The Babel problem and the dangers of multilingualism

Aspects of the english language


And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” 

The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, and the Lord said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing they may propose to do will be out of their reach. 

Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech there .  Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 

That is why it was called Babel [from Hebrew balal, ‘to confound’ — AMP], because the Lord confounded the speech of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4-9).

To a modern person, there isn’t much value or insight in the Book of Genesis.  This is the oldest book in the Bible, and it’s either dull (endless genealogies; the Babel passage occurs right after an exhaustive account of Noah’s sons’ descendants) or phantasmagorical, with talking serpents and divine beings who “cohabited with the daughters of men” (6:8).  Of all of the dozens (hundreds?) of commandments in the other four books of the Torah (aka The Five Books of Moses), only one occurs in Genesis: circumcision (17:13-14).   In all, pretty primitive.

Brilliant insight

That’s why the Babel passage — especially “nothing they may propose to do will be out of their reach” — stands out as a brilliant insight on the part of the writer (probably a priest in the 8th century BCE).

I know I’m stating the obvious, but it’s something that most people, including politicians, fail to grasp: language barriers are the primary stumbling block to world peace and harmony, as well as the maximization of human potential.  There is no better way to exclude someone standing four feet away from you than by speaking another language — and no stronger bond than a common language.

Of course, I hasten to add that a common language has not kept people from persecuting and murdering each other for other reasons.  Sectarian wars, political revolutions — these and more upheavals can and do occur among speakers of the same language.  Six hundred thousand people died in America’s Civil War, and they all spoke English.

One language vs. many

I wish the writer of the Genesis passage could see what people can accomplish when they speak the same language.  We have indeed built towers to the sky.

It is equally certain that a multilingual society can be very hard to hold together.  We think of China as linguistically monolithic, but there are actually ten different “dialects,” which are really mutually unintelligible languages.  The Chinese government is trying to promote Mandarin, the language of Beijing, especially in ethnically diverse areas, but there’s resistance, of course.  Fortunately the writing systems (actually one a simplified version of the other) work the same regardless of dialect, because the symbols are attached to meaning, not pronunciation.

India has 22 official languages, and the country seems to be doing an admirable job of making it work.  But there must be enormous time-wasting logistical problems caused by having to translate everything, especially public documents.   Canada has only two languages, and there are problems.  Each consumer product is labeled in two languages.  Try that in India!

The search for universality

In the past few centuries, there have been some 700 attempts to create an artificial international language.

The hope is always that the made-up languages would increase understanding.  Mostly they fail because it’s too much trouble for most people to learn an artificial language on top of their native speech (though it’s not too much trouble to learn Klingon).  But today we accomplish even more with technology, as computers facilitate language learning and translation.

Misguided liberalism

This is all good news, but the Babel problem remains.  It doesn’t help that misguided liberalism places great value on maintaining one’s native language, as if the speakers themselves don’t do that on their own.

Result: 92 languages other than English are spoken in the Los Angeles School District.  Say what??  How are students supposed to communicate with each other or understand what the teacher is saying?

Bottom line: the Babel problem is bad enough without encouraging it.  Other Western countries that slipped up and allowed mass immigration are having the same problem.

Memories of Yiddish

My grandparents immigrated from Eastern Europe. They spoke Yiddish, which has the same origins as German but differs in important ways, including modifications of the grammar, imports from Hebrew, Aramaic, and other languages from the localities to which Jews migrated (or fled) — and it’s all written with Hebrew letters, making it unreadable unless you know the alphabet.

My grandfather used to read a Yiddish newspaper to me aloud, and the effect on me, as a budding linguist, was weird: all these Hebrew letters (which I knew from Hebrew school), read aloud, right to left, and sounding a bit like German.

Learned English right off the bat

Both sets of grandparents spoke passable, though heavily-accented English.  It was enough to get by.

A better suit

Both grandfathers were tailors.  The maternal one, Hymie, was a dress patternmaker. He spoke well enough to take over one of my father’s drugstores on weekends (not filling prescriptions, of course). The other, Jake, ran his own tailor shop on West Market St. in West Chester PA.  When Calvin Coolidge came to town on a campaign stop, Jake told him that he, Jake, could make him a better suit than the one he was wearing.  At least, that’s how the family legend has it.

The amazing thing is that all my grandparents learned English without the help of a massive army of academics, consultants, and bureaucrats that comprises the TOEFL/TESOL (Teaching English as a Foreign/Second Language) industry.

The power of total immersion — and necessity

How did my grandfathers (and to a lesser extent, my grandmothers) do it?  Well, it’s remarkable what total immersion can do, especially if learning the language of your new country is a high priority and a requirement for surviving in it.  It helped that English proficiency was a requirement for citizenship.  It still is, but for millions of illegals, it’s optional.

My parents learned English immediately, and my father graduated from college. Incredible — from immigrant to college graduate in one generation.   Both of Hymie’s sons went to college too. (Full disclosure: Dad’s siblings didn’t do as well.)  Yiddish was still spoken a little in our house, especially when the grandparents were around, but it faded out with my generation.

Good.  Yiddish has its advocates and a considerable literature.   You can learn it and speak it.  But when I got a mailing from my healthcare insurance company, the offer of a translator was phrased in over 20 languages, and Yiddish was not one of them.  It does not claim equal status with English.


If our family history had coincided with the rise of multiculturalism and identity politics, my parents would have spoken Yiddish, along with heavily-accented — and probably grammatically flawed — English (listen to the many foreign accents on a street in New York or Chicago, and you’ll see what I mean).

That would have put me in a bilingual class, where I would have been held back by being allowed to learn in Yiddish.  I would have graduated with eighth-grade English skills, and my opportunities in life would have been severely limited.

Multilingualism is here to stay.

You can’t turn back the clock.  America is a multilingual society and is becoming more so, at the behest of well-meaning people who speak socially and grammatically perfect English but don’t want to be called ”racist” by insisting on one national language (for an organization that does, see ) .

We are already a de facto bilingual society.  Consider: every time you call a company, utility, medical facility, government organization, or any enterprise but small local businesses, you get the option to continue in Spanish.

This is a HUGE development, a major social language change that took place before we even noticed.  Millions of people can now do anything they need to do with many thousands of companies, all in Spanish.  Why is that?  This is not how we incentivize the learning of English.

And nobody opposes it, especially those who can do so with authority.  Other scientists speak out on political or social issues in which they have expertise.  Why not linguists?

Anybody home?

Why aren’t linguists speaking out on this critical issue?   Why aren’t they appearing on cable news or writing op-ed pieces or taking out signed, full-page ads in major newspapers advocating, if not linguistic unity, at least — AT LEAST — an awareness of the divisive effects of multilingualism and of where our love of diversity is taking us?

The silence is deafening.  Why?

A wild guess: the linguists who should be speaking out — including the Great One Chomsky Himself, Expert on Everything — are comfortably ensconced and cocooned in the groves of academe, where multilingualism is the order of the day.  They sit in their cushy, air-conditioned offices, churn out reams of research (that only other linguists read)…and they haven’t got half an hour to reach out to the newspapers and TV outlets with this important message?

Nah.  Way too comfy, living in the epicenter of this madness.  Better not rock the boat.

A modest proposal

How about one slight change in the millions of automated phone systems which now say, in Spanish, “to continue in Spanish, press 2.”  What if you pressed 2 and heard, in Spanish,

You obviously have not learned the language of your adopted country.  Please hang up and call again when you are able to do business in English.

I know, politically incorrect, totally — but it would send the right message.