Language functions as told through figure skating: What skating can teach us about language.
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Anthropologist Dr. William Beeman described the six basic language functions in humans as follows: recognition, storage, physical generation, writing, discourse and expressive culture (lecture presentation, January 19, 2010). Each of these functions plays a part in how language is used. Drawing on Beeman’s lectures and personal experience, I will demonstrate how creating and performing an ice-skating free-style routine highlights each of the six language functions in use.
The first language function is that of recognition. Beeman explains that recognition includes not only understanding the meaning of speech one hears, but also visual and tactile recognition. Visual recognition in turn encompasses reading written language, recognizing signs and understanding context. Tactile recognition includes languages like Braille for the blind (lecture presentation, January 19, 2010). All of these abilities allow humans to distinguish a wordless shout of alarm from “Look out!” or a jumble of marks on a sign with “Don’t Walk.” Without these abilities, we would not be able to know when information is being shared with us through language. Language recognition is useful in the process of choreographing a free-style ice-skating routine because the coach and skater can collaborate to develop a sequence of movements without having to first demonstrate them for each other. They can converse verbally to describe the sequence and the transition between the movements. Since the coach can see the skater from a perspective she herself cannot, the coach can use language to offer the skater guidance to refine her movements into a polished performance. The coach can refer to specific techniques and jumps with names like “triple axel” an...
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From the most basic of functions like recognition and storage to the complexities of discourse and cultural expression, language functions are an integral and pervasive component of the human experience. In these pages I have sought to describe the operation of the six language functions through the analogy of a figure skater and a dancer. Each skill builds upon the next to weave the intricate set of skills and abilities that humans have uniquely developed to share information and each other’s experiences of the world.
2010 "Basic Language Functions." Lecture, University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, January 19, 2010.
2010 Interview with Tom Goldman, Morning Edition from NPR News. NPR, February 19, 2010.