Monday, October 31, 2016

The Tower of Babel and Prop 58: Multilingual Education

In our monthly Bible study at Orange Grove Meeting this Sunday we explored the story of the Tower of Bible (Genesis 11). According to this story, the peoples of the earth had one language and moved into what is today Mesopotamia where they built a great city with an imposing tower. When God saw that the peoples had united to build a city apart from God, God scattered the people and created confusion ("balal" in Hebrew) by causing them to speak many languages. This story is often interpreted as God's punishment of the Babylonians for having one language and building a city and a tower simply to gain a great name, rather than to honor God and follow God's laws. The story is placed between the story of Noah's flood and the story of Abraham, the founder of monotheism, as a critique of the empire that later conquered the Israelites and destroyed Jerusalem, their holy city. 

What struck us about the story is that having "one language" gave the Babylonians power--it united them--but it was also limited. This language had "few words." It lacked the richness that occurs when there are many languages, with subtle differences in meaning that arise from different cultural experiences. 

The diversity of languages can be seen as a punishment (and it certainly can be inconvenient), but it can also be seen as God's way to thwart the impulse to create empires, like that of the Babylonians. When empires arise, they unite people by forcing them to speak a common language (i.e. Akkaddian [the Babylonian language), or Roman, or in the case of the American empire, English). This common language becomes a means of social control. 

What this story reveals is that God did not want humankind to have a common language that could be used for this purpose. Diversity of languages meant that peoples could develop in diverse ways. This meant that the Hebrews could have their own language, apart from Akkadian. 

This story is enriched by a pun that can only be understood if you know Akkadian and Hebrew. In Akkadian, the word "Babel" means "the Gate of God." In Hebrew, the word "balal" means the babbling of children. This was a way for the Hebrews to mock the pretensions of the Babylonians. Their "Gate of God" was (for the Hebrews) just baby talk.

It is also important to note that the story of Babel is replayed in the Book of Acts, where early Christians of many nations unite at Pentecost and praised God in many languages, but somehow could understand each other. The common language that united them was not the language of empire (i.e. Latin or Greek), but the language of the Holy Spirit.

Babylon became an important symbol in the history of the Church. When the Catholic church used the Latin language to create unity among Christians, it also imposed its hierarchical power structure. Only the elites trained by the Church could speak Latin, the language of power. Protestants like Martin Luther rebelled by translating the Bible into vernacular languages and called the Roman Church "Babylon." Translating the Bible in many languages created confusion and even led to religious wars, but ultimately it enabled Christianity to become more relevant and to reach common people who could finally understand the Bible in their own native tongue. As of September 2016, the full Bible has been translated into 554 languages, and 2,932 languages have at least some portion of the Bible. 

There has been a lot of pressure in our country to unite around one language and to push for "English only." In 1998 voters in California passed Prop  227, which eliminated most bilingual education in California's public schools. There are social advantages to having all students be proficient in English, but we now see that there are also advantages in encouraging linguistic diversity. Over 120 languages are spoken in churches in LA every Sunday, and the United States trades with nations around the world. It is an advantage to be able to speak many languages, if we want to thrive as a world power, and if we want immigrants to feel included in our nation.

Our legislators have realized it is important to publish documents in many languages so that they can be understood by citizens for whom English is not their primary languages.

The diversity of cultures in America has enriched us in many ways, from food and dance to art and literature. Even 

As an English prof, I loved to teach my students that the English language is a composite of many languages: it is a combination of French and Anglo-Saxon that took place after the French (Normans) conquered England in 1066 (with some Viking, Greek, Welch and Gaelic words throw in). This pot pouri of many languages means that English has a complex vocabulary that is extremely expressive. It also has many more words than either German or Romance languages that come from one common root stock. 

Because of my love for diversity, I support Prop 58, which will give schools more freedom in using diverse languages as long as their purpose is to help students become fluent in English. As FCNLCA notes, 'It creates more choice. It maintains the requirement that public schools must teach students to become fluent in English, but also authorizes school districts--with parental and community input--to establish dual immersion programs for natige and non-native English speakers."

In other words, this Proposition honors God's intention to allow a little confusion--diversity of languages--so we can create a society where unity comes through a shared spirit, not through the requirements of empire. 

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