The Tower of Babel and Its Lessons

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The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis is an amazing story. I’ve always wondered about its significance, especially since the people started speaking in different languages.

The word Babel means confusion, and I thought it to be quite appropriate. Understanding the language of somebody else is one of the keys to good communication and relations with other nations, and, through my personal experience, can be disastrous if not understood correctly.

There are even significant regional differences in a language that are defined by dialects and accents. In Germany alone there are so many different dialects. The people in the North speak a different German than the people in the South. Americans have the same regional distinguishing accents in their country. A person in New York can instantly recognize a Texan when speaking. People in Scotland speak English but their accent is by far different than the English spoken in London or Dublin.

It’s universally evident that a dialect of a language determines the part of the country we are from. It contains a special heritage that is culturally defined by their customs, traditions, and values.

I went through several dialect changes growing up. When I first started talking I spoke the dialect of Southern Bavaria. The dialect is very similar to Austrian dialects and the pronunciations of words can sound harsh but jolly. People from the Prussian region speak proper German but their words sound more pronounced and short than the Bavarians.

When we moved in with my grandparents on the farm in Franconia, I changed my dialect again. We roll our r’s with our tongue to where most other Germans speak their r’s from the throat — similar to the French sound. The village I lived in also had a different dialect than the one we moved to later. My pronunciation was heavy on the u2018ah’ sound to where it later was on the u2018eh’ sound.

Are you confused yet? This can change from county to county. Across the Main River people again have a different accent in their dialect. Go further up the Main River and you will again encounter a variety of dialects and accents that can let you know instantly where a person is from.

I like our Franconian accent. It is a far cry from proper German, which is mostly spoken around the Hannover area. Nope, we rolled our Rrrrrrrs and we use words that cannot be found in a dictionary. It has a softer sound to it than in the South and has a low and high pitch to it that gives you the feeling of a harmonious singing sound.

Once we took a school trip to Holland, and we stopped at big cities such as Kln (Cologne) and Hamburg. What an experience. I could barely understand the people there and it got worse the further north we traveled. There is a dialect in Northern Germany called Plattdeutsch. It sounds like English to me (at first, to me Americans sounded like they had a hot potato in their mouths). The area around Hamburg and Friesland is famous for it. I could not understand them at all when they spoke in their dialect. The people that lived there were fishermen and merchants that started the seafaring enterprises.

When we got to Amsterdam, we mostly communicated using our school English. But there were times I paid close attention to the Dutch people speaking in their language, and I could understand some of their words. I could recognize the similarities of our language. The same realization happened when I listened to Swedish or Danish people.

Learning a new language from the start was exciting at first. I couldn’t wait to start 5th grade and go to my first English Lesson. I thought it was just the neatest thing in the world to learn another language. I remember my first day very clearly. We learned five short sentences that rhymed. During lunch several girls and I were skipping outside in the courtyard repeating those phrases over and over and over, because we were so excited about speaking English. All the boys looked at us girls with a very sheepish look. Ah, girls!

Things got tougher though as the lessons progressed and English was part of my school career until I graduated. When I entered boarding school, I had a great English teacher. He was my teacher for the entire four years I was at school. I will never forget the many hours we had to put into learning our vocabularies, writing each word ten times so we would remember how to spell them right. The toughest part of the lessons was — grammar!

Grammar is like the DNA of languages. Without it, we couldn’t construct a sentence that was considered correct. We had to conjugate our words from present tense to all the various past tenses. Knowing how to use grammar correctly influenced the entire meaning of a sentence, and I hated every minute of it.

There were times I just wanted to slam my book against the wall. I would protest that it wasn’t necessary for me to learn English, and came up with all sorts of excuses. Well, eventually I had an attitude adjustment after I made my first and only A in an exam. I was on cloud nine, and to this day I’m glad I paid attention learning my school-taught Oxford English (for years I thought that, even in the US, that it was supposed to be “colour” and “humour”).

I also took three years of French and did pretty well for a while, until I got it mixed up with English. French is a lot more difficult to learn — or so I thought — than English. It has all the looks of old Latin and can become very confusing. German itself is a difficult language to study, and I had my share of problems with that.

I do like the French language though. I was able to use some of my tiny skills when I studied Meteorology near the French Border in Neustadt. I met a lot of French people and we were able to communicate using our three language skills of German, French and English. It was hilarious sometimes and we laughed a lot trying to make ourselves understand each other. I still like their custom of kissing the cheek so much better than our German custom of shaking hands. Salut! (kiss on right cheek) Salut! (kiss on left cheek)

Amazingly the kids my age were able to speak better French than English in that part of the country. Since they lived near the French border, being bi-lingual wasn’t unusual. The entire Alsace-Lorraine along the French-German border is bi-lingual due to its territorial changes brought on by history. I could go to Strasbourg, France, and walk into a store or restaurant, and I could speak to the waiter or sales clerk in German, if needed.

Switzerland is another country that is just filled with languages of Switzer German, French and Italian. Their German dialect is distinct by their pronunciation of the u2018ch’ sound and comes off as a scratching in the throat. I love it! I really like all the different dialects and languages spoken. It even comes through when foreigners speak in my native tongue. I could always tell from which country they were from by their given accent.

People in Texas play a guessing game with me now when they hear my accent. Although it is less distinguishable now, it certainly is there. I do not sound like the Germans portrayed in some movies at all (“Ve haff vays to make chou talk”).

Being able to learn another language has given me the tool to learn about another culture. There is no greater necessity when living in a foreign country than to learn its language. Not only did it allow me to communicate with everyone on a personal level, but I was able to learn about the American spirit.

One of the keys of learning another language is good listening skills. Paying attention to what is being said and trying to translate that in my head took me quite some time until it became a natural function. Now I no longer have to do that.

I began to see that the Americans had a great sense of humor. It is almost impossible to translate a good joke from German into English, or from English into German. It totally looses its effect. Even when I see American movies in German, I always think that the movie looses its authenticity. Not that the translation was bad. It’s just that the cultural mentality gets lost in a translation. Americans just have to think about Japanese movies being translated into English.

Another valuable observation I’ve made is that the true Spirit of a nation can be captured by understanding their language. When I first lived here I felt lost and confused, because I could not participate in many conversations. I did not know the significance of TV shows, pop culture and cartoons nor did I understand America’s social or political thinking.

I only learned about these things from living here and learning the customs and the way Americans think in terms of their country. These are all important observations one can only make by being able to communicate in their language and listening to what is being said.

I cannot remember the many times that I messed up in using a word incorrectly and it lost the entire meaning of the sentence. Of course everybody else had a good laugh; but I learned early on how important it was to chose correct words and how the meaning of a thought can get lost if not translated and expressed properly. Most of the time I just listened to how my friends talked and used certain phrases and that helped me out a lot. I watched TV commercials and read a lot of simple books in order to learn more.

Just recently a friend of mine made a translation from English into Russian into French into German and then back into English on a language translator that can be found on the Internet. The results were stunning. Although the translations are not accurate and have programming glitches, I was still amazed at the hodge-podge that came back. A confusing rambling of words that had no connection. It was a good laugh though!

A language becomes alive though when spoken by people. It transmits the hearts and minds of a society and not just through words alone, as the computer translator does. A language can relate in spoken words what the essence of a country really is.

Spoken words become of importance when nations want to connect with each other and build relationships. But I believe there is more to it than just knowing the translation of a language. The gift of speech goes beyond words and dry translations. The words expressed and spoken have to capture the roots and values of that nation, and this only can happen by gaining understanding of their culture through listening as well

My children learn German by visiting their grandparents every summer. They learn the language through them and their playmates. It is amazing how quickly they can pick up the language — and in my dialect. They will be able to understand their heritage so much better by knowing the language. Kids learn through listening. They hear the other kids speak and they pick it up by hearing the words. Children can associate a word through emotions, facial expressions or body language, and intuitively make the connection of the proper word or sentence.

It seems to me that nowadays nations talk past each other. We speak words but nobody is listening. A mindless u2018babel’ of empty words that make no connections. The Tower of Babel is again being erected in our world. The tower was supposed to have been built as a monument to man’s greatness to reach the skies to keep mankind together. But the Lord came down and saw that their political unity would just build more arrogance among mankind and scattered the people over the earth giving them different languages.

What can man learn from this lesson in Genesis, Chapter 11? Maybe that in his arrogance he will again have to be humbled?

I personally know how difficult it can be to learn a language, because it was the only way I could communicate in a foreign country. The blessing that came through knowing another language is getting to know the people and their culture. Once I learned about their mentality and why and how they thought a certain way, I was able to understand the people so much better and saw that we shared similar values, customs and traditions.

Confusion ceases when understanding happens. Sometimes the spoken words alone are not enough. There has to be a way to go beyond the spoken words to reach out to each other to seek a common language that’s within every man. Through good listening skills one can u2018see’ that he shares similar values with another culture. I noticed that most people love their family, want freedom to choose, and respect and honor their life and that of others. The way they attained these values is through their own cultural traditions. The ones that have not noticed that still listen to the u2018babel’ of the world and remain in eternal confusion about the truth.

Sabine Barnhart [send her mail] moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with her three children. For the past 15 years she has been working for an international service company.

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