We Don’t Speak the Same Language

Revelations 17:15-18

“And he said unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues. And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth.”

I’ve always been fascinated with the biblical Babylon, and particularly the way that it depicts what brings people together and what keeps peoples divided.

The Tower of Babel represents a unified effort of humanity to build and to innovate so that they might equal God. And God’s destruction of the tower represents the struggle of humanity to overcome our cultural differences so that we can once again cooperate in pursuit of greatness.

The largest of these cultural differences, and that most closely associated with “babel”, is language. I don’t speak Arabic or Japanese or Ojibwe, and even if I were to learn them, I would never gain a facility with them that would permit me to work productively in those languages. However, while this problem is more recognizable between languages, the same problem exists within languages.

There are numerous examples of how this manifests:

Meaning is not adequately confined by dictionary definitions: One of my favourite academic papers I’ve ever composed was one in which I contributed almost no original content. In a course on Indigenous Women’s Legal Advocacy, I decided to collect a set of social justice concepts that are important in Indigenous advocacy but which people tend to misapply and to treat dismissively. I then found academic definitions of the terms and paired those definitions with lived experiences of Indigenous people, as told in their own words, which I believed demonstrated the concept in practice. My hope was that the concept would be more meaningful to the audience once it was understood as a reality. I scoured the Truth and Reconciliation Commission transcripts as well as oral histories of Indigenous peoples. I communicated the meaning and, more importantly, the significance of “intersectionality” by making room for Indigenous women to tell their own stories about losing their Indigenous status upon marrying a non-Indigenous man and no longer being legally permitted to live in their Indigenous communities, even after a subsequent divorce. Likewise, I communicated “colonization” by elevating the voices of Indigenous women whose children were assigned christian names by the hospital and were then ripped from their arms shortly thereafter to be raised in residential schools. Because key to understanding these definitions of these words is to attempt to feel the pain and anger inherent to them.

Different people ascribe different significance to words: Sometimes even a common understanding of a word will not suffice to understand the significance of that word to a person. You and I might share an understanding of the word “development”, but while I identify the term with a feeling of potential for growth, someone else might more strongly associate the word with a feeling of limited potential for creativity. A more universal example of this is that most people have said “I love you” knowing that the other person has a general understanding of the meaning of those words, but without being able to convey the full context that imbues the words with particular significance to us. Someone might say the words to communicate passion, another person might say the same words to convey loyalty, while a third person might say them out of habit.

Not everyone confines themselves to the dictionary definition of words: One of my favourite things that my husband does is that when I’m sick or when I have “the sads”, he attentively tucks me into bed, kisses my forehead and says “now go to sleep, crazy lady”. It never fails to make me feel loved and cherished and precious so that I fall asleep happy. An outsider, even one who has a perfect understanding of the English language, would not take the same meaning from what my husband said as I do. Because the meaning of the phrase is highly circumstantial and informed by nearly a decade of friendship. It would not have the same meaning were someone else to say the same words to me, nor if he were to say them to someone else.

In application: before I go to an interview, I study the LinkedIn profiles of the company’s leadership and the company’s website, taking note of the words and phrases they use to describe themselves. I’ve been accused for this reason of being manipulative or deceptive. But I’m not changing the meaning I am trying to convey based on my audience; I am merely tailoring my language to make sure I am effectively conveying my meaning. In other words: I learn my audience’s language, and I do my best to communicate to them using that language. Tailoring my speech to a fellow English speaker is no more manipulative than is speaking French to a Francophone.

To overcome God’s punishment of confounding human speech, so that we might achieve the greatness of which we are capable when we join our forces, we must be highly attentive to one another and we must be reverential of the power of language. We must be careful and deliberate, open and inquisitive, patient and forgiving.

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