On the Purposes of Language Study: Sharing Stories

(Another messy article about why language and stories are cool and needed)

Language is one of the most important aspects of our society, in my opinion. We use language to communicate. We use language to express and share our experiences. Language both shapes us and shapes our experiences. And we, in turn, shape language. Language is not something that just happens. It is not “a natural growth” but an “instrument which we shape for our own purposes” (Orwell 1). It is malleable and changeable. The more I’ve studied English, the more I’ve seen this to be true.

But I didn’t always see language this way—as something malleable and variable. I used to see it as something static, something with a set of rules that absolutely had to be followed, no matter what. That was the one “right” way. And people who didn’t follow those rules were destroying the English language. If I could, I’d give past Jessica a little smack upside the head. The ability to change and develop is what makes language so fascinating. It is, in fact, what makes language language.

Sometime over the course of my studies here at UVU, I opted to take the grammar class. I remember once, during a lecture, that Latin was mentioned. Latin is a “perfect” language because it’s a dead language. No one speaks it anymore, so it doesn’t evolve or change. That was a big “a-ha” moment for me. English continues to develop and change—on a global level, on a national level, on a state level. And just because it’s changing doesn’t mean it’s being destroyed. Far from it. The English language is growing and becoming stronger and more complex than it was before.

With this in mind, English becomes an incredibly rich tool to share stories and experiences. Language not only conveys these stories and experiences, but also carries with it markers of the teller, the experiencer, where they live, how they grew up. You can’t tell everything about a person from the experiences they share, but no two people will share the same experiences or share them in the same way with the same language use. And that’s what I’ve enjoyed most about my English degree: being introduced to different stories and experiences through language.

Reading and hearing stories is a way to connect with other humans—long gone humans, old humans, young humans, humans from other countries and times, humans with different identities and experiences than me. But still wholly human. How are we supposed “to understand what used to be called, in a less embarrassed age, ‘the human condition’” without studying history, art, literature and language (Slouka 32)? In other words, it is by studying the things that we shape and create and that in turn, shape and create us that “we hope to make our condition more human, not less” (Slouka 32). By studying language and literature as an English major, I’ve learned more about what it means to be human, and it encompasses a lot.

If I tried to share every example of what studying a particular piece of literature taught me during my college career, we’d be here for pages and pages. After all, “How does one teach literature other than as an invitation, a challenge, a gauntlet—a force fully capable of altering not only what we believe but how we see? The answer is, of course, that one doesn’t” (Slouka 37). Through my literature/language studies, my own perceptions and preconceived notions about people and things have changed dramatically. I am definitely not the same person I was when I started college. I definitely do not think the same things or in the same way that college freshman Jessica did. Studying language has introduced me to new experiences and new ways of thinking, both of other people’s work and my own.

One of the most poignant memories I have of being challenged in this way was in my Academic Writing for English Majors class. We read The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Erdrich writes beautifully and powerfully about the experience of Joe and his family as they deal with the shock and after-effects of his mother’s rape. Ideas of justice and centuries of oppression are confronted as we watch his mother try to heal. Though The Round House is a work of fiction, it is based in and on reality. We didn’t just read Erdrich’s novel and call it good. We read articles about the prevalence of violence against Native American women and the laws that protect the white men from suffering any consequences when their acts of violence are committed on reservation land.

There was a whole realm of the human experience that I didn’t know about until I read Erdrich’s book, until I took this class and studied these stories and facts through language. I was, and still am, ignorant of many injustices in our world. I can’t ever know exactly what it’s like to be a Native American woman. And I hope by talking about and processing my experience in this class and with this book, I’m not trivializing the Native American experience—I’m not trying to simplify it. There is still so much I don’t know and don’t understand. I’ll just say that by taking the time to listen, to read, to hear other people’s stories and experiences, I am learning more. And one of the greatest parts? There’s always more to learn. You just have to be willing to listen; you just have to be willing to read.

Studying language, studying the humanities, is important because it forces you to learn new things, to think new things, to see things in new ways. According to Slouka, the humanities are important “[b]ecause they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance” (37). Studying language has afforded me the opportunity to expand my world view, to change how I think and even what I think about. It’s given me the opportunity to learn new things, be more aware of the world around me, and it’s made me want to change myself and the world.

Throughout my college career, I’ve read and heard so many stories. Stories that made me smile, stories that made me cry. But all of them were stories about the human experience, or what it means to be a human. But what about me? What was my experience? How have I experienced life in ways different from others? My emphasis in creative writing gave me the opportunity to explore those questions for myself and add to the discussion of what being a human means.

During the summer of 2019, I took a trip with my family to Italy. In between all our visits to the art museums, tourist destinations, and beaches, a story grew in me. The only problem was that I didn’t know what that story was until I took a writing studies class. I was worried at first, because the class was for creative nonfiction. I’d always written fiction. But as I worked through my worry and self-doubt, my visit to Italy kept coming back to me. Upon my request, we visited the statue of Juliet in Verona. It’s considered good luck to rub her breast. I knew that ahead of time, but was overwhelmed when we entered the courtyard. People grappled for a chance to grab her. Boys laughed. I felt sick. And so I wrote about that experience, and how wrong it felt, about how the only thing I took from that experience was a picture of Juliet, in a split second when no one’s hands were on her. I ended the piece in this way: “And as I walk through the gate, leaving behind the courtyard, the house, the balcony, and the statue built just for them, I look back at her. She watches still, standing in the courtyard, underneath the balcony, waiting, suffering though no one sees. But I have seen.” And isn’t that the point? I see things that others haven’t and I can use language to share that experience, to change how you think and feel about something, to get you thinking about other things that I maybe didn’t even mention. That’s what reading does for me. That’s what I want my writing to do for others too.

Language is the tool with which we share our stories and our experiences. By studying language, by studying those stories and experiences, we learn and grow, learn more about the world around us and the great number of people who live in it. Paying attention to those things is not just important in a school setting. In fact, I echo Eure’s declaration that “…every aspect of life—marriage, every job, every parent-teacher meeting—hinges in some way on the ability to understand and empathize with others, to challenge one’s beliefs, to strive for reason and clarity” (Slouka 40). It is by studying language that we learn how to “understand and empathize”, that we can “challenge…our beliefs” (40). I believe, with every fiber of my English-loving-soul, that language really does do this—I believe that stories do this: show us different perspectives, change our minds, foster empathy. That is why you study language. That is why I study language.

Works Cited

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” Stanford MLA Application Critical Writing Piece, 2005–2006. PDF.

Slouka, Mark. “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school.” Harper’s Magazine, September 2009. PDF.

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