Tower of Babel

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Getting back into my routine at Rome, I have had a week to reflect on my fall break.  Going to four different cities in a span of ten days is overwhelming to say the least; and as I was zooming around ModaLisboa, the Reine Sofia, Sagrada Familia, and the French Riviera, I never got a chance to stop and catch my breath.  Now that I am back “home” in Rome, my experiences in each city become clearer—most notably, I found myself contemplating the perplexity of language.

Volunteer (“voluntario”) at the Real Jardín Botanico in Madrid.

According to the Bible, the multitude of languages that exist today arose from the construction of a tower that was supposed to reach the sky and prevent people from being scattered all over the world.   The author of the book of Genesis goes on to write that God saw that the people—with one language—would be able to attain anything they desired, so he confounded their speech.  Now, however, with the rise of globalization, languages have become increasingly mixed.  Not only do the Romance languages (Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish, and Romanian) hold similarities, but also all languages have begun borrowing words from each other.  Learning Italian here, I see how much integration has occurred.  For example, in the United States, we use the words “cappuccino,” “espresso,” “latte,” “macchiato,” and “panini” almost every day.  In Rome, it is customary to wish someone a nice weekend by saying, “Buon week-end.”  Furthermore, during my stays in Portugal and Spain, I was surprised by how easily I got around the cities by myself with my knowledge of Italian, French, and English.  In Tanzania, the word “safari” in Swahili means trip or journey, whereas in English, the term is defined as an expedition to see animals in their natural habitat.  And in China, it has become “cool” to know English and so people love to incorporate English words into daily verbal communication.  For instance, the formal way to say good-bye is still “zai jian,” but, informally, many young people simply say, “Bye-bye!”  These are citations of small changes, but given the current trend, who knows what will happen in a century or two?

Tower of Babel aside, The Rosetta Project states that about fifty to ninety percent of the world’s languages will disappear in the next century.  There is no denying that it would be more convenient to have only one language; yet, so much culture would also be lost.  And even if one global language did arise, which one would it be?  The top 5 most spoken languages in the world are, in order:  Mandarin, English, Hindustani, Spanish, and Russian.  Although Mandarin is number one, linguist David Crystal attests that English is the global language.  He estimates that 30% of the world population is already “reasonably competent,” and about one billion people in the midst of learning.  English has adopted a world-class status, but one that is tainted by well intentioned, white-supremacistic charity efforts to teach this “global language” to citizens all over the world.  Will we allow the dispute over “one” language to divide us or stand separated, yet indivisible in preservation?

Teaching students at Shalom Primary School in Arusha, Tanzania.

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