Reconstructing the Tower of Babel with language

Reconstructing the Tower of Babel with language

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Photo: April Xu

It started with the Tower of Babel from the biblical Book of Genesis…

There I was, sitting in my IB Business and Management class, wondering why on earth in this era of globalisation we still see language differences as a significant barrier for businesses expanding into new markets.

The biblical story enlightened me with an answer that extends beyond the realm of business: collaboration. 

The absence of a unified language alone poses formidable threats that prevent collaborators. So, my reasoning goes: language differences hinder collaboration by creating communication difficulties. To overcome those obstacles, we can return to the root cause: languages.

Languages have become an essential tool for me to overcome communication barriers when I travel in other countries. More importantly, no matter how limited my proficiency is in a particular language, the psychological distance between the native speakers and myself is often shortened when I try to communicate in their native tongue. Let me share a story with you.

Last summer, I volunteered as an interpreter at an international youth exchange programme in Beijing. While the participants hailed from 11 European countries, the event organisers were from mainland China. My job was to serve as a bridge connecting both parties as we visited a minimum of three sights each day, according to the ambitious three-day schedule. (For example, The Great Wall, Summer Palace, AND Temple of Heaven!) Soon enough, I observed that although the organisers diligently squeezed group activities in the already fully packed schedule, members did not seem appreciative. They did not voice any concerns, however.

Upon approaching participants individually, I found them rather timid. "Time to use the weapon," I decided. When I attempted to speak a few words from their mother tongue, they became much more open and began to treat me as a friend instead of a go-between. The informal and personalised method allowed me to find specific concerns and report back to the organisers. I was glad to hear positive feedback (in several languages!) when we adjusted activities accordingly. After we broke this invisible wall, we had much more fun, constantly exchanging expressions and cultural facts in our respective languages.

Equipped with languages, why don’t we continue building the Tower of Babel through collaboration? With Almighty Language, we can potentially reconstruct numerous “Towers of Babel” together. For instance, the "Tower” may represent a global project to exterminate extreme poverty, which needs collaboration between individual governments, international investors, multinational NGO’s, and global citizens.

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2 Comments

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