Carols, Angels, Babel, and Noona


M.C. Escher’s “Tower of Babel”

It’s Christmas, a fine time of year to tell a story that begins in church. Recently, I was in a congregation singing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” In the lyrics of the little-known later verses, the ones I had to peek at the hymnal to remember, the song describes the world we live in. It says, “And ever o’er [the world’s] Babel sounds, the blessed angels sing.”

Of course, “Babel” refers to a story early in the Bible about the social catastrophe of the Tower of Babel. Humanity was glitching out and needed its reset button hit–again. But instead of suffering another flood, our language was scrambled. It was the end of the world. Everyone was dry and safe but the world that existed before language was “confounded” was over.

Whether we read the Bible literally or not, the tower story reveals something about ourselves. The fact that a story like this could endure for so long and be so widely spread betrays the profundity of our sadness—maybe even our terror—at the barriers that divide us from each other. The Tower of Babel pricks at our collective longing for a world where “the whole earth [is] of one language, and of one speech.”

With great difficulty, language barriers can be overcome.  They are overcome, all the time. In many ways, this overcoming proves that our higher nature—the one allied with the Christmas carol’s “blessed angels” who see “all the weary world” at once—can rise above the “Babel sounds” of our lower, confused and tribal nature that would rather we huddle in exclusive groups, throwing rocks, registering and monitoring people whose families don’t sound like ours. But separation does not make us happy. On some level, when we’re calm and honest with ourselves, we all know this. It’s one of the oldest lessons there is.

In everyday terms, told without angels or towers, here’s what I mean.

For the past two semesters, my Chinese class partner and school bff has been a 27-year-old, world-travelling, polyglot, sweetie-pie, veteran of the South Korean navy. One morning, I jokingly referred to myself as his noona (Korean for a boy’s older sister) and the rest is history. Noona, noona, noona~~~

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were having lunch with him. English is the third of the five languages he knows and sometimes, understandably, his talk gets tangled. He stopped himself mid-sentence with a bitter, “Oh, my English!” Actually, it wasn’t so bad. I rephrased the complicated statement I assumed he’d been trying to make and repeated it to him. He didn’t reply with his voice. Instead, he smiled, put one hand over his heart, and extended his other hand across the table, toward me. I recognized it as the universal sign for, “This person knows my heart.” It was beautiful. I will remember what he looked like, sitting there with us, for as long as I have a mind that remembers anything.

Ask anyone: overcoming a language barrier takes more than flashcards and worksheets. Memorization and practice can train us to function but they won’t boost us all the way over the wall to where people really live. True understanding of anyone from outside (or, heck, from inside) our language group requires bringing that hand to the heart, sharing and connecting in sublime ways beyond vocabulary. Any barrier is best overcome by acts of love and brotherhood—noona-hood.

All of this is what I want to say when I’m asked why I am slaying myself to learn a new language. The more people we can talk to, the more people we can love. And when we put ourselves in a setting where our native language is not the dominant one, we learn to pay more attention to what people mean rather than just what they say. When we can only translate part of a communication through language alone, we learn to tune in to other cues—obvious ones we can observe with our senses like gestures, facial expressions, and non-verbal vocalizations, as well as cues we sense with our empathy, our feelings, with our spirits.

Why learn another language? Do it to for the resume, sure. But also, do it for love. How corny is that? Corny enough to be a Christmas song, one that looks forward to the day when “the whole world send back the song, which now the angels sing.”



2 thoughts on “Carols, Angels, Babel, and Noona

  1. Also, from a selfish perspective, being bilingual delays the onset of dementia and makes recovery from strokes easier and more complete. In sum, it gives one’s brain more depth and resiliency: TCS Second language linked to better brain function after stroke BY KATHRYN DOYLE (Reuters Health) – People who speak two languages are twice as likely as those who only speak one to regain normal cognitive function after a stroke, according to a new study.

    In recent years it has become clear that life experiences modify the way disease expresses itself in the brain, said lead author Dr. Suvarna Alladi, a neurology professor at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India.

    “One study in Toronto demonstrated that people who could speak two languages had later onset dementia,” Alladi told Reuters Health.

    Using multiple languages challenges the brain, as it can be harder to find a particular word switching between languages, and this challenge promotes neuroplasticity or “cognitive reserve,” which prepares the brain to deal with new challenges, like disease, she said.

    Researchers reviewed the medical records of 608 patients in the stroke registry at Alladi’s institution between 2006 and 2013. In Hyderabad, Telugu, Urdu, Hindi and English are all common languages and children learn three languages in school, Alladi said.

    More than half of the stroke patients spoke at least two languages.

    After accounting for other lifestyle factors like smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, age and education, the researchers found that about 40 percent of those who were bilingual had normal cognitive function after a stroke, compared to 20 percent of those who spoke only one language.

    Bilingual people also performed better on tests of attention after a stroke, but there was no difference in the likelihood of experiencing aphasia, or loss of ability to understand or express speech, according to the results in Stroke.

    “They develop stroke at the same age but outcomes appear to be better for bilinguals,” Alladi said.

    Using a second or third language regularly, or speaking it fluently even if you do not use it regularly, seems to provide the benefit to the brain, she said.

    “The most important factor would be long-term language use,” she said. Learning a second language in school and then never using it may not confer the same benefit, she said.

    “The take-home message would be that cognitively stimulating activities are something you can do in midlife to protect yourself. One is speaking two languages, but it could also be playing a musical instrument,” or other challenging activities, she said.

    “This is heartening because you know that you can do something to protect yourself,” Alladi said.

    Three languages may be better than two languages, though that is still unclear, “but I suspect the additional positive effects of further languages falls off quickly as more languages are learned,” said Fergus Craik of the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest in Toronto, who was not part of the new study.

    He and his colleagues previously found that bilingualism delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by four to five years.

    “People should learn a second language to communicate in a second living situation or to absorb a different culture – or out of interest and enjoyment,” Craik told Reuters Health by email. “The neurological benefits are a bonus, not a primary goal.”

    In many parts of the world, like India, Africa and Europe, speaking multiple languages is already common practice, Alladi said.

    “In places where two languages are existing, it’s a good idea to encourage that,” she said.

    SOURCE: Stroke, online November 19, 2015.


  2. Jennifer, this is a great article. Thank you for defining the love part of learning another language. I have tutored Chinese, Mexicans and Russians who are trying to learn english as a second language. It is always a delight to see their eyes light up when they recognize that they understand something new, or when you try to say something in their own language. We are all people with the same instincts to want to communicate, care for our families, etc. Communicating is so much more than language. It is visual too and many times people can communicate through visual methods as well as trying to use language. It is wonderful to be able to bridge the gap of the Babel scramble. I am bilingual but have spoken to many who do not speak either of my two languages and you are right when you say the heart can understand what the tongue has a hard time phrasing.

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