The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.
The Tower of Babel story in the Book of Genesis posits that all people spoke the same language before God confused them and their tongues.
According to the biblical account, a united humanity of generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, came to the land of Shinar, where they resolved to build a city with a tower “with its top in the heavens.”
God believed that the city would unite humanity, and lead them away from the path of God, so he chose to confound their languages, whereby they were unable to continue building the city, and the people all eventually dispersed.
If biblical stories are to be believed, than it was at the great tower in Shinar that humanity began to splinter into multiple languages.
If you believe the story of the Caveman, then the answer is a lot harder to come by. There is no real consensus. Some scientists believe that a single language developed some 10,000 years ago, in the area of Central Africa. However, they don’t know what that language even sounded like, or how it came to be developed. It remains a large mystery.
If our paleolithic ancestors were walking this earth some 100,000 years ago, then it is safe to say there were generations of man that did not have a well-formed, unifying language. Instead they relied on a series of grunts and noises, not too different from apes.
In the original days, there were exactly zero languages. It wasn’t even invented yet. All communication was non-verba: hand gestures and facial gestures, aggressive stances and defensive postures. Eventually those body motions were followed by guttural, grunting noises. So grunting was essentially the first spoken language. In time, words were developed to associate with important things, such as water, fire, and ‘big scary woolly mammoth attacking us.’
Now we have over 200 languages!
It is amazing to think that today, in our modern times, there are over 200 different languages and dialects spoken across the world. That is mind boggling, really. That means there are over 200 different variations of communicating the same exact message.
Modern times are a modern-day Babel. We have all dispersed to different parts of the world, have developed our own cultures and our own languages. God says in Genesis 11:6:
“If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” (NIV)
God realized that when people are unified in purpose they can accomplish impossible feats, both noble and ignoble.
When we are not speaking the same language, however, then confusion sets in. We don’t understand those who are different from us. We associate more closely with our own people, our own culture, and the ones that we do understand.
How can we overcome language barriers?
I believe it is still possible to communicate with someone, even if you
don’t speak their language. For example, it is still possible to communicate with animals. Anybody who owns a dog knows how to get them to obey to commands through sounds and body postures. (While anybody who owns a cat knows how to be ignored.)
I found myself in a situation in Los Angeles, not too long ago, where I was trying to communicate with an Armenian man who spoke very little English. I encountered him at a gas station. His transmission had fell apart and he needed to find an auto mechanic. He didn’t say an of this, except through gestures and simple English words. The use of images helped as well – in this case I used my iPhone to Google nearby auto mechanics, and allowed him to make a call from my phone.
There are certain signs, gestures, and expressions that are universal.
Body language is still the greatest form of communication that there is.
The communication gap is actually becoming increasingly less significant now with the advent of real-time technologies, global commerce, and transnationalism. More and more countries are teaching themselves to speak English, so that they can do business in a pro-Western environment. The latest World Cup was a good example of nations from every single continent convening, in a Portuguese-speaking country, but it was generally understood that English was the common, international language.
Personally, I believe it is important that countries keep their own languages. Language is a significant part of any people’s culture, identity, and history.