Sunday, December 09, 2007

Are you a monolingualist?



I come from a monolingual culture. People in Australia think that English is all you need. Yet around 25% of the Australian population now have a first language other than English. This attitude of monolingualism dates back to imperialism. The British empire set out to colonise the world. The attitude of imperialism was that the colonising culture was a superior one. The inferior culture would therefore benefit from speaking the language of the imperial force. This was a dominant world view of the age.

This dominant world view was influenced by a dual desire to spread the source culture's dominance but also by a fear of cultures foreign and unknown. Jesuit missionaries seemed to evade this damaging world view, but many other missionaries did not. Protestant missionaries in Australia, Canada, America and Africa held a very imperial world view toward the indigenous peoples of those countries. The indigenous peoples were often told that their language and culture were evil and demonic. To become a Christian meant to leave one's culture and language behind. Whilst at times these may seem like broad generalisations, they were grievous mistakes made none the less.

These mistakes were informed by a dominant world view to be sure, but how much did these missionaries seek to be informed by the Holy Spirit? These are not simple issues by any means. It does scare me though that these same problems exist in 21st century Russia. Russians are monolingual in their world view. Siberian peoples are told that their language and culture do not matter, even by the Russian church. These seem to be the exact same mistakes being repeated again.

Such attitudes often make me angry. It causes me grief to see a people have their language and culture threatened. I know that God loves minority peoples, their cultures and their languages. It is a challenge to modern day Australians and Canadians also to not be monolingual in our approach to society. Monolingualism is damaging in all ways. I truly hope that a change of government (even though I believe the Labor government in Australia will be grossly incompetent on an economic level) may reinvigorate the chance to save Australian Aboriginal languages. I also hope that I may play a part in saving indigenous languages in Siberia.

There is a lot to combat in the imperial mindset, world view is deep seated.

God is in favour of multilingualism. The story of the tower of Babel is testament to this. An interesting piece of trivia is that there were already multiple languages before the tower of Babel. It is just the common language that was confused at that event.

What should be our response to this problem? Respect the rights of indigenous peoples and immigrants to speak languages other than English. There is no reason that people can not be bilingual in their lives. Affirm others in their language and culture. You could even go so far as to learn their language in an effort to love them in a practical way. This will be one of the most powerful ways that you can love a person. Do not be afraid of the unknown. Seek to know and to understand. Do not shy away from the Muslim immigrant, love them, get to know them and their culture. Speak their language and in turn, speak the language of love.

6 comments:

Nathan said...

Every people group, and therefore its identity, was ordained by God.

And their current basic language.

But, it clearly says later on in the prophets (don't have a concordance on me) that God would give the people a clean lip and would remove the curse of Babel and all the earth will have one tounge during the Messiah's physical reign on the earth (I'm not getting into eschatological theory here - what is says is what it says and we can make our own minds up if we think it indicates something different).

In Gen 11:1 it says they all had one language and one accent. Which would make sense as humanity was a single extended family decended from the still-living Noah (humanity was scattered in the days of - the presumably infant - Peleg, Gen 10:25, 11:16).

Yes every nation, tribe and tounge is before the throne in Revelation. But there we will know as we are known (Romans?).

Which is really really cool.

Pasha said...

Hi Nathan, thanks for your commentary.

I thought I would just add these verses:

Descendants of Japheth
Genesis 10:5 From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their own nations, each with its own language.

Descendants of Ham
Genesis 10:20 These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

Descendants of Shem
Genesis 10:31 These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

1) The Genesis writer took the time to explain that the descendants of Noah's sons all had different languages.

2) It is unclear precisely when the story of the tower of Babel is set. Obviously in the same era. But there is nothing indicating that the table of nations in chapter ten comes after the tower of Babel. Genesis up until this point comes in a roughly chronological order (i.e each major story happens after the previous- Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah etc.)

3) Genesis 11:1 says that the whole world had a common language and speech, however it does not necessarily mean that every individual spoke this tongue- although they may have. We need to escape our monolingual world view, and imagine that the people at the tower of Babel already spoke more than one language. I.e they spoke the common language and they spoke their own clan's language.

4) My proposed (yet unprovable I know) hypothesis is that the common language was confused at Babel and then people could only use their clan's language after that point. Following this there was far less incentive to have a common capital in the world, and so the clans went their own way.

To me this indicates that multiple languages is a good thing. We often look at the tower of Babel as evidence that many languages is a bad thing. I don't see the result of Babel as a curse. It was discipline but not a curse. In each of the earlier stories involving people in Genesis, God gave out a punishment which was then immediately followed by Grace. So, I see that God was showing grace to the nations by forcing them into a place where they forged their own identity. The tower of Babel was dangerous because it was a clear possibility for outright control by a human being over the human race, which would make it harder for people to reach God. God removed this barrier when he destroyed the tower project.

I would be interested to see this prophecy you are referring to.

Lisette said...

I think there is room for both what you and nathan are saying. I am inclined to agree that there was and will be a common language, but that does not mean that we will not all speak our own languages too. Even in a monolingual society, people identify their social/demographic groups with language markers. We may all understand each other, but it does not mean we all speak the same way.

Pasha said...

I hope I didn't sound like I was disagreeing with Nathan. I think it is very likely that God will give us a common language either during Christ's earthly reign or in heaven. Perhaps this is related to the heavenly language, of which the gift of tongues is a glimpse.

I would be very curious to read the prophecy.

I also think it will be fun learning thousands of languages in heaven, as we will have all of eternity to do so. A common language in the mean time would be very helpful though.

sharnelle said...

having not fully read everything that has been said in the comments, rather just glancing over it sorry if im repeating anything that has allready been said.

as a lanuage student i have found that in learning another language and culture i have learnt ALOT more about my own and myself. Havinging now traveled to japan twice, a country where many people do speak english, yet speaking their language the people of that country have a lot great respect for you as you are trying to fit in with them, you are showing acceptance of them and their culture.
in refrance to the tower of bable story;
i believe that as paul said it was probebly jsut the common language that was distroyed and the tribal languages were still in existance.
and it was God's way of saying that in our earthly life there is not to be a common language between everyone.
though i do believe that we will have a common heavenly language.

Nathan said...

(For my reply to Paul's comment above please see the subsequent Babel post. I've focussed on what I consider to be the main issues and have neglected all the other interesting stuff)