In its proper sense, language is symbolic communication. Our minds, having received percepts and formed concepts, then further condense information into discrete packets of meaning that require even less space for memory storage. When speaking or reading, one can choose to think symbolically or to translate the words into imagery. The former is the standard practice, usually employed for convenience’s sake, by which we understand the meaning of the text symbolically without contemplating the object the word represents.
Language is not limited to words, however; gestures also count as discrete acts of symbolic communication. Why is symbolism necessary for humans to communicate? Because at its base level, all languages are based on ostensive “pointing.” Infants gain their first concepts of language by watching others attach labels to objects, either explicitly or indirectly. This reflects the concept of the “linguistic wall,” that within any given language to define words in terms of the language itself (in other words) is inherently circular; the old parable of the boy who looked up one word in the dictionary and had to look up at least one additional word in every definition he came across illustrates this principle. Thus, the first and only way that human minds can become incorporated into the mindset of a particular language and its symbolic communication is by subjective experience through the senses.
Humans can have a common language and symbolic representation because of intersubjectivity; we have generally common experience that allows us to relate to one another and posit a common knowledge. “Color” means nothing to the blind man, for he has no subjective experience of such a term. It is impossible for him to fully understand what it means.
An issue arises at this point, however; individual human beings have different experiences and perspectives, contrasting levels of physical sensitivity, and dissimilar mental operating systems. Because each person is unique, his perception will be ever so slightly or greatly altered by his subjective experience.
Remember the example of the blind man. He and one who sees cannot have a common language of sight because intersubjectivity is entirely absent. However, in those who have at least some degree of intersubjectivity, no matter how wildly they differ, so long as they contain common elements, then language can exist, but with definite limitations. You will never experience life the way that I do. However, your experience is a great deal more similar to mine than it is to a ferret’s. We can still have a language and symbolic communication, so long as we take the limits of language into account and seek always to grow out of our subjective experiences and further live the life of that which we do not know.
The greater your experience of all states of human existence, the greater you can command and understand all language and all human symbolism. Each language, viewed as a symbolic coding system, has its inherent assumptions, biases, understandings, and flavor. Thus, the sword is truly double-edged: one better understands a language through analysis of its culture, and one’s perception of the culture is enhanced through analysis of its language. Surely learning additional languages is well worth its effort.
All languages are essentially empirical “pointing” laced with the subjective experience of its formulator. Both of these aspects must be recognized. Some schools reject the former and deny that language has meaning or practical use at all, that it dishonestly detracts of our understanding of reality. Of course, such proponents are necessarily self-contradictory in relying on language to communicate their arguments. Other groups elevate language as an absolute and do not take into account the various cultural and societal effects that limit its uses.
In all, language is trustworthy as a system of symbolic communication so long as this statement is qualified. In any set of communications, one must simply take discordant viewpoints with a grain of salt. Understand what affect’s your counterpart’s viewpoint, understand your own, and then at the last be cautious in putting too much absolute faith in your conversation. Caution is the lesson here; however, this does not necessitate abandoning language as a whole because it is inherently limited.