Multilingualism in Babel

Years ago, while I was studying the phenomenon of bilingualism, I came across a letter in a book, written by a Polish mother living in Sweden to a linguist working at a nearby university. She poured out her heart on how she felt a deep sadness when hearing her bilingual daughter talk to her dolls in Swedish instead of Polish “despite all the time spent teaching her all the sweetest words in the Polish language when she was little, despite pouring all my love out to her in Polish”. Although she understood what her daughter said perfectly, and approved the content, the fact that it was in the “wrong” language, threw her off and elicited negative instead of positive feelings. To a monolingual person living in a monolingual environment, this may seem contorted and strange. At the time that I read this I wasn’t married yet and didn’t have children, and though I acknowledged these emotions as possible side effects of living in a non-familiar language environment, it wasn’t until I had married a man with a different language and had my own bilingual children, that I had my own experience of being linguistic-emotionally “disenfranchised”.

Language is more than a vehicle for statements about something; it brings with it baggage of historical, emotional and cultural knowledge that sometimes overpowers the statement itself. Language also has different levels of penetration in our lives depending on the relationship we have with the specific words being used. In many youth cultures around the world it is common to say “I love you” in English, instead of in your mother tongue. Sometimes this is to mimic North-American youth culture and enable you “be” someone else, but often it is because saying it in English makes it less serious or deep, so it slips off your tongue with ease and little afterthought. Likewise, a lot of us have experienced how easily swearwords sneak into your language in a foreign tongue. Saying “Merde” in French will never have the same taste of taboo, and will never fully express what its English counterpart does to a native English speaker.

Language is a tool for us to remember, to make sense of the outside world, but it is also the mirror for us to relate this outside world to our own history and to our own experience. In their book “Vanishing voices” Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine state that each language “has its own window to the world”, and in my personal experience this rings so true. Though I see and understand reality through the several languages that I use in my daily life, when the same reality is described using certain words my grandmother used, it connects in a different manner to my memories and my body, and has a more vivid smell, touch and feel than when I hear it in a different language or dialect. Recently I read an article that explained this feeling. When I feel that my brain is illuminated at hearing certain words in my mother tongue, I’m not hallucinating; it is actually pretty close to what brain imaging actually shows. The leader of the study cited in the article, professor Proverbio, attributes the differences to the fact the brain absorbs the mother tongue at a time when it is also storing early visual, acoustic, emotional and other non-linguistic knowledge. This means that the native language triggers a series of associations within the brain that show up as increased electrical activity.

The story from Genesis about the Tower of Babel has often been interpreted as an account of how linguistic diversity is a punishment from God. Through the ages of humanity this story has been used as an excuse to suppress languages, it’s given inspiration for inhuman experimentation on infants, while trying to discover what the “original language” of humankind might be. The idea one common language as an ideal to obtain, may also have been part of the rationale for punishing the use of aboriginal languages at residential schools. My own twist on the story is different. The Tower of Babel story is a legend representing (among other things) the idea that diversity in human understanding and perspective is not only God’s will but God’s doing.

Support for this thesis can also be found in description in Acts of the day of Pentecost. Here we read about how people from a multitude of linguistic and cultural backgrounds, all hearing the apostles speak in their own tongue. Now, if God was a promoter of monolingualism or held the view that a common, original language was a good thing, I’m sure the people would have been given the language ability to understand the language spoken by to them (presumably Aramaic). That miracle would have been just as easy to perform. Instead the story shows recognition of the beauty of language, and can be read as an endorsement of diversity. It reminds us that speaking different languages is an enriching experience, and that God knows how close your mother tongue is to your heart.


~ by Hege on June 7, 2010.

One Response to “Multilingualism in Babel”

  1. A great link/book for exploring the connection between language and emotion

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