We often speak of language and communication like the same thing, but the fact is, they are different. Humans are regarded as the only beings in the world that have language. While you may think that animals can also ‘speak’ to each other, that’s where the difference in language and communication lies – animals can communicate, but they do not have language. Let’s further explore the difference between language and communication:
Language is made up of symbols
Languages are made of symbols – that is, words – by which we convey meaning to others. These sounds and meanings are agreed upon by humans who communicate, which over time become conventionalised into languages we know today.
On the other hand, communication can occur without having agreed-upon symbols. For example, one can gesture the action of drinking water to show the message ‘I am thirsty’, despite not having that gesture being recorded in a dictionary or learnt in school.
Communication does not require language to happen
As the above example would have shown, communication does not necessarily need to involve language to happen. For example, think of a young baby who has not learnt how to speak. Through her vocalisations and actions, she can communicate what she wants to her caregivers. This is an example of communication without language.
Language is a system
Remember having to learn grammar in school? Or perhaps you are taking up a new language, like in one of the Japanese classes in Singapore, and you are reliving grammar classes all over again. This is needed because language is a system that is governed by structure and rules.
Communication in itself does not require grammatical rules. Recall a time you had to communicate to someone who does not speak in your language – even with a few basic words, zero grammatical correctness and many gestures, you can get your message across.
Language is productive
One defining characteristic of language is that it can be used to create an infinite number of sentences and meanings. For example, a child may just know a few words, but they can manipulate the words to convey different meanings like ‘red apple’, ‘two apples’, ‘green ball’, ‘two green balls’.
This is where we say animals do not have language even though they can communicate. Dogs can bark in different ways to tell you if they are hungry, tired, or happy. However, they are unable to change the structure or order of their barks in a systematic way to tell you other messages like ‘I only like chicken sausages’.
Language is cultural while communication is universal
As we know, humans are social beings who communicate naturally. This is why civilisations have language – because there is a need to communicate. However, the specific language being spoken is not universal, but based on culture. Thus, people of different nationalities and ethnicities speak different languages.
It is only in recent times that languages have become less associated with their cultures, given increasing cross-border mobility and people who learn languages from other cultures. Especially for world-dominant languages like English and Mandarin Chinese, the speakers may not necessarily identify with the culture of the language, but simply speak it because it is a means of communication across the world.
While language and communication are closely intertwined, they are markedly different. Language is a tool to achieve communication, and it is unique to humans. Many people now learn more than one language as a meaningful intellectual pursuit, or to learn about other cultures, or for practical reasons. Why not gain a deeper appreciation for your ability to use language by picking up a new language? The widespread availability of language classes like Korean classes and Japanese classes in Singapore make it ever so accessible for anyone to experience a new language.