Need to talk | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Need to talk

/ 12:24 AM April 07, 2017

We think of language mainly as a tool for communicating, which we equate with passing on information, maybe sometimes teaching and passing on social norms to the next generation. We also think of language in terms of literary works.

I’ve taught linguistic anthropology for years. But I keep updating myself with new research findings showing how “communicating” might be too simple a term to capture many more complex, and crucial, functions of language around the very core of human development.


Language, it turns out, shapes our very humanity from infancy onward. An important example is the way we develop memories of growing up. We tend not to actually remember what we experienced before the age of five, more or less, relying instead on what our elders tell us. Freud theorized that this was because we needed to suppress many negative thoughts from those childhood experiences, but psychologists in the last decade have found that what’s going on is not so much suppression as the lack of channels to store and propagate very early childhood memories.

The needed channels are those of language. We begin to store childhood experiences in our memories when we develop the ability to talk, usually first with our mothers, then other relatives, and then friends.


Story-telling, kuwentuhan, has underestimated power in childhood development. “Talk,” even leisurely and playful, is an indispensable tool for a child’s intellectual and emotional development. Children learn to label the world around them through this talking, and there is no lack of studies showing that it is the frequent conversations between parents and children in upper-class households that lead to more advanced cognitive development over low-income children. Upper-income parents just have more time to spend with children for the talking, reading, and homework, as well as resources (including having nannies and tutors and preschools) to keep a child linguistically stimulated.

In households where parents have to work overtime and spend long hours commuting to and from work, there is little quality time for the children, who are left pretty much to TV and, lately, electronic gadgets, with a tendency to concentrate on noneducational games.

Besides intellectual development, talk is also important for emotional development. Note how, after you ask a distressed young child why he or she is crying, the wailing intensifies. You need to process, with the child, what is going on. The child “knows” he or she is not happy (such a wonderful basic emotion that’s labeled early in life), but you need to ask what is causing the distress, the unhappiness. Then you can label the emotion: You’re feeling anger, or fear, or envy. And after you’ve identified it with the child, you can assure her or him that it will pass, and if it doesn’t, let’s chase it away.

Having to deal with students and teachers with anger management problems, I often wonder if perhaps their parents did not deal with this basic emotion. Men in particular have more problems because they are allowed, as boys, to get away with the anger (and, sometimes, physical violence) because we think that’s the standard for masculinity.

In adulthood, we deal with emotional problems by talking—of course, not the way we do with children. The need to talk is there, but again culture steps in. Language rules restrict us: In the Philippines, men can’t ask men for a “heart to heart talk.” Instead, we invite a close male friend to drink… during which we can talk.

If social rules prevent us from opening our hearts to someone, we end up suppressing the problems, including negative emotions. One crisis feeds into another, leading to serious health problems—both psychological and physical. It’s not surprising that male life expectancy is lower than women’s in almost every country in the world. We tend to kill each other (or ourselves), or get into accidents—or survivors get killed by a heart attack—from all the hurts we keep suppressed.

Do go out then and talk, and celebrate the gift of language.



Because languages are so complicated, there are bound to be lapses in our communications. This is because we’ve developed speech communities even among people speaking the same language. Any number of variables can shape the speech communities: age, sex, religious affiliation (the Iglesia ni Cristo is well known for very specific terms), and many more.

Each speech community has rules on what can be said (or not said) and how it should be said. This is why we are so prone to misinterpretation or misunderstanding, with perfectly “innocent” statements interpreted as malice. Deborah Tanner is known for her books on gender and language, and she gives a good example of potential miscommunication in “Can I help?” Said by a man to a woman, or a woman to another woman, the statement is seen as a welcome offer. But said by a man to another man or, worse, a woman to a man, the statement might be seen as insulting, with the more macho of men reacting: “Why, don’t you think I can do it?”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard my mother saying, in exasperation, “bo pai ue.” It’s Minnan Chinese for “no bad words”—meaning “no malice intended” in something she would say, and which might anger my father. Besides gender, there was also culture, my mother being a very Filipinized Chinese woman who speaks her mind rather than retreats into silent disagreement, which is the “rule” for more traditional Chinese women.

(She did know, though, when to retreat, and to go into “tiis”—bearing the suffering—mode, which can be unhealthy. Fortunately, she often talked with her friends, and with me, and has made me an advocate now of mothers talking more to their sons so we better understand them. That’s an often neglected part of men’s emotional and intellectual development.)

During meetings, the larger the group the higher the possibility of misunderstanding, and of dialogue collapsing. This is why we have all kinds of rules for meetings, but the rules themselves can sometimes become the focus of debate.

Then, too, we live in an age of fake news—a general term that includes “alternative facts,” referring to the way people fabricate and disseminate falsehoods, and which leads again to cycles of mistrust, and violence.

It’s a tough world we’ve created, a squandering of the miracle that is language. I can only hope we don’t leave an even more tortuous world of untruth and miscommunication to the next generation.
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