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Camino Reflections – Multilingualism

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In the group I travelled the Camino with last year, everyone was a native speaker of English. Some of them were fluent in other languages and we did entertain guests without much English at some of our mealtime gatherings but we functioned in the one language that I can fluently understand.

This year, the group was smaller but much more linguistically gifted. Aside from English, we had fluent speakers of Spanish, French, Portuguese and Welsh (although Magnus didn’t get to exercise that last one apart from saying grace over one of our evening meals) and native speakers of French and Spanish. Our Spanish member had less English than I have Spanish and so we had no one common language between us.

Which experience did I prefer? Without a doubt, the latter one: not being too reliant (and proud) of my fluency in English but being constantly turned back to humility; not assuming that others understood what I was thinking just because I had said it but taking the time to explain; finding myself able to paddle a little in the shallows of other tongues if not yet to swim in any of them. Working together as a team, not because of a common language but because our bonds went deeper than that.

Babel’s babble, in Genesis 11:1-9, is generally regarded as a curse. However, at the time, it saved us from ourselves (does the history of human nature give much hope for a proud, one-world order being good news for any but a small fraction of the people involved?). I think there is nothing anti-Christian about enjoying the richness of sharing life together with people of different languages. Perhaps the Pentecost story could be read as a seal set on that (Acts 2:6-11)?

A common folk-belief among Christians is that in heaven we will all speak with one tongue, whether Ancient Hebrew, Welsh (Magnus’ favourite choice!) or something as yet unknown to anyone. After my recent week on the Camino, I’m not so sure. I think that in heaven we will know what we need to know; on earth, voices of people working together in harmony are at least an echo of the sound of heaven.

ps. This morning, I have finished reading “Spoken Here” by Mark Abley, a book about minor languages in the modern world. He also chose to finish with a note about Babel as a blessing, not a curse, so I’m not alone in my thinking!

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