I recently recalled the story of the Tower of Babel—which I learned as a kid in Sunday school—and was struck by how relevant it is in 2018.
As I recall, the story goes something like this: There were proud people, in a city, who decided they would build a tower up to heaven. God noticed their excessive pride and decided to halt their vain undertaking. He commanded that everyone in Babel, from that day forward, would speak and understand a unique language, different from everyone else in their city. Because of this transformation, confusion and conflict ensued, work on the tower halted, and the people dispersed.
As a young man, I experienced the “Babel effect” first hand. During the Vietnam War, I served in the U.S. Navy on ships homeported in Japan. My friends and I would occasionally take a train into Tokyo to see the sights. The signs of course were in Japanese, most of the people we met spoke only Japanese, and the commuter train announcements were only in Japanese. The announcements for each train stop had us sitting on the edge of our seats, listening intently so that we did not miss our stop and end up who knows where. When we went into a restaurant—usually a small mom-and-pop place—we had another problem: ordering dinner. We had to stand up, beckon the waitress out onto the sidewalk, and point to the plastic display of a meal in the window. Luckily, the prices were written in Arabic numerals, which helped us at least know what we could afford. Occasionally, we would meet someone who was learning English or who had lived in an English-speaking country, and we wouldn’t hesitate to ask for help or directions.
Now, if we multiply these travel experiences by the thousands of people who, every day, travel or migrate to a foreign country, or are refugees in a land whose language they know not, we begin to see the scale of the problems caused by diverse languages.
And so far, we have only considered how the inability to understand another’s language or culture affects the individual or a small group. Now consider how it can affect international negotiations between countries. For example, diplomats often need to rely upon interpreters for language understanding, and they are sometimes unfamiliar with the nuances of the other nation’s culture, while interpreters are not always able to discern the nuanced meaning of the diplomats in either party. If one diplomat, through the interpreter, inadvertently insults the other diplomat, his country or his culture, it can result in a grave international misunderstanding, the consequences of which could lead to trade embargos and even potentially to war.
On 25 April 1912, Abdu’l-Baha, the son of the founder of the Baha’i Faith, gave a brief talk in Washington, D.C. on this very subject of misunderstandings due to language barriers:
Today the greatest need of the world of humanity is discontinuance of the existing misunderstandings among nations. This can be accomplished through the unity of language. Unless the unity of languages is realized, the Most Great Peace and the oneness of the human world cannot be effectively organized and established because the function of language is to portray the mysteries and secrets of human hearts. The heart is like a box, and language is the key. Only by using the key can we open the box and observe the gems it contains. Therefore, the question of an auxiliary international tongue has the utmost importance. Through this means international education and training become possible; the evidence and history of the past can be acquired. The spread of the known facts of the human world depends upon language. The explanation of divine teachings can only be through this medium. As long as diversity of tongues and lack of comprehension of other languages continue, these glorious aims cannot be realized. Therefore, the very first service to the world of man is to establish this auxiliary international means of communication. It will become the cause of the tranquillity of the human commonwealth. Through it sciences and arts will be spread among the nations, and it will prove to be the means of the progress and development of all races. We must endeavor with all our powers to establish this international auxiliary language throughout the world. It is my hope that it may be perfected through the bounties of God and that intelligent men may be selected from the various countries of the world to organize an international congress whose chief aim will be the promotion of this universal medium of speech. – Abdu’l Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 60-61.
It is easy to recognize the benefits that would result from every person in every country learning an international auxiliary language. “Auxiliary” here means that this universal language adopted by the entire world and taught to children everywhere will not replace the mother tongue of each land but will be in addition to it.
If such a universal auxiliary language were to be adopted, diplomats could easily discuss international relations without the need for interpreters. With greatly enhanced communication, many international misunderstandings would be prevented. Wars could be avoided.
For the individual traveler, logistics would be far more manageable and life would be more similar to their home country. One could read menus, travel free of anxiety over missing their destination, and speak with anyone they meet, with excellent mutual understanding. It would be as if one were in a different region of his or her own country, empowered to enjoy the local sights and culture without getting lost.
Thus, the enhancements resulting from an international auxiliary language would be a godsend to all levels of international human interaction, from intergovernmental relations to personal travel.
As we advance into the future, as one humanity, I hope it won’t be long until the misunderstandings of Babel are solely a thing of the past. I yearn for the day when it is possible for anyone anywhere to communicate freely and easily with everyone everywhere.
The day is approaching when all the peoples of the world will have adopted one universal language and one common script. When this is achieved, to whatsoever city a man may journey, it shall be as if he were entering his own home. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 249-250.