Wilhelm von Humboldt said, in the eighteenth century, “Language is, as it were, the external manifestation of the minds of the peoples. Their language is their soul, and their soul is their language.”
The era of Donald Trump has led us to question many things. One of them is the definition of a country. What holds people of different backgrounds together in one country?
Language is one of the most important pillars in countries that are multi-ethnic, with people from many different cultures coming together. How do I know? The story of the Tower of Babel which is as relevant today as it was in Biblical times.
Here is the story.
Genesis 11:1-9 New International Version (NIV)
The Tower of Babel
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Think about the reasons for God changing everyone’s language. These were people working together, in unison, on one project. To reach the Heavens. God, was not amenable to that idea. So He put a stumbling block in their way. Didn’t change their sexual orientation, their race, colour or creed, their religion. He changed their language. No one could understand the other. There was no possible way to work together anymore.
The lesson for today. Language is one of the pillars that holds disparate people together. A common shared language unifies people living in one country. No matter their ethnic background, their rituals and symbols, their private prayers, all are able to share in a common history because of a common language. Newcomers learn the history of their adopted country in the language in which it was made-binding the past to the present and looking toward the future, together. Shared stories need to be shared in a common language. Similes and metaphors translated into a different language do not carry the same meaning-no matter how well-meaning the translation.
A common language is vitally important in countries that promote cultural harmony and diversity; it is one of the four pillars of a sovereign nation.
Canada has two official languages: French and English. Yet, over the decades we have stopped insisting that newcomers learn one of the two languages. We have been so busy promoting diversity that we are allowing other languages to take over neighbourhoods-thus isolating newcomers from our Canadian culture. Many of us remember parents and grandparents who did not speak English. But their children and grandchildren truly became citizens of their country when they could speak a common language; for it is language that promotes inclusivity.
This story of multiple languages in one country is being played out all over the West. But there is a story in Canada that illustrates the danger of not having a common language.
In Richmond BC, many new immigrants from China seem to prefer to speak Chinese. They live in neighbourhoods where neither of the two Canadian official languages appear on signs or are spoken in stores. It is a ghetto-open only to those who speak a foreign language.
English and French speakers are lost in their own country. Chinese citizens have no reason to include themselves, in the Canadian story because they have no incentive to learn one of the two official languages. They cannot contribute to the story because their language is foreign and they cannot become part of the story because they do not understand the language. This is not an isolated case of people coming to Canada choosing not to acculturate through language.
Studies have been done to show the importance of a common language at work.
“When we speak the same language, we understand each other. This builds stronger relationships and brings about a sense of belonging and identity… It is said that unity is strength, and the start of unity is speaking the same language.
If it is important in the work environment how much more important is a common language to a country?
For those who choose to enter a new country with a new language, why did you come if you are not prepared to share our story, the country’s story, in the common language of her history? We cannot stand for a particular set of values if our citizens choose to turn away from sharing the language that speaks to those values.
In the twentieth century, Roland Barthes wrote;
“Man does not exist prior to language, either as a species or an individual. We never find a state where man is separated from language, which he then creates in order to ‘express’ what is taking place within him: it is language which teaches the definition of man, not the reverse.”
From the Ethics of the Fathers: “Rabbi Tarfon used to say, it is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but you are not exempt from undertaking it.”