Language and Empowerment

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)31A_Invited conference paper (refereed items)

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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jul 2016


TitleSymposium Celebrating the Life and Work of Larry E. Smith
LocationHawaii Imin International Conference Center
PlaceUnited States
Period8 July 2016


One who well understood the power of language was Larry E. Smith, and that power was something he sought to impart to others. His mission, as he himself articulated, was ‘to equip, empower and inspire leaders for the twenty-first century.’ In this regard, Larry stood apart from the ‘many in the community – and some in the university’ whom Michael Halliday (2009:208) faults for ‘plac[ing] very little value on a functional mastery of the language’. Unlike the many, Larry ‘recognize[d] that a language is a potential for meaning, and that only by developing that potential, and so gaining the semiotic power of thinking with it and acting with it, can the learner then go on to achieve any of the further goals, whether purely practical or purely academic or anything in between, that are accorded some value in our linguistically very naive society.’

We make meaning to achieve a purpose. To better achieve one’s purpose with language, one needs power over language. To have power over language, one needs to know how language works to make meaning in context of situation and context of culture. To put it perhaps a bit more colloquially, one needs to own the language.
Larry offered very practical down-to-earth advice to those engaged in the act of making and discerning meaning. .

Larry offered practical wisdom for overcoming communication breakdown along the lines described in Robert McCloskey’s memorable quote: ‘I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.’ The basis of Larry’s practical advice would later be encapsulated in what became known as The Smith Triad (Kachru 1995, Smith and Nelson 1985, Smith 1992). The Smith Triad – Intelligibility, Comprehensibility, Interpretability – takes into account the distance between the ‘surface decoding of the denotative meaning to comprehending its connotative meaning in its socio-cultural context’ (Smith 2001)
Similar to the pragmatic approach advocated by his good friend, Braj B. Kachru, in The Pragmatics of Non-Native Varieties of English (2015(1981)), Larry viewed language as a social activity whose use is ‘determined by various parameters in the context of situation.’ Language changes to suit the needs of its users. Together, Larry and Braj pioneered a new perspective on World Englishes which rejected linguistic chauvinism in favor of empowering users of non-native varieties to take ownership of their language. Halliday (2009:208) sums it up well when he describes a language as not only ‘the vehicle of a living culture, thus embodying meanings out of the past, but also, … a semiotic powerhouse, out of which will come the new meanings, and the new cultures, that we can expect to arise in the future.’

Bibliographic Note

Research Unit(s) information for this publication is provided by the author(s) concerned.

Citation Format(s)

Language and Empowerment. / Webster, Jonathan.

2016. Symposium Celebrating the Life and Work of Larry E. Smith, Honolulu, Hawaii, United States.

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)31A_Invited conference paper (refereed items)