DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Speak English or Get Out!

Written by: on October 11, 2012

Speak English or Get Out


I recently heard a joke that resonated with me.

 “What do you call someone who speaks 3 languages? – Trilingual”

“What do you call someone who speaks 2 languages? – Bilingual”

“What do you call someone who speaks 1 language? – American!”

 As a bilingual person, I thought this was funny and shared it with some friends.

 One friend responded that “it’s possible to function perfectly fine in one language.”  He continued by saying “if you have no desire or plans to travel, why worry about learning a language, why not instead, use your time on other important activities?”

 Good point and it could be valid – except…….

 Culture is communicated through language.  How many times have we heard a pastor say “it says love in the Bible but in the Greek there are three types of words to communicate love, and now this really means….”?

 We’ve all heard that there are 15 different ways to say “snow” in the Inuit language.

 In Portuguese, a common word is “saudades” which expresses a feeling which we find no word or expression which can be translated into English.

Many psychologists believe that language dictates the way we think.  Researchers have found that bilingual people solve problems quicker.  Others say that language actually determines our ideas – not only how we think but what we think. That it tends to make us think in a particular way.  Therefore, different languages actually influence our thoughts and belief systems.

This is why it’s so important to learn another language.  As our world becomes smaller and we begin relating more and more to people of other cultures, not just abroad, but also wherever we live, understanding another language will help us relate.  Not just with the people who speak that language, but we will also begin to see that we understand ourselves more – and we understand scripture and God in a new a deeper way.

A quote I especially like In “Theology, A Very Short Introduction” by Ford, says that “words usually get their meaning from the company they keep.”  This reminds us, especially in Biblical interpretation,  that it’s folly to take a word or a sentence at face value without at least a cursory understanding of the context, culture and time period in which it was first used.

If we can’t understand correctly our own reality until we step outside of our culture, which might not be practical for many, the next best thing is to learn a language!

Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher sums it up this way: “the limits of language mean the limits of my world”

Lastly, some words are called “performative.”  These are words in which language does something rather than describes something.  Examples are “I forgive you,” or “I promise to love you.”  Maybe performative words are those that will truly change the world!

Maybe, it’s not perfectly fine to function in just one language as my friend alleged.  Let’s learn about ourselves, our faith and the world –through French, German, Swahili, Portuguese, Spanish, Hindi, Bosnian………..

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