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The Power of Words by Vance Adair

As Head of Department Quality, I have been so impressed in recent weeks to see in lessons how skilled that you have become in using the correct words in the correct way for the correct purposes. What a journey you have been on: not only demonstrating an understanding of the rules of language but also developing skills in how these rules apply to real life situations. All of you have now reached a level of expertise in knowing what kind of language best fits the different social situations that you are likely to encounter ‘out there’ in the real world. This is what the language experts (the linguists) call moving from linguistic competence to communicative and transactional competence. As you prepare to move on to the next stage of your journey, however, I wanted to say a few things about something linguists rarely talk about. The mysterious yet magical power of words. Words, of course, can certainly help us express who we are, but even this doesn’t capture fully the magical power that they possess. Words are the vessels that contain very precious cargo indeed - for it is they that carry our thoughts and hopes and dreams (as well as our fears) out into the world. Words can state what we think and what we feel, but they are also the tiny flames that ignite the imagination so that that we can begin to imagine different futures for ourselves and for others. Words don’t just describe the world, they make the world and they can help show others how we can re-make the world. A famous philosopher of language called Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that ‘The limits of your language are the limits of your world.’ Think about the power of that statement. Building our vocabulary doesn’t just mean increasing the number of words that we know and that we can use, it also means imagining new thoughts, creating new ways of thinking….it means building new worlds.

Words, mere words, are the source of this magic that lies within each of you here today. We have always known that they have the power to move us and others: to light fires in our own minds or be astonished when we see words wring tears from even the hardest of hearts. Mere words, those seemingly innocent, neutral and precise things you have spent so much time getting to know can also, if treated well, be used to build bridges across confusion and chaos. But when we get lazy or careless with them, if we choose not to acknowledge their magical force, then they can just as easily destroy as well as create, or sow division as well as building new bridges to a shared future.

Words truly are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order at the right time, you can make someone feel loved, you can alleviate suffering, you can write a poem, and you can nudge the whole world a little more in the right direction. Words are, in fact, the most basic and elemental power of that mysterious thing that we call imagination. As the writer George Bernard Shaw once said, “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”

That’s the power that each one of you possesses here at this very moment in this room. Use that power well: be brave, be heard, be respectful. Be amazing.


Author: Vance Adair

Head of Quality

The Manchester College

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