This is an excerpt of the online talk show held by the Polyglot Rosary Community (Indonesia) on August 15, 2022, on the occasion of their first founding anniversary.
1. Diversity of languages: is it a curse—like in the story of "The Tower of Babel"—or a gift of the Holy Spirit?
Before we comment on the story of "The Tower of Babel" (Gen 11:1–9), let's first recall the particular genre of Genesis 1–11, a part known to contain the "primeval history." These first chapters of Scripture narrate historical, primeval events by means of figurative language.
Now, what is the event being narrated in Genesis 11:1–9? This passage narrates the disunion of human beings which resulted from their pride and sin. They wanted to be famous. They refused to depend on God. That's why God "confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech" (Gen 11:7). Interestingly, the Hebrew word babel is associated with the Hebrew word balbalah, “confusion.” Here we can conclude that diversity of languages is not a bad thing in itself even though it serves in Genesis 11:1–9 as a sign of division and incomprehension among human beings.
The story of "The Tower of Babel" (Gen 11:1–9) is closely related to the passage that comes next, which is the call of Abram (Gen 12). Scott Hahn notes that, "both historically and literarily, the story of Babel sets the stage for the calling of Abraham, through whom the Lord will regather the divided human race into the unity of the family of God."1
Hence, Babel is contrary to Jerusalem. The prophets foretold that all nations will gather in Jerusalem (cf. Isa 2:2–3). This prophecy came true in the new Jerusalem, the Catholic Church, in which people of all races and languages gather in faith and love, as can be seen on Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:1–13). Even though the people gathered in Jerusalem at that time spoke different languages, they understood each other. The Holy Spirit cast off disunion and incomprehension among them.
The gift of tongues is a "charismatic gift that enables a believer to speak to God in a language other than his own."2 In Acts, the gift of tongues is associated with the descent of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 10:44–46; 19:6). On the first Pentecost, the apostles who received this gift began preaching in different languages and dialects (cf. Acts 2:4–11). At a deeper level, the gift of tongues signifies that the Gospel should be preached to all nations (cf. Mk 16:15–17).
I'm sure you want to know more: what about today's Christian communities whose members claim to have spoken in tongues?
To answer this question, we can turn to 1 Corinthians 14:1–25 from which we can derive several principles:
- Speaking in tongues is speaking "to God," not to other people (1Cor 14:2).
- Speaking in tongues is "speaking mysteries in the Spirit" (1Cor 14:2).
- Those who speak in tongues "build up themselves," not the church (1Cor 14:4).
- The gift of tongues should not be exercised in the context of public worship "unless someone interprets" and shares the meaning of the words with the assembly (1Cor 14:5). Paul states: "if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air" (1Cor 14:9–12).
3. Why is it important for Indonesian Catholics, especially the younger ones, to learn foreign languages?
- 'Catholic' means 'universal.' Learning languages is not merely about making new sounds; it's about discovering new cultures. Every language encapsulates the culture of its speakers. Hence, foreign languages are windows through which you can peek at other cultures and thereby appreciate the universality of the Church.
- "Traduttore, traditore." Countless resources on the Catholic faith have not been translated into Indonesian. Even though they had, it would still be better to read them in their original language. Why? Because translations can never reflect all the nuances of their originals.
- One foreign language leads to another one. After mastering your first foreign language, your mind is better conditioned to learn other languages. Moreover, languages can be grouped into families. Assimilating a foreign language facilitates learning other languages within the same family.
- The older you become, the harder it will be for you to learn new languages (or any other skills).
- Learning new languages will deepen your knowledge of your mother tongue.
4. Somebody told me: "Just pray in Indonesian. God listens to your prayer. Why bother praying in other languages?" How should I react?
First of all, tell that person that he/she is right. You can pray in any language. God understands all of them.
Secondly, when it comes to mental prayer, you should pray in the language you're most comfortable with. Bear in mind that praying is conversing with God. How can you converse with somebody in a language you are not fluent in?
Thirdly, when it comes to reciting vocal prayers in a language you are not familiar with (e.g., Latin), it's important that you at least understand the meaning of the words.
Firstly, make language learning accessible and fun. Why not organize language clubs at your parish, university, or workplace? Secondly and more importantly, immersion. Travel abroad. Spend several months in a foreign country, if possible.
Bear in mind that Latin has not always been the official language of the Church. The apostles most probably didn't speak Latin fluently. They spoke Aramaic and, at different levels, Greek.
Hence, Gregorian chants are relevant for youth not just because they are in Latin, but rather because they convey the understanding that they are part of something bigger: the universal Church.
I speak four languages fluently (English, Bahasa, Spanish, and Italian) and passively know two other languages (Latin and French). I do speak basic Mandarin and would like to become well-versed in it. I have also been trained in Greek and Hebrew, but I remember very little of them. I started learning German earlier this year. However, I set it aside because I had to focus on other academic tasks. I'll get back to it a.s.a.p.!
I'm quite pragmatic when it comes to learning new languages: I learn them because I need them.
Speaking from experience, there are four steps in learning a new language: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Firstly, I try to understand what I read. This entails learning grammar and using dictionaries. Secondly, I listen to the language as much as I can. You can use podcasts and YouTube videos for this purpose. One of the most important skills for learning new languages is listening (that's why speaking comes after it). Somebody told me that I have an aptitude for learning new languages because I am a musician. Indeed, musicians grasp sounds other people don't. Thirdly, I work on reproducing the sounds of the language. Lastly, I learn to write in the new language, which is the most difficult step of all. That's why I only write my academic papers and thesis in English, which is the language I'm most comfortable with.
The biggest joy that comes from language learning is being able to make friends with people from other countries. As an academic, reading text in their original languages is also satisfying. I don't need to spend thousands of dollars on the most recent English editions of the works of Thomas Aquinas because I can read them in Latin and the Latin text is available for free on the internet!
There are, of course, challenges. It can be discouraging to discover how easy it is to forget languages you don't use. Another challenge in learning new languages has to do with discipline. It is also hard to master a language in a place where it is not commonly spoken.
In order to persevere, you must first clarify why you're learning a particular language. If your why is not clear, you'll likely not persevere. That's why the best way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in an environment where that language is spoken. That way, language learning becomes a requisite for self-survival. Since self-survival is one of the most basic instincts of human beings, there is a greater probability that you'll persevere and even acquire a high level of mastery of that language.
All noble human activities are means of sanctification. Just as one can grow in holiness by working at an office or driving airplanes, we can become holy by learning languages as long as we do it for God's glory.
Surely there are many saints who are polyglots. Let me mention two notable ones. The first one is St. Jerome (342–347), who translated the Vulgate. The second one is Pope St. John Paul II, who spoke eight languages fluently.