Language and mediation:
usage, perception and interpretation




United Kingdom


Mediation may be considered an act of communication and, therefore, the language employed in this type of exchange may also be viewed as an essential component of this process. The question should be raised as to how far we are aware of the effects of the language we use in the delicate mediation context. Often an inappropriate use of language may lead to a communication breakdown. In an increasingly international community such a consideration takes on a significant importance, as we face the prospect of attempting to communicate across language and cultural barriers.
* It is the intention of this lecture to address some of these problems, and in particular to examine some of the linguistic implications for the improvement of mediation techniques.
* How should a mediator be trained in terms of language use?
* Is it possible to make mediators more sensitive to the way in which subjects use or manipulate language?
* What practical applications are there in the development of such skills?
In this way it is hoped to open a wider debate on how language and mediation are closely linked.



Language and mediation: usage, perception and interpretation


In recent years the concept of 'mediation' and 'mediator' have stimulated an ever increasing interest in conflict management techniques (Haynes, 1994) as a means of resolving disputes, which may arise within the family, at school, at work or, indeed, in any context where disputes may be found. The term mediation would imply building a form of bridge between two conflicting parties in order to bring about reconciliation. The tool which allows the building of this bridge is language, and the mediator's effective use of this instrument is an essential part of his or her professional expertise.
In the first part of this paper, language will be discussed as component of the communication process. Attention will be focused on language use and usage, how language is perceived by the speaker/listener and finally how it may be interpreted on a semantic-metaphorical basis. In conclusion considerations will be made concerning the training of mediators in the effective use of language to carry out the task of resolving conflictual situations.

Views of language

The first question which we may raise is: What is language? The answer is not as simple as it seems. Language itself can be interpreted on different levels. It is not only the production of the written and spoken word, but the process by which this is brought about.
Attempts have been made to investigate the underlying nature of language in order to identify those universal principles which may have a value for all languages. Chomsky (1965) takes up the problem from a purely abstract point of view, in the sense that his theory concerns:
An ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech-community, who knows its language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance (1965: 3).

This is with the aim of creating a basis for the study of language on as purely scientific principles as possible. It is for this reason that Chomsky makes a distinction between the language user's competence, or innate knowledge of language and performance, which may be defined as use of language. He categorically states that his prime interest is in the former, since it is this 'pure' knowledge of the mind that provides a sound empirical basis for the formulation of a theory of language.

In terms of understanding language, Chomsky has had an enormous influence on studies carried out in this field. This concerns, in particular, insights into language acquisition, where all humans are considered to possess a "latent language ability" (1965: 48), which would explain why very young children are able to produce completely original utterances which he or she has never had contact with before (Yule, 1996: 22). This contrasts markedly with Skinner's approach to the problem, where the acquisition of language is a form of behaviour conditioned solely by external factors in a stimulus-response-reinforcement/negative reinforcement sequence. Skinner (1957: 10) states:
We have no reason to assume […] that verbal behaviour differs in any fundamental respect from non-verbal behaviour, or that any new principles must be invoked to account for it.

In such a way the creative nature of language is almost treated as a form of aberration, as the original utterances mentioned above cannot have been programmed into the child by external factors. Such a position is hard to sustain, as Chomsky himself claims (1965: 204-205).

A further aspect of Chomsky's view of language is the concept that in order to produce language a series of processes are passed through. This series of processes contains the following components: syntactic, phonological and semantic. These components work together as follows: "the syntactic component of a grammar must specify, for each sentence, a deep structure that determines its semantic interpretation and a surface structure that determines its phonetic interpretation" (Chomsky 1965: 16).
It often seems to me that language training concerns the actual surface structure of whatever language is being studied, rather than the more insidious semantic implications of the deep structure. Some of these aspects will be examined later.

However influential it might have been, the Chomskyan view of language has come in for criticism. In particular the abstract nature of this theory of language alienates it to a large extent from the real world. Hymes (1979: 6) is particularly critical from this point of view, since if we assume all humans to possess an innate ability to acquire language, then each and every child in the world will be "master of an infinite ability, that of producing and understanding in principle any and all grammatical sentences of language". Hymes (1979: 7) argues that it is barren to study language without those sociocultural features which may influence the language production process and which, for the purist represent an "imperfect manifestation of underlying system". He introduces, therefore, the concept of communicative competence in order to describe the kind of competence which encapsulates four aspects:

1. Whether a structure is grammatically possible. This is close to Chomsky's idea of grammaticality, whereby a structure may be grammatically possible on a theoretical basis, but because of its complexity it may not be applicable.

2. Whether a language structure is feasible in terms of its practical application. Thus, the first point may be abandoned in communicative terms, if the structure is complex to the point of impeding comprehension or trying the patience of the listener.

3. The language produced should be appropriate to the context in which it is employed. This is very much a socially dictated aspect, and of great importance in keeping communication channels open. To take a very simple example, the use of over-formal language in an informal situation may lead listeners to consider the speaker as arrogant and supercilious, or simply ridiculous.

4. A sentence may possess all of these characteristics and simply not occur (Hymes 1979: 14).

Two aspects of this model may be of particular interest in investigating the distinction between language structure and the way in which language is used in communication. Widdowson (1978: 2-3) makes a clear distinction between use, where language is used for a real communicative purpose and usage, where language merely manifests our mechanical knowledge of the system. In language training, perhaps more attention should be paid to the former, since it is very often a lack of sociocultural awareness that leads to communication breakdown. Thus not only a theoretical knowledge of the principles of communication is necessary, but also the ability to put that knowledge into practice, that is to say "practical knowledge is expressed only in practice and learned only through experience with practice" (Eraut 1994: 65). This is more closely examined in the final section of the paper.

To summarise what has been outlined so far, we may now assume that the communication process contains a socioculturally conditioned component alongside the formal properties which are usually associated with language (grammar, phonology and lexis), as well as an underlying semantic component.

In investigating this last point, Halliday (1979: 27) refers to this semantic component as "meaning potential", that is to say the speaker's ability to create meaning and then transfer this meaning through a "semantic network" to "the realisation of behaviour patterns" or the production of language. The semantic component is a key element, since, as Halliday (1979: 36) claims:

We cannot, as a rule, relate behavioural options directly to the grammar. The relationship is too complex, and some intermediate level of representation is needed through which we express the meaning potential that is associated with the particular behavioural context. It is this intermediate level that constitutes our 'sociological' semantics. The semantic network then takes us, by a second step, into the linguistic patterns that can be recognised and stated in grammatical terms.

What is more, Halliday argues that the semantic level of language production is also sociologically conditioned and, therefore, it would be possible for us to hypothesise the existence more subtle patterns which may exist on a deep level in terms of the language choices that we make and that, furthermore, these ingrained patterns may create communication barriers across differing social, cultural or ethnic boundaries.
At this point it is possible to build a hypothetical model of a communication process combining all of the elements mentioned above. We may consider our starting to be the individual language user, who is possessed of an innate language acquisition ability from birth. As he or she develops elements of this innate ability and external experience are combined gradually forming a sociologically conditioned view of the world, which rests on an abstract semantic basis. This semantic basis provides meaning potential realised in terms of language production through semantic networks, which are themselves sociologically conditioned. A distinction should be made between the sociological conditioning of the world view, which we may consider internal to the individual and largely subconscious, whereas the semantic network is externally conditioned and dictates our language behaviour in given contexts. This is possibly why the former type of internal conditioning could have serious implications in the context of mediation, since it is extremely complex and difficult to pin down in concrete terms. This takes us on to the next section.

Semantics and underlying metaphor

Much work has been done on metaphor, and in particular the kind of metaphor which may underlie all forms of communication. Some forms possibly work across social, cultural and ethnic boundaries, others do not. This may be illustrated by work carried out into cross-cultural metaphor in the teaching context by Cortazzi and Jin (1999). The aim of the study was to investigate how metaphor could provide a link between training and the real professional world. They take the view that all language "is thoroughly imbued with metaphor and the proper locus of metaphor is the conceptual system" (Cortazzi and Jin 1999: 150). When attitudes to teachers on the part of students were analysed through metaphor, significant differences were found among students from different cultural backgrounds. Among Chinese students, for example it was found that the teacher-student relationship has a very peculiar value, that it "is a close and enduring relationship of reciprocal responsibility in which teachers are expected to exercise a role of strong parental care" (Cortazzi and Jin 1999: 168). Thus, it would be possible to hypothesise that our conceptual system is influenced by sociocultural conditioning and that the symbolic representation of reality and meaning through metaphor may be culturally bound. This would imply that in the role of mediator we would need to be sensitive to those underlying associations which create meaning and therefore communication. Lakoff and Johnson (1980: 3) claim in fact:

Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.

This may be very closely linked to how we perceive events or formulate opinions. Widdowson (1983: 65) asserts that "the perceiver is directed to explore phenomena by a particular schema. This exploration leads to a sampling of available information, which in turn modifies the schema which activated this 'perceptual cycle' in the first place". The schema is a mental construct based on our previous knowledge or experience, which is mapped onto to new experiences in order to "bring them into alignment with familiar patterns of experience and belief" (Widdowson 1983: 54). However, this can also give rise to prejudiced assumptions about the world which surrounds us. Sanford and Garrod (1981: 10, quoted in Widdowson 1983: 61) use the following example to illustrate the point:

John was on his way to school last Friday -
He was really worried about the maths lesson -
Last week he had been unable to control the class -
It was unfair of the maths teacher to leave him in charge -
After all, it is not a normal part of the janitor's duties.

At the end of each sentence it is possible to make a hypothesis about who John is. However, using the information provided the hypothesis will almost inevitably be erroneous. In training mediators, sensitivity should be developed, perhaps, to those aspects of language use which we take for granted and may give rise to prejudicial behaviours.

Aspects of mediator training

The role of the mediator is extremely complex and training could be viewed as providing the opportunity to develop those technical skills necessary to carry out the task effectively and also to develop in a wider professional and personal sense.
Certainly, the mediator needs to have a feeling for the role he or she is carrying out. There are many aspects of the mediation process which a difficult to analyse or quantify, and the able mediator is not always able to explain why success was obtained in a given situation. Schön (1983: 55) compares this ability to that of the baseball player or jazz musician. Even if such experts in their field try to explain how to pitch the ball or how to sense the right sound, the non-expert would have real difficulty in understanding, let alone applying what has been explained. As Schön (1983: 54) explains:
There are actions, recognitions, and judgements which we know how to carry out spontaneously; we do not have to think about them prior to or during their performance.

This may have two implications for mediation. Firstly, it is fraught with hidden dangers, as it provides ample scope for prejudiced or preconditioned behaviours. Secondly, the spontaneity mentioned is fundamental in the mediation process as constant decisions have to be made as the process is going on.
In such a context the mediator is required to acquire both professional knowledge and the competence to carry it out effectively. That competence will also include a linguistic component, perhaps in the form of awareness raising activities. Kennedy (1999: 107) claims that:
Effective professional knowledge is grounded in action; practitioners learn by reflecting on successful and unsuccessful actions, and in the case of the latter by devising more successful ones.

In concrete terms, the training of mediators could employ two techniques as part of a training programme. The first concerns the concept of developing effective personal professional knowledge, while the second may be a useful strategy in identifying preconceived ideas about specific areas.
The first technique is that of keeping of a personal log or journal during a training programme or in the professional context. This would concern direct mediation experiences. Thoughts, impressions and ideas can be written up regularly and then subsequently analysed. Such techniques have been experimented in teaching (Jarvis 1996), producing significant results in understanding how professional practice works on a personal level, since the personal log can help professionals to become "aware of the importance of their own reflection, and to provide a spur towards their creating a meaning for new ideas which was rooted in their own practice" (Jarvis 1996: 151).
The second strategy is based once again on Cortazzi and Jin (1999). A specific workshop session on metaphor could be instituted, using metaphor stems to analyse attitudes to specific areas of mediation. In the case of the above study, focus of attention was on an educational context. The following are examples taken from this study (Cortazzi and Jin 1999: 151):

Teaching is …
Language is …
A good teacher is …

Students and teachers were required to complete these as metaphors. There is no reason why this test could not be adapted to numerous different contexts and used as a basis for discussion, for instance in family mediation:

A family is …
A mother/wife is …
A father/husband is …

This may also provide fertile ground for research into improving mediation techniques through raised language awareness.


Language is one of the characteristics which marks the human being as special. It is an innate ability, but its use is also a skill which may be honed and perfected for applications in specific professional areas. Within the context of mediation the role of language is central, providing the means to open the door of communication in order to negotiate peaceful and democratic solutions to problems which without any form of dialogue or exchange would seem to be insurmountable.

Bibliography and References

Brumfit, C.J. and Johnson, K. (eds.) (1979) The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT.

Cortazzi, M. and Jin, L. (1999) 'Bridges to learning: metaphors of teaching, learning and language', in Cameron, L. and Low, G. (eds.) Researching and Applying Metaphor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 149-176.

Eraut, M. (1994) Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence, London: The Falmer Press.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1979) 'Towards a sociological semantics' (extracts), in Brumfit, C.J. and Johnson, K. (eds.), pp. 2-45.

Haynes, J.M. (1994) Fundamentals of Family Mediation, New York: New York State University Press.

Hymes, D.H. (1979) 'On communicative competence' (extracts), in Brumfit, C.J. and Johnson, K. (eds.), pp. 5-26.

Jarvis, J. (1996) 'Using diaries for teacher reflection on in-service courses', in Hedge, T. and Whitney, N. (eds.) Power, Pedagogy and Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 150-162.

Kennedy, J. (1999) 'Using mazes in teacher education', in English Language Teaching Journal 53/2, pp. 107-116.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schön, D.A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, New York: Basic Books.

Skinner, B.F. (1957) Verbal Behaviour, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Widdowson, H.G. (1978) Teaching Language as Communication, Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Widdowson, H.G. (1983) Learning Purpose and Language Use, Oxford: Oxford University Press.














































































































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