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The power of language: How words shape people, culture

Speaking, writing and reading are integral to everyday life, where language is the primary tool for expression and communication. Studying how people use language – what words and phrases they unconsciously choose and combine – can help us better understand ourselves and why we behave the way we do.

Linguistics scholars seek to determine what is unique and universal about the language we use, how it is acquired and the ways it changes over time. They consider language as a cultural, social and psychological phenomenon.

“Understanding why and how languages differ tells about the range of what is human,” said Dan Jurafsky , the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor in Humanities and chair of the Department of Linguistics in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford . “Discovering what’s universal about languages can help us understand the core of our humanity.”

The stories below represent some of the ways linguists have investigated many aspects of language, including its semantics and syntax, phonetics and phonology, and its social, psychological and computational aspects.

Understanding stereotypes

Stanford linguists and psychologists study how language is interpreted by people. Even the slightest differences in language use can correspond with biased beliefs of the speakers, according to research.

One study showed that a relatively harmless sentence, such as “girls are as good as boys at math,” can subtly perpetuate sexist stereotypes. Because of the statement’s grammatical structure, it implies that being good at math is more common or natural for boys than girls, the researchers said.

Language can play a big role in how we and others perceive the world, and linguists work to discover what words and phrases can influence us, unknowingly.

Girl solving math problem

How well-meaning statements can spread stereotypes unintentionally

New Stanford research shows that sentences that frame one gender as the standard for the other can unintentionally perpetuate biases.

Human silhouette

Algorithms reveal changes in stereotypes

New Stanford research shows that, over the past century, linguistic changes in gender and ethnic stereotypes correlated with major social movements and demographic changes in the U.S. Census data.

Katherine Hilton

Exploring what an interruption is in conversation

Stanford doctoral candidate Katherine Hilton found that people perceive interruptions in conversation differently, and those perceptions differ depending on the listener’s own conversational style as well as gender.

Policeman with body-worn videocamera (body-cam)

Cops speak less respectfully to black community members

Professors Jennifer Eberhardt and Dan Jurafsky, along with other Stanford researchers, detected racial disparities in police officers’ speech after analyzing more than 100 hours of body camera footage from Oakland Police.

How other languages inform our own

People speak roughly 7,000 languages worldwide. Although there is a lot in common among languages, each one is unique, both in its structure and in the way it reflects the culture of the people who speak it.

Jurafsky said it’s important to study languages other than our own and how they develop over time because it can help scholars understand what lies at the foundation of humans’ unique way of communicating with one another.

“All this research can help us discover what it means to be human,” Jurafsky said.

essay on advantages of language

Stanford PhD student documents indigenous language of Papua New Guinea

Fifth-year PhD student Kate Lindsey recently returned to the United States after a year of documenting an obscure language indigenous to the South Pacific nation.

dice marked with letters of the alphabet

Students explore Esperanto across Europe

In a research project spanning eight countries, two Stanford students search for Esperanto, a constructed language, against the backdrop of European populism.

essay on advantages of language

Chris Manning: How computers are learning to understand language​

A computer scientist discusses the evolution of computational linguistics and where it’s headed next.

Map showing frequency of the use of the Spanish pronoun 'vos' as opposed to 'tú' in Latin America

Stanford research explores novel perspectives on the evolution of Spanish

Using digital tools and literature to explore the evolution of the Spanish language, Stanford researcher Cuauhtémoc García-García reveals a new historical perspective on linguistic changes in Latin America and Spain.

Language as a lens into behavior

Linguists analyze how certain speech patterns correspond to particular behaviors, including how language can impact people’s buying decisions or influence their social media use.

For example, in one research paper, a group of Stanford researchers examined the differences in how Republicans and Democrats express themselves online to better understand how a polarization of beliefs can occur on social media.

“We live in a very polarized time,” Jurafsky said. “Understanding what different groups of people say and why is the first step in determining how we can help bring people together.”

essay on advantages of language

Analyzing the tweets of Republicans and Democrats

New research by Dora Demszky and colleagues examined how Republicans and Democrats express themselves online in an attempt to understand how polarization of beliefs occurs on social media.

Examining bilingual behavior of children at Texas preschool

A Stanford senior studied a group of bilingual children at a Spanish immersion preschool in Texas to understand how they distinguished between their two languages.

Linguistics professor Dan Jurafsky in his office

Predicting sales of online products from advertising language

Stanford linguist Dan Jurafsky and colleagues have found that products in Japan sell better if their advertising includes polite language and words that invoke cultural traditions or authority.

essay on advantages of language

Language can help the elderly cope with the challenges of aging, says Stanford professor

By examining conversations of elderly Japanese women, linguist Yoshiko Matsumoto uncovers language techniques that help people move past traumatic events and regain a sense of normalcy.

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Why Is Language Important? Your Guide To The Spoken Word

Why-Is-Language-Important-Your-Guide-To-The-Spoken-Word

Language is a vital part of human connection. Although all species have their ways of communicating, humans are the only ones that have mastered cognitive language communication . Language allows us to share our ideas, thoughts, and feelings with others. It has the power to build societies, but also tear them down. It may seem obvious, but if you’re asking yourself, why is language important? You’ll have to break it down to truly understand why.

Why Is Language Important? Language Matters

Language is what makes us human. It is how people communicate. By learning a language, it means you have mastered a complex system of words, structure, and grammar to effectively communicate with others.

To most people, language comes naturally. We learn how to communicate even before we can talk and as we grow older, we find ways to manipulate language to truly convey what we want to say with words and complex sentences. Of course, not all communication is through language, but mastering a language certainly helps speed up the process. This is one of the many reasons why language is important.

Language Is Important To Culture And Society

Language helps us express our feelings and thoughts — this is unique to our species because it is a way to express unique ideas and customs within different cultures and societies.

By learning a foreign language , you can understand ideas and thoughts that may be different from your own culture. You can learn customs and how people interact in a given society. Language helps preserve cultures, but it also allows us to learn about others and spread ideas quickly.

Language Is Important To Business

The importance of language in business is unmatched. Without language here, we can’t share ideas and grow them into something more. Whether this means learning a foreign language so you can share ideas with people who come from a different country, or simply learning how to use language to master an interview, demand presence in a room, or network with others, language is vital.

Language Is Important For Individuals And Development

Humans all learn to talk at slightly different times, and observing when a child starts to use language can be indicative of how well they are developing. But this does not just apply to babies. It also applies to young children learning a second language in school that’s different than the language they speak at home, adults learning a second language , or even those who may have lost language due to some type of accident, and are working on regaining it.

Language Is Important For Personal Communication

Though much of human communication is non-verbal (we can demonstrate our thoughts, feelings and ideas by our gestures, expressions, tones, and emotions) language is important for personal communication. Whether it’s being able to talk to your friends, your partner, or your family, having a shared language is necessary for these types of interactions.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

The basic functions of language.

The main function of language is the use of language. It gives us the ability to communicate thoughts, ideas, and feelings with others as quickly as possible. But, within that, we can understand language more by looking at its basic functions.

1. Informative Function

The informative function of language is when we use language to communicate any information. Essentially, its function is to inform others by being able to state facts clearly.

2. Expressive Function

Another basic function of language is the expressive function. As it sounds, it is used to express oneself by giving us ways to convey our feelings, emotions, and attitudes to another person (or ourselves).

3. Directive Function

The directive function of language is a basic function that helps us to direct or command. For example, it gives us the ability to tell ourselves or someone else what to do in any given situation.

Different Types Of Language

In addition to language functions, there are also different types of language and ways to understand language overall. Being able to differentiate these can help you understand other reasons why language is so important.

Oral Vs. Written Language

In general, oral communication is spoken language meant for conversing with others. Written language is about expressing ideas through writing words down.

Oral communication is usually more informal and faster, while written language is more formal and slow.

Denotative Meaning Vs. Connotative Meaning

Words have a lot of meaning to them, and the meaning depends on the context surrounding the word. This is why there is denotative meaning and connotative meaning.

Denotative meaning is the literal definition/intention of the word, whereas connotative meaning is when words carry positive or negative meanings/connotations. An example of this could be “home” versus “house.” “House” is denotative, being the literal term for this type of structure where someone may live, whereas “home” is connotative and represents a shelter, family, security, etc. Understanding the difference can help you understand the intention of language.

Six Elements Of Language

There are six elements of language:

  • Clarity: Using language in a way that ensures the intended audience fully understands your ideas; that your ideas are clear.
  • Economy: Being ‘economic’ about how you speak by avoiding any unnecessary language. This means using only the necessary and appropriate words to express yourself while avoiding using language your audience won’t understand. Essentially, this means avoiding fluff or complicated vocabulary.
  • Obscenity: This refers to ‘indecent language’, including, but not limited to, curse words and hateful remarks.
  • Obscure Language/Jargon: This is very specific language that your audience will not understand because they are not familiar with what you are talking about. This could be when your car mechanic explains to you what’s wrong with your car, but you are not a car mechanic, so you are unclear of what they’re talking about.
  • Power: This is when someone uses language to exert power over someone to manipulate them, command them, or to get them to do something they want. It could also be to demonstrate yourself as an authority in the room.
  • Variety: This is a speaker’s ability to use a combination of all the different types of language aforementioned to successfully and creatively get ideas across.

Image by Aline Dassel from Pixabay

Different language styles.

Within language, there are many different styles to fit what the speaker wants to communicate. While some are unique to a person’s personality, some speakers may adapt certain styles depending on the situation, even if it’s different from how they normally speak.

1. Direct And Indirect Styles

Direct is a way to use language to indicate to a person exactly what you want to say and/or how you’re feeling. Indirect language means using other words or types of communication to demonstrate you may be feeling a certain way, but without directly saying why or what, in other words, being indirect. If you’ve ever been in an argument with a significant other, you probably have experienced both of these language styles.

2. Personal And Contextual Styles

These two language styles are a bit more complex. In general, personal style refers to an individual’s personal way of speaking, is informal, and focuses on that individual. Contextual styles means changing language depending on the context of a situation. For instance, a professor may use their personal style of speaking with friends and colleagues, and a contextual style when lecturing their students.

3. Untranslatable Words

Untranslatable words are words or phrases that we have to adapt from other languages because we do not have a word that means the same thing in our own language. A good example is how we say “Bon Appetit!”, because we don’t have a good translation.

Using Language Effectively

Language has so many benefits to humans, but it can also be problematic if language is used ineffectively. This is why it’s important to be mindful of how you are using language in any situation.

1. Use Appropriate Language

Using appropriate language does not just mean avoiding obscene language (there may be times when that is actually appropriate for the situation!). It means using language that’s appropriate for your audience, that they can understand, relate to, and engage with.

2. Use Vivid Language

To use vivid language is to use imagery in your language, to describe something as vividly as possible. It may mean using more adjectives or onomatopoeia to illustrate what you’re saying.

3. Use Inclusive Language

Inclusive language means using language that does not exclude any person. For instance, instead of using “he or she” to address an audience, the correct term is “they” to include people who may not identify with a particular gender. It also means avoiding any language that is racist, sexist, misogynist, hateful, presumptuous, prejudiced, etc.

Language Is Changing Along With The Culture

When discussing topics like inclusive language, it’s easy to recognize that language, today, is changing alongside culture. With technology comes trends or different ways of speaking, like how many teenagers or young people use slang when they speak. When societies become more open-minded and progressive, we start accepting that there are many other ways of speaking language.

Many of us know the answer to why is language important, but we often take language for granted or actually don’t think about it. Language is an important life skill, particularly in school and in the workplace.

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The Importance of Language Essay

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  • Topic: Language Diversity , Second Language

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