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.”