Head of Senior School
The Importance of Language
I attended Wollongong University for my undergraduate degree and lived in one of the University Colleges, International House. I had an experience there where I got myself into a fair bit of trouble. One night I was lying in bed and just before I drifted off to sleep I had an unnerving thought, ‘I’ve got no clean underwear for tomorrow!’ I had a small hand basin in my room so I got up, washed some underwear and hung them on a coat hanger attached to the bar heater that was on the wall above my bed. I figured that they’d dry out over the course of the night.
I awoke the next morning, turned on my room light, got my things and headed off to the showers. What I didn’t realise was that in my semi-conscious state I had not only turned on my room light but had also turned on the bar heater, as the two switches were located very close together. As I walked down the hall on the way back to my room after my shower, I saw smoke coming out from underneath my door. I sprinted to my room and opened the door. My room was full of smoke and large flames were leaping out from my bed! To cut a long story very short, I lost my bond and nearly got kicked out of International House! Please don’t tell my parents about this because I still think they are totally unaware of what happened!
You might be thinking at this point, what does this have to do with language? Well I can’t remember the words I used at the time as I dived on my burning bed in an attempt to put the fire out. I can only imagine. However, I can remember what I needed to do in an effort to remain at the College. There were heartfelt apologies to the Dean, a public apology to all the residents and lots of conversions with my friends and individual students. I needed to use all the words I could muster to apologise, to inform others that I was taking responsibility for my actions and to reassure others that I wasn’t a risk to them. I had to make various undertakings and promises about my future actions as well. What people said to me ranged from humorous remarks and jibes to very hurtful statements. As I reflect on this situation now, I realise the College culture was shaken as students were split between those who thought I should stay and those who believed I should be moved on. This was very clear in the way people expressed themselves and it took a while for things to settle down.
The language we use is a significant cultural influencer. If we speak with kindness, empathy, compassion, warmth, understanding and exercise good manners, this influences the way others speak and act towards us. Conversely, if we use the language that is hurtful or inappropriate it will have an effect on another person which will impact the way they speak, react and feel. This can play out in lots of ways, none of which are helpful or positive.The language we use in our school is a vote for the culture that we’d like it to be.
I spoke to the Senior School about this at Assembly this week. I encouraged them not to swear or use racist words or words that discriminate and hurt. These create pain and undermine our culture. I encouraged them to talk to others with kindness, understanding and respect. The students were urged to search their vocabulary for the right words for the right occasion, this can be hard I know. I also reminded them about what they already know. That is, to build one’s vocabulary by reading and reading widely, so the right words can be used. Words which build others up, articulate how we feel, what we think and help us negotiate conflict with respect. By doing so, we will all build a learning community where everyone feels connected and valued. Let’s speak the right words into our culture.