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Nick Baines: The power of language – and how it can help the world to rise to its challenges

Theresa May and Angela Merkel at yesterday's gathering of EU leaders.
Theresa May and Angela Merkel at yesterday's gathering of EU leaders.
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DOES Theresa May speak French? Or German? Or any other foreign European language?

I don’t know the answer, but the question is not merely academic. As the UK finds itself at a point in its modern history where we need more than ever to understand and speak with our neighbours, not to be able to do so in their language is problematic.

Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds.

Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds.

Every other European leader speaks more than their own language. Recently Emmanuel Macron addressed the US Congress in English, a language in which he comfortably subjects himself to political and media interviews. Angela Merkel speaks English and Russian as well as German. Our senior EU negotiators and administrators all operate in several languages without problem. But the British?

Well, I ask this question as the UK approaches Brexit and the Christian Church approaches the celebration of Pentecost, and there is a connection between the two.

Pentecost comes 50 days after Easter and marks the intrusion of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the first followers of Jesus. They had been scared to death by the crucifixion of their messiah (messiahs are not supposed to end like this); they had been confused beyond imagination by their experiences of the risen Jesus; and they were terrified that they might be next for the chop at the hands of the Roman occupying forces.

At Pentecost, these weak and fragile disciples became empowered to go public with all they had experienced and what they understood it to mean. They left their hidden rooms and went onto the streets to speak about Jesus. And, according to the account of this in the Acts of the Apostles, people on the streets were able to hear and understand “in their own language”.

Now, put to one side the actual mechanics of this (this was about what people heard, not the languages that were being spoken). Original witnesses of these events would immediately have thought of the story in Genesis 11 about the Tower of Babel. Here hubris led to the collapse of mutual comprehension in a multiplicity of languages. No wonder it fell apart. Pentecost sees intelligibility and mutual comprehension restored.

And this is the point. Pentecost is seen as good, Babel as bad. When people look purely after their own interests, their own internal conversations and their own isolated concerns, the confusion that follows an inability to communicate becomes serious. This is why it is so important for those committed to any religion or none to learn each others’ ‘languages’... in order to understand clearly before thinking to speak. Christians must measure their language and their conduct against this Pentecostal demand.

To bring this back to some of the Brexit challenges, the language problem says more than we might think.

We live on an island. We don’t have borders to cross where cultures are so different and languages are so diverse that language learning becomes a practical necessity for basic living. We still easily speak of “going to Europe” when geographically we are part of it.

So, with statistics for foreign language learning at school and universities in rapid decline, and with the UK being unable to supply adequate professional linguists for work in business, politics and institutions, it is not too dramatic to claim that the UK faces a crisis.

I once met some English businessmen in a hotel in Germany where they were doing trade deals. They laughed about needing to know any German as the Germans all speak great English. Then one of the Germans said: “But, you don’t know what we are saying behind your back – and that is where the dealing gets done.”

Yet, look within many of our UK communities and we see young children moving easily between two or three languages. Many of our minority communities operate clearly in English, but speak a different language at home. If young Asian children can do this, why are the Brits so reluctant to make the effort?

It is common to use the language of conflict resolution, social cohesion, diplomacy, national security, and so on, without ever making reference to language. Yet, language knowledge is essential to all these areas of life. And the advantage always lies with the multilingual, not the monolingual.

Furthermore, as I have mentioned many times, Helmut Schmidt (former Chancellor of Germany) wrote a book in which he offered his advice to Germans thinking of entering politics. He warned that they should not contemplate this unless they spoke at least two foreign languages. Why? Because, he says, you can only understand your own culture through the lens of another culture – and for that you need to know language.

I agree with him, but on a wider level than the political. Failure to understand (let alone speak) a foreign language leaves us impoverished culturally, weakened economically, shallow intellectually, and vulnerable politically.

On Sunday, as we celebrate Pentecost and the challenge to Babel, I will be reflecting more widely on language and communication. Not only about how we do politics, but also how we enable others to hear the good news.

The Right Reverend Nick Baines is Bishop of Leeds.