Thoughts on Meaning Making

Samiya Khan
4 min readJul 27, 2020


When words cannot convey, sounds and gestures might just do the trick. Words can be nuisances. They can do whatever you want them to do, but sometimes they do the unexpected.

A single word alone is charged with so many contexts. Exactly when and how to use them is at the discretion of the speaker, but even the most extensive vocabulary may well fall short against everyday wordplay.

My daily chatter is full of awkward pauses, repetitions, and sounds that mean nothing but make perfect sense when rolled into conversation. They’re not recurrences in the English that I’ve learnt to speak growing up. There was a valued standard. Sometimes the ‘cultured’ manner of British English enjoyed authority, at other times American phrasing loosened one’s impulse to get their grammar right.

And that’s the thing: correction always more about the grammar. A sixth-grade English class was an hour-long crack at converting simple past tenses into the present perfect tense, disentangling messy subject-verb agreements, filling in the gaps with prepositions. Was it really that important to know something as small as whether the book was on or at the table?

Gestures are always subordinated to the absolute power of the word. This absolute language was the language that was encouraged. It didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t necessarily my own.

I’m often unsettled by the question: how did I ever really learn English? Why do I feel a little apprehensive about losing grasp of it? I seldom speak in my mother tongue — Urdu — even though it was a major part of my education.

With English, it seems to me that I’ve inherited not just a language, but the occasional yet enormous need to truly master it.

How does a polyglot tackle this? What do they do when something is still found lacking, despite many languages at their disposal? When I don’t get the right word, I feel the scope of my thoughts diminish. I feel that the thought process is negatively impacted because the instrument of expression is also jeopardized.

Linguistic aptitude was never about acquiring grammar rules, but also the sense of a language, its sounds and visuals, and cultural associations. A translator, for example,. doesn’t simply track down lexical equivalents to beat a new narrative into shape. You might as well be forge a new language altogether. There is choreography of text and sound at hand; every word rolls into sharp and faint echoes, movements leaping off the pages to make that percussive tale. This is more about intuition.

Being accustomed to grammar logic has its cons. You know it because it’s so deeply embedded into the way you think, but you’re compelled to ask yourself why you know it this way. It happens when I’m editing something, when no justification other than “this just sounds more right” allays the appetite for answers. No rule book or blueprint to go by, and for a good reason.

Learning a new language can really tell you something about your thoughts. Spanish was the starting point to my curiosities about language. Part of the job was gradual separation from my own thoughts since they were always in English. I slowly learned that Spanish tenses are different, as is their concept of time. As if all that wasn’t enough, I learned later that “it” doesn’t exist here either, at least not in the way we understand it.

Why I’m so engulfed by the English language is something that has become apparent with time. It is a status symbol, it carries an unshared prestige, a firm grasp of it makes job prospects greatly promising — to think of a few right off the bat. Surely the way I express myself has been influenced by what carries cultural value.

Being a literature graduate adds another layer of concerns. Besides accuracy in representation and analyzing stylistic formats across literatures of the world, cultural sensitivity was an added element. And this is accessed differently when you’re outside the language.

The good news is: fractures in thinking have made people engage other faculties to add new dimensions to their understanding of material. It’s one thing to put something in writing, and another to draw it on paper. Combine the two, and the interacting mediums will create magic. When words fail you in conversation, visual cues, and silences may do the trick. Describing emotional experience is ultimately complicated, but it is not something that demands explanation. It may be felt in everything that is left unsaid. There is, still, great discipline in sculpting out your personal language, but taking a step back and letting other mediums speak in the thick of it can also lead you well.