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