It was a beautiful day in Metz, France, as I sat on the top of a medieval stone wall looking out over the city. What an amazing experience! Unfortunately, the policemen who quickly approached did not agree. They were angry, I could tell, but the words they spoke were mostly incomprehensible. Quickly I scampered back to street level and did my best to apologize with my limited command of the language. How could I explain that this was just a misunderstanding—that I was not a vandal? If only I had studied harder in French class!
How about you? Are you learning a new language, or thinking about doing so?
School language programs are one way to learn. There are also self-directed study courses available in books and computer software. Friends and family who already know another language are a great resource. It's often been said that the most effective way to learn a language is by complete immersion into an environment in which only that language is spoken. Effective it is, but it's still a challenge to learn even one of the many languages of the world!
Learning another language takes hard work and lots of practice, but there are many good reasons for making the effort. Hopefully you'll never need to worry about dealing with angry police in a foreign country, but it never hurts to be prepared!
From one language to many
How many languages are there? The Linguistic Society of America puts the number at 6,809. This is considerably more than the 1,000 estimated by The Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1911. The actual number of languages has not dramatically increased within the past century, but many have been discovered during that time. Often these languages are shared by a relatively small number of people, and those who use them often also speak one of the more common "power languages." English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Russian, French, Hindi, Arabic and Portuguese have become the means by which most of the world's communication occurs.
How did so many languages come into existence? Scholars propose a variety of theories, but the Bible actually explains the process. It says in the book of Genesis that after Noah's Flood at the building of the Tower of Babel, people all shared the same language. To separate the various peoples of mankind, God caused different groups to suddenly speak only in new languages different from one another—so that the various groups could no longer readily understand one another (see Genesis 11). Otherwise, technological progress would have advanced too quickly, leading to all sorts of potential trouble for the ancient world.
Modern scholars may not accept this biblical account, but they cannot deny that breaking down the language barrier helps people overcome differences and accomplish much more.
Following the Babel incident, languages evolved and further divided as people groups split up, with tribes becoming isolated for periods in their migrations. And as different peoples interacted, their languages also influenced one another.
English still prominent, but other languages on the rise
An old joke says that if someone who speaks two languages is called bilingual and someone who speaks three languages is trilingual, then the person that speaks only one language is called … an American! This is no compliment to my native county, but the fact that you're reading this in English is a significant reason Americans have been slow to learn other languages. They already know the language that has the farthest reach and the most influence. That seems to be changing though, and it has certainly not always been so.
A few hundred years ago England was a minor military power and a cultural backwater, but as Englishmen built an empire, they spread their language around the world. The prominence and influence of former British colonies like the United States, Australia, India and South Africa assured that English would continue as the world's leading international language even after the British Empire was dismantled.
However, as our 21st-century international business and diplomacy are increasingly conducted in other languages, a young person would be wise to learn one or more of these. Attaining fluency in the right language could open rewarding career opportunities. But there's more to gain than just economic or social advantage.
Making connections, sharing ideas
In Vertical Thought we strive to think above our everyday lives and focus on matters of the highest importance. Relating to others is one of those matters. Language—any language—is a means of communication, of sharing ideas between people. Whether the channel used is the written or spoken word, or some other means, the language used encodes an idea that exists in one person's mind so that it can be transmitted to someone else. To communicate the idea successfully, both people must understand the same language, and when they do, they can build a relationship that would be impossible otherwise.
For example, during the Renaissance era in Europe many nations sailed the waters of the Mediterranean. Each had a different tongue, so in order to conduct business they had to use a common language. Since the Italian city states ruled the waves, what emerged was a combination of mostly Italian with French, Spanish, Greek and Arabic. This was called the Lingua Franca (Latin and Italian for "Frankish language," as Greeks and Arabs had long referred to all Western Europeans as Franks, i.e., French).
Yet the term lingua franca has come to mean any common language between people of different language groups. In fact, for several centuries before the domination of the English language, French was the lingua franca of diplomacy around the world.
When you learn to communicate in a new language, you'll find that you can make connections with and gain an understanding of people who were previously cut off from you. The Linguistic Society of America and other language experts describe how a language provides a community's connection with the past, its traditions, and a vital base of knowledge. It puts people on the same wavelength.
Many tongues, one message
The Bible gives an illustration of the value of shared language, just as it earlier showed the difficulties arising from language barriers. When a large number of Jesus' disciples gathered after His crucifixion, a miracle occurred whereby listeners were all able to understand what was proclaimed, even though they spoke a variety of languages (see Acts 2). This not only showed God's power, but enabled people from different countries to be brought together as an active Church and a dynamic work.
Just as interesting to us today is a Bible prophecy indicating that in the future reign of the Kingdom of God on earth there will again be only one language (Zephaniah 3:9). Free and open communication will be the rule around the world. Imagine the possibilities that would arise if you spoke the same language as every other person on the planet!
We don't know exactly when that time will come, but you don't have to wait for a miracle to communicate with people who now speak a different language!
Happily, after my adventure in France, where, thankfully, the police did not arrest me, I determined that during the remainder of the travel-study class I would take greater care in my explorations. Wishing I had worked harder to learn another language did not help me then, but it inspired me to put in more study later. You, too, can open a door to new opportunities right now by learning a new language. Bon courage!