Is it wrong to learn foreign languages?

Salvete, omnes!

As a Latinist by training and as a language enthusiast generally, the Tower of Babel account in Sacred Scripture has always rather bothered me…

If God separated our languages, is it right to learn a language other than your native one? Did He not separate our languages for a reason, most likely to separate us as people so that we would not progress so much so as to no longer need God? After all, in the Genesis account of this, God says that He wishes to confuse human languages since, basically, there would otherwise be no limits to what humanity could do if it continued to have one language. So, again, is it sinful to learn other languages because, in doing so, it, to some extent, even if small, serves to re-unite people who would otherwise be divided because of the separation that God made between the languages in order to keep us separated?

Men in both the Old and New Testaments didn’t really seem to have any problem with learning other languages and the Church seems never to have expressed reservation about it. However, the fact that this occurs both in the OT and NT does not necessarily mean that God endorses it; for there is no direct endorsement of learning other languages in either as far as I know. I only recall (I think it was Augustine) in his discussion of the Babel account expressing some reservation about non-Christians doing so because of their natural tendency to use such to their own destruction.

So, if it is all right for Chistians to learn foreign languages, is it also all right for non-Christians, even though they could, as with anything, use it to their own hurt? I mean, one could argue that, for both Christians and non-Christians there are benefits to learning other languages such as economic and social ones. It both facilitates trade and promots cultural understanding. However, are these reasons sufficient ones for God to allow us to learn other languages?

I’ve always wondered if the passage in Genesis is more descriptive than prescriptive in that it describes why the languages were separated but does not necessarily prescribe that, because of this, we do not learn foreign languages.

Perhaps in support of this view, it may be proposed that no-one is now capable of learning every single language in the world and most people are only capable of learning one, two or three foreign languages fluently in their lifetimes and that we will thus never have the kind of universal language that we once had which was capable of making “anything” possible for us and leading to pride and potential separation from God. However, English now, as was the case with Greek/Latin in the past, is quickly becoming a kind of “world language”. So, should we be cautious of this? Or should we say that God is all right with this since He has sovereignly separated the languages in such a way that we will, as I say, never get to the point of language being so universal as to lead to the potential for progress we had previous to our linguistic separation. I mean that, even though many many people may eventually know English, it will not be so widespread as to make us like the pre-Babel civilization. Perhaps, indeed, God knew what He was doing and that, despite our learning various languages and even English around the world, He sovereignly designed it such that we would never achieve pre-Babel unity.

Does the Church, outside of the Scriptures, speak to this in any way, whether infallibly/dogmatically or not? Again, it seems that the Church has never collectively expressed reservation about either those within her or within the world learning foreign languages.

So, basic question, is it or is it not sinful to learn one or more foreign languages? For the Church? For the world? Why or why not?

Here’s my personal take on it:

The command of Jesus was to go to all nations in order to preach the Gospel and bring the Catholic faith to humanity. When you read the acts of the Apostles, there are accounts of people miraculously hearing the Word of God in their own languages.

Regarding your point about not being able to learn all languages, I don’t think this is a particular barrier. We are limited as humans, and this is a fact which I believe God would be more than aware of. However to learn even a single language, and to use it to further the gospel messages, is an advancement and should a person or people speaking a particular language come into the Church, they achieve spiritual unity (as opposed to just mere Worldly unity) with the Church as a whole, all around the world.

If learning languages is a sin, I’m stuffed…I know 5!

You do address the issue of learning foreign languages as Christians, but, what about those who are not Christians. Does God see them doing so as undesirable?

I was also just thinking: Maybe God would be all right both Christians and non-Christians to learn languages in this day and age because of at least a kind of Christian influence that exists in the world today. But–and, again, as an antiquarian, I have particular interest in this point also–what about during, say, the pre-Christian Roman period? Would He have been all right with Christians and/or non-Christians learning languages other than their own?

I actually asked a priest about this a while back (on an online “ask a priest” website --CatholicSpirituality), but all I got there was basically that God wants us all to be united, so, yes, it’s fine. The problematic passage above was not addressed directly nor were any other passages from Sacred Scripture or matters from Tradition cited. Needless to say, I found the answer less than satisfying.

I am also still interested in hearing others’ takes on the questions I posed in the first post.

No. This is in no way sinful.
People read a lot into scripture that is simply not there.
Be at peace.

I don’t think that God separated languages. I think that the diversification of languages occurred as a natural evolving process of living within groups and thereby creating social and identity borders.

Not quite the same thing as English, by the fact it is spoken so worldwide, has different meanings and pronunciations. Much of the English speaking people speak it as a second or third language, which means they probably don’t think in it. They may know enough to do business in or form friendships with but I doubt if most of them would understand Shakespeare, which was a more common level of English just a few centuries ago. It is also worth noting IMO that although the US holds the most native English speakers in the world, it is predicted by some that within a decade the number of Spanish-speaking Catholics will outnumber the English-speaking ones in the US. So if anything it would make more sense to learn Spanish.

Is is wrong to learn foreign languages? I don’t even see it as a moral issue.

I know that GOD through the Holy Spirit works in all His creation, Christians and non Christians even non believers. All are touched by HIM.
I believe that the capacity to learn a foreign language IS a gift from the Holy Spirit. As always GOD gives us an ability, it is up to us to develop that ability and more important to use it for the glory of HIM.

So NO I do not believe GOD sees non Christians learning other languages as intrinsically wrong.

As the commenter above I only am fluent in 3 languages.
We read how the missionaries went and still go out in the midst of unbelievers, learn their language and catechize them spreading the Gospels.

First of all Catholics don’t believe in Sola Scriptura, and many also don’t believe a literalist reading of the Bible, many don’t think the Tower Of Babel episode actually happened.

Anyway, this seems to be question that comes from a very US-centric perception that unless your family consists of recent immigrants, English is the ONLY language one needs to be fluent in, and other languages are “foreign languages” that need to be formally learned in a structured school setting.

But in many European countries, speaking multiple languages is completely normal and not considered out of the ordinary at all.

:thumbsup: Exactly right!

Could you please elaborate on this point in regard to the passage I’ve cited above? What is there? What isn’t?

Firstly, could you please elaborate on what Catholics believe who don’t accept the Tower of Babel as literal? How do they understand this passage and what reasons do they have for not believing in a literal Tower of Babel episode?

Secondly, I am perhaps more cosmopolitan than you might think. I was in no way saying English was the “only” relevant language in which one should be fluent. In fact, I’ve a very globally-based mindset and have even considered moving away from the U.S. to a country more suited to my personal characteristics/interests/etc. What I was saying was that, at least right now and insofar as the conduct of business affairs, English is very very widely used. It has become very close to the Greek/Latin of earlier ages in this way. This is my concern in the light of the Babel passage as I mentioned in my original post.

Depending on the source cited, Our beloved Saint, Pope John Paul II, spoke 6-8 languages fluently, and probably 4 more with some degree of facility.

I’d suggest you read the Catechism, particularly the sections on divine revelation, sacred scripture, and the senses of scripture.

Here’s some information:

Check these articles out:D

Has anyone stopped to think that maybe by trying to justify speaking other languages by clever interpretations of verses, we are doing the very thing God was trying to prevent? When something is common or popular in modern times, I tend to think too many people seek verses that justify their actions.

Im not claiming to know why God did this, but I DO believe the bible to be accurate, so in this case, he ‘scrambled the languages for some reason’, our society today has gotten SOOO off track when it comes to God, people dont want to admit they are doing something wrong in the eyes of God, especially if it is something that SEEMS benign to us, and is fairly common practice in the modern world. Alot of times people will say, 'well this or that verse isnt literal, its a metaphor, or its symbolic of something else, but in the end, they are usually trying to find something that justifies the particular action.

As humans, we dont know the ways of God, and the reasons why he did many of the things he did, but he did them for good reason, I dont doubt that one bit, if he saw a problem with the situation, and changed it, then I have to believe he did so for good reason…even if I disagree with it, or dont see anything wrong with it.

That is typical of the way God works. If you can’t see him working through natural processes then I don’t know what to tell you.

:hmmm: I don’t know about scripture verses BUT: I am sure that St. Paul could fluently speak Hebrew AND Greek.
St Peter lived in Rome several years, where the common language was Latin.
He spoke Aramaic and probably Hebrew. The lingua franca of commerce in Israel at the time of Jesus was Greek.
St Peter as a fisherman we are told owned several boats, so in order to sell his catch everyday he would have to communicate with his buyers. I would bet he also spoke Greek.

I read something interesting in a dialogue between then C. Bergoglio and Rabbi Skorka.
The balance between the gift and the job( assignment…/ task)
When a man keeps the gift but does not do the job he remains primitive. When he exceeds in the task and does no longer recognize the gift, and thinks that it is all the work of his hands turns his ethics into constructivism. This is what C. B. called the Babel syndrome.
Skorka, said that this was an act of defiance,that it annoyed God that they cared more for a brick than for a man that would fall from those heights.
Interesting that their " togetherness" and their " understanding" was forgetting Or defying God. It lead away from whatever is humane .
All in all there is a balance between the gift and the task that we have been entrusted .
My understanding is that they were " confused" before God " confused" them with their languages.
So it wasn’t that much about the languages after all.
Guess we can go on learning different ones.

It is NOT a sin of any kind to learn foreign languages!

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