Tower of Babel: Connecting Through Language

It
started with the Tower of Babel.

There
I was, sitting in my IB Business and Management class wondering why on Earth, in this era of globalization, we still see language differences as a
significant barrier to entry when businesses expand into new markets.

In
the biblical tale, the absence of a unified language alone poses formidable
threats that prevent the collaborators from constructing the Tower of Babel. So
I wonder: What could the human race accomplish if we could all just talk to
each other?

With
Almighty Language, we can potentially reconstruct numerous Towers of Babel collaboratively.
Metaphorically, the Tower may represent a global project to exterminate
extreme poverty, which needs collaboration between individual governments,
international investors and multinational NGOs.

Studying
languages in depth should not just be regarded as a means of fulfilling the foreign language requirement, an extrinsic motivator. Instead, we should
acknowledge the power of languages and be intrinsically motivated and strive
to take full advantage of the resources that the 5Cs have to offer.

Languages
have become an essential tool for me to overcome communication barriers when I
travel in other countries. More importantly, no matter how limited my
proficiency in a particular language is, the psychological distance between the
native speakers and myself is often shortened. Let me share a story with you.

Last
summer, I volunteered as an interpreter at an international youth exchange
program in Beijing. While participants hailed from 11 European countries, the
event organizers were from mainland China. My job was to serve as a bridge
connecting both parties as we ambitiously visited an average of three sites (e.g. the Great Wall, Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven) daily.

Soon
enough, I observed that although the organizers diligently squeezed group
activities into the already fully packed schedule, the tourists did not seem
appreciative. Upon approaching participants individually, I found them rather
timid. When I attempted to speak a few words from their mother tongue, they
became much more open and began to treat me as a friend instead of a
go-between. The informal and personalized method allowed me to find specific
concerns and report back to the organizers.

I
was glad to hear positive feedback (in several languages!) when we adjusted
activities accordingly. After we broke this invisible wall, we had much more
fun, constantly exchanging expressions and cultural facts in our respective
languages.

The
power of languages could extend beyond reconstructing the Tower of Babel.
Here is another anecdote from our Pomona Orientation Adventure at Sequoia
National Park, a four-day hiking and camping trip that marked the start of real
college life. As my parents returned to China during my time at Sequoia, I was
to begin living in my home away from home as a young adult.

I
wore my favorite T-shirt to the trip: a plain DIY T-shirt from Greece. It has
Plato’s quotation, “Thinking: the Talking of the Soul with Itself,” and my name in
Greek.

If
I were to graph my mood with time as the independent variable and happiness as
the dependent variable, the slope would dramatically switch from positive to
negative upon the discovery that there was literally zero phone service in the
park.

Even
though I was wearing my favorite T-shirt and convinced myself that the grand
combination of hiking, camping, cooking and tasting self-innovated food (which
I called ‘melting pots,’ and where we mixed every ingredient we brought with us) would
distract me from homesickness, I felt despondent.

I
started commanding my tears to avoid a first awkward encounter with my new
friends. This was when I heard a voice: “Σκέψη: η ομιλία της ψυχής με τον εαυτό
της.”

The
speaker was walking toward me as he read the quote aloud.

“Greek?!” we asked simultaneously, amazed. I recalled hearing from a Greek friend how
even Modern Greek is sometimes labeled a ‘dead language.’

I
explained my love affair with Greek culture. Originally from Crete and Thessaloniki,
he listened attentively and smiled as I outlined my travel itinerary in Greece
over the summer and my attempt to grasp the very basics of this challenging
language for beginners.

Rather
than a temporary distraction from my nostalgic yearning for home, the
conversation brightened my day, waking me up from my slight unconsciousness of
the surrounding environment all morning. I began to remember him sitting across
from my seat on the shuttle, wearing a pair of sunglasses alongside a cool
facial expression. He admitted afterward, “My sunglasses were masking my
tears, but when I saw the Greek alphabets on your T-shirt, I felt so happy.”

We
can hardly deny the omnipresence of English in every continent of our
globalized world. Although I would not argue that English is colonizing other
languages, I do feel that the diversity, cultural expressivity and magical
power of languages should be celebrated across the world—whether they are
shared in English or in any other language.

April Xiaoyi Xu PO’18 intends to
major in international relations. She regularly contributes to
The Huffington
Post and The South China Morning Post, and is part of TSL’s copy editing department.

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