is clear that the intricacies of language is complex, yet it is also something we can easily take for granted; particularly if we are in a country where the majority speaks the same language as ourselves.

When you are a native speaker of the language you are talking in, words roll off your tongue without much thought. Even the most well-meaning comments you say, can still find themselves offending the person beside you, who you grew up with, who shares the same contextual language understanding of the message you are delivering. However, the person beside you, knows you. They know the context behind the meaning to the words you say, and they understand the intent behind the message being delivered. Yet, these complex scenarios aren't as clear to someone you may not know as well. Assumptions and judgements creep in and it can be easy for misunderstandings and misinterpretations to occur.

Depending on the person, the response may be reactive and fuelled by emotion or inactive and internalised. Or perhaps pondered on for some time before coming to a conclusion or discussed with others to gauge differing viewpoints. How often do people calmly talk further to discuss the viewpoints and try and meet in the middle, perhaps agreeing to disagree or recognising two viewpoints come from two different life circumstances and situations? Or perhaps a conversation can't occur because the language barriers that created the misunderstanding to begin with, are too deep to address fully to help realign realities.

Then we come to the point of whether we need our realities to align. A healthy discussion and debate can reveal opposing viewpoints where both may be valid. Yet difference of opinion is a natural part of the world we live in, and are needed to help us appreciate different contexts, situations, experiences, and cultures.

So, what happens when our internal judgements and beliefs shape the words we use and cause harm to others? Either unconsciously because we are so aware of our own beliefs and experiences we find it hard to see another perspective, or consciously because we're set on our own thought patterns and feel threatened by someone younger, or by someone who is of a lower status to ourselves because there is merit in what they say? What they say and believe may make sense to you but may go against what you've been fighting for or the ideology you've been working within for several years. How does one handle that? Are individuals even aware of the way they choose to handle these internal conflicts and how they show up in the world?

Then there are the words we use to put others down and put blame on another person. This happened because it's your fault, you caused it. We see and hear about it in the court room to try and excuse unlawful and wrong behaviour, and we hear it used in power play bullying, harassment, and abusive scenarios.

Whilst we may not always get our words right, we may be misunderstood for several different reasons or there may be an intent with the words we choose to use which is not honourable. I for one have lost count of the number of cringe-worthy things that have come out of my mouth! Not intentionally getting tongue tied, but realising after the fact that my chosen words could be misinterpreted, or the tone I used wasn't quite right or my message was given to the wrong audience and could have been delivered in a better way!

Like with everything in life, we are all a work in progress and aren't perfect. Yet there are things we can do to help one another to be more mindful of our communication differences.

1. We can communicate openly by clarifying misunderstandings as well as showing we care about the thoughts and viewpoints of another, even if we don’t agree or fully appreciate where the other person is coming from right now. This helps us to receive more information rather than base our judgements on an initial emotional response that may have triggered an interpretation that may not have been the intended message.

2. We can also reflect on the choice of words we use and where these assumptions or interpretations have originated from. We can also think about how these judgements can potentially impact upon others in a detrimental way.

3. We can also be open to learning and growing as people as we get an insight into a perspective that has been shaped by circumstance or life experience that may be very different to our own.

Whilst we won't always get it right, we do owe it to ourselves, our family, our friends, our colleagues, our community, and our society to have an open mind and to come from a place of good. By doing this we can start to understand the world we live in and work towards making it a better place for everyone.


Connell, S. J. (1989). Beyond Guilt: A handbook on racism. Wellington, New Zealand: Continuing Education Unit, Radio New Zealand.

Eberhard, D.M., Simons, G. F., & Fennig, C.D. (2021). Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Twenty-Fourth edition. SIL International.

McLeod, J. (2011). Student voice and the politics of listening in higher education. Journal of Critical Studies in Education, 52(2), 179-189.

Nelson, B. (2021). How many people are there in the world?

Payton, P. (1997). Identity, ideology and language in modern Cornwall. In Hildegard L.C. Tristram, ed. The Celtic Englishes. Heidelberg: Winter.

Renkō-Michelsén, R. (2013). Language death and revival: Cornish as a minority language in UK. Esuka-Jeful, 4(2), 179-197.


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