Monday, September 30, 2013

One World Language

October 9th of this year was proclaimed a national holiday, commemorating the invention, in 1443, of the Korean alphabet by King Sejong the Great.  

A professor of foreign languages, writing in the  Catholic Times, discusses some interesting facts about languages. Going back to the story of Babel in Genesis, where God punished humankind for their pride and freed
the world from one language. The professor shivers at the thought of a world with one language. We would tend to forget others, he believes, and sow the seeds of a world mired in fundamentalism.
In one way, the lack of a world language makes communicating on an external level more difficult, he believes, but liberates us from arrogance and actually enables us to speak to others at a deeper level. 

A Spanish grammarian, Antonio de Nabrija, in 1492, when presenting his new grammar to Queen Isabella, said, "Your highness, language is the companion to internationalization." A few years later the Italian explorer Columbus, sponsored by the queen, landed in a new and distant land with a new weapon, language. Spanish would, it was thought, replace  all the native languages in this new world, which would have created another Tower of Babel, according to the professor.

A few years before Isabella was born, in 1446, a wise king of Korea, who loved his people and wanted to help the less educated to read easily, put together the new language, Hangul. Those who work with languages appreciate the merits of what King Sejong had done.  However, with globalization, and the need to learn English as the common language of commerce, the influx of other languages, the cultist  language of the Internet, the vulgarity that supports much of popular culture, and the self-serving, partisan language of politicians, the Korean language, the professor says, is being destroyed.

We often can't distinguish between globalization and the spread of the  English language, he says. The learning of different languages helps us to extend our knowledge, but if this doesn't help us to sympathize and meet the other heart-to-heart, we are building up walls that will militate against communication and lead us again, he insists, to the arrogance of the Tower of Babel.

Does that mean learning our own language and a foreign language can't co-exist? he asks. He assures us they both can thrive together. He mentions that at an international meeting of scholars, he met with a linguist who spoke 10 languages fluently. When he asked him for the secret to learning so many languages, the linguist said,"Knowing your own." An answer the professor wholeheartedly agrees with, having devoted his own life to the study of languages. Being able to speak and write your own language well is the seedbed, the professor says, to learning any new language.

He concludes the column by asking readers to take time out to read something in Korean slowly, savoring the beauty and simplicity of the language created by King Sejong out of love for his people, and to thank God for the fortuitousness of the destruction of the Tower of Babel.


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