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The Power of Languages: Reconstructing the Tower of Babel and Beyond

01/10/2014 12:31 BST | Updated 30/11/2014 10:59 GMT

It started with the Tower of Babel. There I was, sitting in my IB Business and Management class wondering why on earth in this era of globalization, we still see "language differences" as a significant barrier to entry when businesses expand into new markets?

The absence of a unified language alone poses formidable threats that prevent the collaborators from constructing the Tower of Babel. So, my reasoning goes: language differences hinder collaboration. To overcome those obstacles, we can return to the root cause: languages.

Languages have become an essential tool for me to overcome communication barriers when I travel in other countries. More importantly, no matter how limited my proficiency in a particular language is, the psychological distance between the native speakers and myself is often shortened. Let me share a story with you.

Last summer, I volunteered as an interpreter at an international youth exchange program in Beijing. Whilst participants hailed from 11 European countries, the event organizers were from mainland China. My job was to serve as a bridge connecting both parties as we ambitiously visited an average of three sights (e.g. The Great Wall, Summer Palace, AND Temple of Heaven) daily.

Soon enough, I observed that although the organizers diligently squeezed in group activities in the already fully-packed schedule, members did not seem appreciative. Upon approaching participants individually, I found them rather timid. When I attempted to speak a few words from their mother tongue, they became much more open and began to treat me as a friend instead of a go-between. The informal and personalized method allowed me to find specific concerns and report back to the organizers.

I was glad to hear positive feedback (in several languages!) when we adjusted activities accordingly. After we broke this invisible wall, we had much more fun, constantly exchanging expressions and cultural facts in our respective languages.

With Almighty Language, we can potentially reconstruct numerous "Towers of Babel" collaboratively. Metaphorically, "the Tower" may represent a global project to exterminate extreme poverty, which needs collaboration between individual governments, international investors, and multinational NGOs.

The power of languages could extend beyond reconstructing the Tower of Babel. Here's another anecdote from our Pomona Orientation Adventure at Sequoia National Park, a four-day hiking-and-camping trip that marked the start of real college life: as my parents returned to China during my time at Sequoia, I was to begin living in my home away from home as a young adult.

I wore my favorite T-shirt to the trip: a plain DIY T-Shirt from Greece. It has Plato's quote, 'Thinking: the Talking of the Soul with Itself,' and my name in Greek.

If I were to graph my mood with time as the independent variable, and happiness as the dependent variable, the slope would dramatically switch from positive to negative upon the discovery that there was literally zero phone service in the park.

Even though I was wearing my favorite T-Shirt and convinced myself that the grand combination of hiking, camping, cooking and tasting self-innovated food (which I called 'melting pots', where we mixed every ingredient we brought with us) would distract me from homesickness, I felt despondent.

I started commanding my tears to avoid a first awkward encounter with my new friends. This was when I heard a voice, "Σκέψη: η ομιλία της ψυχής με τον εαυτό της."

The speaker was walking towards me as he read the quote aloud.

"Greek?!" Simultaneously, we asked, amazed. I recalled hearing from a Greek friend how even Modern Greek is sometimes labeled a 'dead language'.

I explained my love affair with Greek culture. Originally from Crete and Thessaloniki, he listened attentively and smiled as I outlined my travel itinerary in Greece over the summer, and my attempt to grasp the very basics of this challenging language for beginners.

Rather than a temporary distraction from my nostalgic yearning for home, the conversation brightened my day, waking me up from my slight unconsciousness of the surrounding environment all morning. I began to remember him sitting across from my seat on the shuttle, wearing a pair of sunglasses alongside a cool facial expression. He admitted afterwards, "My sunglasses were masking my tears, but when I saw the Greek alphabets on your T-shirt, I felt so happy."

We can hardly deny the omnipresence of English in every continent of our globalized world. Although I would not argue that English is colonizing other languages, I do feel that the diversity, cultural expressivity, and magical power of languages should be celebrated across the world.