Language and culture

“Babel-ing”: bane and blessing

by Alicia Burger, Commissioner –

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there….

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

Genesis 11:1-4

Consider Babel: motives, not construction, were the main issue!

Was it mainly pride that got in the way of the people?

Understanding the event of “Babel” has less to do with knowing what they built than with unveiling their motives—why they built it. Fear was the principal reason: fear of being scattered across the earth; fear of being separated and made to be “different” from one another, forced out of their shared cultural and linguistic commonality.

The tower of Babel represents man’s effort to go against God’s purpose and to preserve a unified human front. As a result, God confused the languages, forcing mankind to scatter, diversify and grow.

In Where the Nations Meet, Stanley Hauerwas said: “God’s confusing the people’s languages as well as his scattering of them was meant as a gift. For by being so divided, by having to face the otherness created by separateness of languages and locations, people were given the resources necessary to recognize their status as creatures.”

On many occasions during the last two years, I have said out loud: “Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if God had not confused man’s speech?” and “I wish Babel had never happened.”

Previously, I had seldom considered the blessing of being able to express myself with ease, clarity and speed. I took for granted the logical coherent set of patterns, rules and structure of a known language with skills necessary to go though the day of emails, letters, documents, writing, phone calls, casual conversations as well as board room vocabulary. All that changed the day I received orders to work in Switzerland. I speak three languages, but none that would serve me in this new cultural environment. Since arriving in Switzerland I have given much thought to the importance of “language,” both its challenges and opportunities.

As the key to the heart of culture, language serves the larger function of ethnic identity because it is the mark of “groupness.” Language signals solidarity with a particular cultural group. It creates national sentiment because of its powerful and visible symbolism. While our mother tongue gives us comfort and confidence, the lack thereof creates anxiety and minimized effectiveness.

What happens when our voice is taken away from us? Who are we then? How do we give meaning to life and how do we make sense of our environment? Not only is language functional, it is also the base for acceptance and inclusiveness. Without it we feel lost, set apart and often ignored. It is speech that allows us not only to be independent but also to be included and accepted.

On one hand, language sets us free; on the other, it restricts us. Verbal communication frames our expectations and directs our perceptions. Meaning arrives through the hidden values that are communicated through the symbolic world of our shared culture.

For me, the challenges brought by lack of “right” languages in this present appointment have been monumental, the source of much anxiety and soul searching. Since our identity, our personality, are all wrapped up in the issue of correct “Babel-ing,” I again ask myself the question: “Who am I when I cannot connect with the multiple symbolic systems, the ones that give name to ideas, feelings, experiences, events and other such phenomena that govern the multiple layers of rules of a particular speech community?

I don’t know the answer, but what I do know is that it deeply affects me and transforms me. It makes me rely on God’s grace—it makes me a better listener (talk less, listen more). As a child, it is a slow process to acquire speaking and comprehension skills first, then reading and writing skills. For this to happen now, I would need years in this cultural setting that I probably will not have. In the meantime, I rejoice in my slow progress of “Babel-ing,” with anticipation that one day, language will be as in the beginning, and the whole earth had one language and the same words and all of Heaven had one language and the same words. Hallelujah!

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