This essay was published in 2012 in the book Practically Human: College Professors Speak from the Heart of Humanities Education edited by Gary Schmidt & Matthew Walhout (Grand Rapids: Calvin College Press, 2012, 133-145). It asks why we invest time and resources in learning other languages and seeks to look further than pragmatic motivations based on personal gain. You can explore interesting essays on why Christians might invest in other disciplines in the humanities in the rest of the book (available at the link above).


Imagine yourself in a German class. As the class begins, you are sitting looking at a black and white photo projected onto a large screen at the front of the room. The instructor asks you what you see. You say that you see three young people. Two are male, one female, and one of them is wearing a military uniform. “No, look closer.” You realize that there is a fourth person partially hidden behind one of the folk in the foreground…wait, a fifth just visible on the right…you begin to slow down, letting the easy answers recede and really attending to the details. Stretching your limited German, you and the rest of the class work together to describe the people in the picture, their dress, their age, their expressions, feelings.

They look grim – why? What might be happening? As more pictures are added, you find yourself exploring the story of some German students who set themselves to resist the Third Reich and ended up being beheaded by the authorities. The story has so far been made into a movie three times in Germany (the next day, you watch one of them). New questions bubble up – what motivated these young people? What role did their faith play? What would you have done in similar circumstances? Why has this story stayed alive in Germany across the intervening years? What role does it play in the stories that make up present day German culture? You dig deeper, learning to read about, listen to, watch, and re-tell the story in German. This gives you plenty of chances to build your language skills. It is those emerging skills that enable you to fully hear this story as you gain access to interviews, film clips, and articles that are inaccessible to those who speak only English. As all of this unfolds, you begin to build new connections with people from outside your own circle of experience, people whose attempts to live faithfully in their cultural context might have something to say to you here and now.

Of course, this is one particular class, and other German classes will differ. It is enough, however, to give us a starting point for considering what language classes ought to look like, and why we should bother with them – particularly as Christians. The structure of the class I’ve just described says, among other things, that the lives of others matter, that slowing down and learning to attend to them pays dividends, and that language skills are not just for our own immediate benefit. A language class can be one of the places where we learn to break out of life revolving around our own perspectives and ambitions. It can be a place where we learn to listen to those who are not like us, to love our neighbor who grew up in a different place, to show willingness to take a step in their direction to see what we might receive and what we might have to give.

Why learn languages?

Let’s step back and explore those thoughts from a wider angle. People’s personal reasons for studying a language vary quite widely. For some, career concerns are at the forefront – some of my recent German students (and of course wherever I mention German or – later – French, you can substitute other languages) have ended up doing things as varied as working for export companies, teaching in Switzerland, and helping curate museum exhibits about the holocaust. For others, family history plays a key role – many families contain speakers of more than one language. Some, for academic, professional, or personal reasons, need to read books and articles written elsewhere – I have students who need another language in order to be able to progress in their study of art history, theology, or musicology. For some, the exhilaration of combining new words in new ways and discovering fresh ways to think and speak is motivation enough.

Hovering behind all of these particular reasons is the simple reality that the people with whom we share the world (whichever language “we” think sounds like home) do not all communicate like us. In fact that’s too mild a way of putting it, as if most of the world speaks the way we do, with just a few tricky exceptions. Did you know there are, by latest count, close to 7,000 languages in the world? And well over four billion people (a clear majority) who do not speak English? Over three hundred languages are spoken by people living in the United States. If you spend all your time with people who sound like you, you may not have to face this every day. But as travel increases and populations everywhere become more diverse, your chances of never running into speakers of other languages are decreasing. If you live in a town of any size, chances are that if you only communicate with English speakers that is not because there are only English speakers around, but because of the shape of your group of personal contacts. Language differences are all around us, and dealing with them well is an increasingly important skill.

The Failure of Red-Faced Shouting

Gaining some language skills is not just for our own sake – and it does not take advanced levels of fluency to make a difference. Quite basic language skills can serve others’ needs in very concrete ways. A few years ago I was at a large, international airport preparing to board a flight to Europe. The usual assorted collection of people was gathered at the gate, generally weary and a little too warm on a midsummer afternoon. As I moved towards the gate, I couldn’t help but notice a difficult conversation taking place off to one side. “Difficult” as in experiencing complete failure to communicate.

A burly security officer, uniformed and armed, had drawn a young woman from the line. She looked maybe twenty, dressed casually and carrying a small backpack. The officer, who towered over her somewhat, and whose visibly low level of patience perhaps betrayed a hard day already behind him, was asking questions, questions about how much currency she was carrying and about what she had in her backpack. It was obvious that she barely understood a word he was saying; as I drew nearer I could hear her protesting as much, in German, with the odd word of broken English. “Ich verstehe nicht!” (“I don’t understand!”) His communication strategy, faced with someone who did not understand English, was to get louder and more insistent as she got more flustered and less able to figure out how to respond. A moments thought will reveal that if someone does not understand something, saying it louder is unlikely to help, and yet when folk who are locked inside a single language find that not everyone’s ears are attuned to the way they speak, it is not uncommon to find them reacting this way. It was not a happy exchange for either one of them, and it had reached gridlock. The stakes were high for both of them – she wanted to fly home, and he needed to know whether he should let her – but they were stuck.

I stepped over and offered to help, telling the officer that I could speak German and could translate for him if he wanted. With a combination of relief and poor grace he agreed and told me his questions. The information needed was actually pretty simple, and the language needed to resolve the situation was at a level that a conscientious first or second year student could handle: What was in the bag? How much money did she have? It took only a few moments to explain the questions and relay the young woman’s answers. Relief all round. A small disaster was kept from turning into a large one, a small moment of reconciliation was quietly celebrated, thanks were exchanged, and we each went on our way.

Just this past month I was relating this to one of my students, and he told me a very similar story (they are not as rare as you might think):

“It reminds me of my last night during my semester in Grenoble. I was sitting in a hotel lobby where I spent the night in order to catch a very early train to Grenoble the next morning. A beefy American man, already red-faced, walked in and began to check in with the concierge. All the man wanted was to ensure that he could receive calls from the outside of the hotel to his room. The two, neither well-versed in the other’s language, completely miscommunicated, and yelling and frustration ensued. Finally the concierge turned to me. “Parlez vous anglais?” (“Do you speak English?”) he asked, defeated. “Oui, je suis americain, en fait” (“Yes, in fact I am American”) I replied, and thirty seconds later the situation was resolved – and I had some very nice compliments on my French.”

Here again, a modest amount of French was enough to cut through some frustration, help things run more smoothly, and even act as a peacemaker (remember Jesus calling peacemakers blessed?). Like I said, language learning is not just about us and our plans and ambitions. It’s about how we share the world with people, and what kind of people we become as we live with language differences all around us.

The World and your Mother

As we’ve seen, when people who cannot speak one another’s language do run up against one another, the results can be less than pretty – misunderstandings, resentments, exasperation, or just blank incomprehension and a missed opportunity to connect. But the problem is not just at the level of us using different words and grammar (which is why a language class that is only about words and grammar is not going to help as much as it could). The difficulties get compounded by the fact that our attachment to our own language, and the culture that is rolled up in it, runs rather deep. We tend to experience our own language as apt and true, a way of speaking that fits reality like a glove and sends us signals that we are at home in the world and know how to navigate.

Our attachment to particular ways of speaking starts early. The ingenious use of teats connected to computers has made it possible to research how newborn babies react to hearing different languages. Babies were given a choice between two recordings – suck faster to get one, or suck more slowly to get the other – and their choices were tracked. It was found that given a choice between hearing a story that their mother had read aloud during the last month of the pregnancy and hearing a new story, newborns preferred the one they had heard before. They also preferred to hear their mother’s language rather than another language. These preferences seem to begin to form when babies become able to hear sounds from outside the womb, during the final months of pregnancy. They are, of course, not understanding the words at this point (or for a while yet), but every language has its own rhythms, its own melodies. Try saying aloud “Once upon a time there were three little pigs.” Now hum the sentence, not articulating the words, but keeping the same rising and falling patterns in your voice. That’s the intonation pattern, the melody of your speech, and the first part of your native language that you heard as an infant. The rhythm and melody of your mother tongue began to sound comforting while you were still in the womb. Already by the time you are born, you prefer to have the world sound like your mother.

The process that started so early continues as you grow up. Children learn actual words from their parents and others around them, and then sentences to put those words in, and stories to tell. Words do not generally come to us from the dictionary, but from people, carrying echoes of the ways that those around us have used them. Perhaps your mother always spoke of “blueberry pie” with a particular note of joy and longing, or of “soccer fans” with a faint hint of disdain, or of “liberal” politicians with implicit admiration or rejection. We learn the ways of going about life that count as normal in our context – our parents do not usually tell us, for instance, that using a knife and fork rather than our fingers is polite in this cultural context but not in other places; they just make sure we understand it’s polite. Our sense of comfort with particular ways of speaking, acting, and even thinking, grows as we do, though it also has to stretch and adjust as life gets more complex.

Language and culture are deeply woven together. For example, in one study of how parents interact with small children, Japanese and American parents were observed playing with their young children using a toy truck. An American mother would typically show the child the truck and point to its features – “see, it has wheels!” A Japanese mother would more often practice politeness – “you give the truck to me. Thank you!” An American cultural preference for doing things with objects around us and a Japanese cultural tendency to always think of oneself in relation to other people are reflected in these behaviors – and it is no surprise that the Japanese language contains a complex set of ways of expressing politeness to other people while speaking. Compared to Americans, German people typically keep a stronger distinction between their friends (people they know well and build friendships with over time) and their acquaintances (people they meet in public settings through the day). Accordingly, the German language has different ways of addressing people that reflect these different kinds of relationship. Communicating successfully with Germans involves not only getting these bits of grammar right, but being able to read these different relationship patterns so that you can rightly assess a situation and speak without giving offense. Language is about far more than grammar – one reason why machine translation only gets us so far, even when it works.

If we have to communicate in more than one language while very young, we adapt fairly easily – many children grow up speaking two or more languages. Probably well over half of the world’s population is bilingual. If we are confronted with the challenge of communicating in another language later in life, then the task is more daunting. Our identity is in place, we have mastered familiar ways of speaking, and having to become as a child and start over with a new language can be humbling and hard work. The challenge is perhaps a little harder still if our first language is English. At various times in history, different languages have come to the forefront on the world stage. Languages such as Sanskrit, Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and Russian have at different times dominated substantial sections of the world as the cultures that spoke them achieved military or economic mastery. For the moment, English is the most dominant world language. It has always been harder to persuade the powerful to learn the languages of the less powerful. If my culture is powerful, it’s easier to sit back and rely on others’ efforts to learn my way of speaking.

Loving Foreigners

Right here is where looking at things through Christian eyes ought to give us some perspective. The pursuit of dominance and a preference for having others serve my needs are not New Testament recommendations. Jesus summarized the law and the prophets in two commandments: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” (Luke 10:27) He was quoting both of these from the Old Testament. The second one, about loving your neighbor, comes from the book of Leviticus, where it is soon followed by a command that echoes it but with a twist. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” says Leviticus 19:18. Verse 34 continues: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” In other words, treat foreigners the way you would want to be treated as a foreigner, love them as you love yourself. As Jesus put it on another occasion, “in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12) Don’t go through life as if others are just there to serve you; they matter to God as surely as you do, and seeking their good is a way to imitate your father in heaven. Being willing to learn another’s language, to go through the effort and persistence needed to speak to another person in the way that resonates with their heart, being willing to listen to and learn from their stories, is one form that this commitment to being there for others can take.

Notice I said one form. Not all of us have equal opportunities or resources to engage in serious language learning. Some of us may still lead very linguistically sheltered lives. But if your educational path offers chances to learn a second (or a third) language, and to persist with it beyond survival level so that you can really get inside it, communicate with its speakers, and hear their stories, you should not lightly pass up the opportunity. Grasp the chance to expand your linguistic capabilities. Resist the misconception that if language learning does not come quickly and easily to you then it is beyond you – it takes patient effort for the vast majority of us. Look for classes that do not reduce language to spelling and grammar – a quality foreign language course these days should include learning about culture and how to communicate effectively across cultural differences. Its focus should be not just words on worksheets, or learning to buy consumer goods at foreign stores and restaurants, or proving that you know a lot of terms for subtle sentence constructions. The riches and intricacies of language itself certainly have their place. But alongside them should come a process of beginning to enter into the experiences of those who speak and think in another tongue.

Connecting Across Cultures

Seek out classes that make room for this kind of human connection across cultures (through movies, role plays, old photos of students who died for their convictions, or a wide range of other media). Don’t let false comparisons daunt you – unless you are willing to assert that taking beginning science courses is a waste of time because you do not come out with Einstein’s capabilities, or English is a waste of time because you can’t write like Shakespeare yet, then let go of the odd idea that the measure of success is whether you are as fluent as a native speaker a few courses into your learning. Complete fluency takes time and effort to achieve, and need not be everyone’s goal. But you can communicate meaningfully and make rich new connections far before you get there.

Hard work as it is (and I would not want to pretend otherwise), there are rich rewards to be found in the process of learning another language. New ways of thinking are opened up by new words and expressions that reflect a fresh way of looking at the world. Strange sounds and hilarious mistakes can add amusement if you are at all willing to laugh at yourself. New realms of music, literature, and information are opened up by access to material that is not in English. New career skills and opportunities to serve can be created by the ability to work in more than one language. New connections and relationships become possible across cultural lines as you become able to hear what speakers of other languages have to say and share your own ideas with them.

These kinds of learning make us less likely to end up shouting at the world and unable to make headway unless we hear something like our own voice echoing back. Whether in airports, business meetings, workplaces, stores, restaurants, or on street corners, knowing more than one language can make you a reconciler. It creates opportunities to be a peacemaker, someone who can inject a little relief into the frictions and frustrations of cross-cultural communication. In the process, you will gain as much as you give if you are willing to open your horizons to the lives and stories of those who share this world but grew up in other languages and cultures. It’s not just about you, but about how your life comes to relate to the life of your neighbor. Language both unites and divides us. Even a little learning can help tip the balance.

Leave a Reply