I have a friend who wants to design a “cat ladder,” so her cat can freely travel between her second-floor apartment to the ground. The problem, though, is that the same ladder that lets her cat out will also let other cats in. This, of course, is not something unique to the cat ladder: it is the nature of any road. Establishing a road is establishing a universal means of transit, and the very thing that empowers me to go in my direction also allows others to go in other directions. In this respect, a road is very much like language.
Language is the incredibly powerful medium by which ideas are allowed to flow: it is the means of transit by which my experience can be communicated to you. This sharing of experience depends on the sharing of language though–the communication would never happen if you and I did not have the same sense of what our words and gestures mean. A language that allows me to articulate my ideas must necessarily and simultaneously be a language that equally allows you to express yourself.
Our language allows us to articulate our personal experiences, but, because of its shared nature, that language is not itself a “personal possession.” It is true that I am expressing “my meaning,” but it is not simply up to me to determine how that meaning can be expressed: the language itself, that shared medium of expression, sets the terms (literally!) for how we can express. In other words, expressing my meaning requires I answer to its rules and norms. Said the other way around, the strict and “impersonal” rules of grammar, spelling, and so on are not inhibitors of personal expression but are instead precisely what enable self-expression. If you can’t operate within the rules of shared language, you can’t express yourself.
There is a second way, too, in which language is like a road. Precisely because the road is necessarily a shared medium and thus necessarily not a “personal possession,” travelling along the road is necessarily always a social experience. By saying social, I don’t mean we can never travel on our own; on the contrary, my point is rather that, even when we travel alone, we are also doing so “with others,” in the sense that we are drawing upon a power that is available to us only because others allow it: it is available to me only insofar as it is also available to you (and her and him) and so my action draws upon what can only be a shared possession. In an analogous way, whenever we speak we draw on the resources of our language community–indeed, on the whole history of communal human practices of language use by which our language was formed–and speaking is thus always a social act, always an act of communal participation.
This notion that language itself–the very words in which we articulate our ideas–is a matter of sharing can teach us an important life-lesson. When we talk with another person, we can often act as if our meaning were our own, existing autonomously in our own minds, and as if words were independently existing bits of the world that simply “clothe” those meanings. If that were true, then communication would simply be the process of using a fixed tool to hand over to you something that I already possess. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite of this. First and foremost, communication is always a matter of two (or more) people undertaking something jointly. Without that shared undertaking, the words don’t work as words, and, without the words, I don’t even possess my own ideas. Talking is not a “one-way street” in which I mechanically impose the contents of my mind on you; it is, rather, the practice of coming to share an experience with another person, a “two-way street” (which all streets are, in principle) in which it is the other’s participation that allows me to have the experience being communicated as much as it is my experience that is communicated to the other.
The lesson, then, is that talking is not a matter of transferring information or ideas through sound, but is a matter of joining with another in shared experience of something.
This is an important lesson for teachers, for example. A good class is not a lecture in which students are bombarded with sound, but is a situation of cooperative inquiry. The talking initiated by the teacher should be an invitation to the students to share in an investigation, not a forceful gesture denying the need for their participation.
It is also an important lesson for personal life. We should remember that in our conversations we are always implicitly shaping the terms of our shared experience. Typically, that is not the topic we are explicitly talking about, but that is what our conversation is implicitly doing in the way that we talk. This is what we should remember: we should remember that words, first and foremost, are our way of saying to the other how we recognize their participation. Generally, we should be much more careful about this implicit side of our communication than about the explicit subject we are discussing. We should remember that our conversation is a path, and we should practice what the Greeks call “sugchorein“: “making way” together.