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    Pieter Bruegel The Elder The Tower of Babel

    The Languages God Speaks

    Don’t expect the whole world to speak English.

    By Ashlyn Heise

    November 19, 2021
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    • Sallie Smith

      also...when you learn another language you learn another way of thinking. I am a slightly different person when I speak French and again another when I speak German and again when I speak Danish. (Or at least I used to be- I'm not sure that I can speak them that comfortably anymore).... and you don't have to be perfect but just comfortable.........I am sorry that I never got that comfortable in arabic...... and I thin k that lnwing that other languages shape (?) your thinking makes you more receptive to what other people think

    The last time I saw Helen in person was nearly a year ago. We were sitting in a booth eating waffles together at a local breakfast joint. It might well have been our last encounter, at least in person. Helen is comfortable sharing her name and the region she is in, but not the specific country nor the organization she is with. That means I cannot disclose her language either.

    Most of Helen’s days are spent with her language “helpers” – they are teachers in the sense that they are teaching Helen the language, but don’t have formal training. She refers to them even more lovingly as her “sisters.” Only with siblings would one travel to the countryside, help make family meals, and share living quarters. This is the kind of relationship Helen has with her language sisters. Together they photograph everyday objects, from fruit at the farmers’ market to household linens. They pictorialize processes such as doing laundry and worshiping at a temple. When Helen isn’t with her language sisters, she learns alongside the family she lives with the local dialect or does homework by listening to hours of taped recordings. Then she’s back out on the streets to find any opportunity to practice. She’s learning a foreign language for a specific reason.

    Helen’s mission is to bring the Word of God to people who don’t have access to a Bible in their native tongue. This will likely be through translating the Bible, but that begins by first learning a new language, a language spoken by millions of people who have never laid eyes on a Bible. There is no scheduled timeframe to this mission, and such an undertaking can take a lifetime, which is why I might not see her again.

    Homogeneity is not something we should strive for.

    When I ask Helen “Why go somewhere where the language and culture is so foreign to you?” She answers without hesitation: “Because there are people here who don’t know the gospel yet.” She admits that this answer may come across as simplistic, but it does capture her profound passion. “I’ve been adopted in [to] the family [of Christ] because someone spoke to me in my language in a way I could understand. I don’t communicate the deepest parts of my heart in another language; I communicate them in English because that is my mother tongue. People don’t communicate the deepest truths of their hearts in another language. If I want people to actually come to have a real heart-change, it’s only going happen if I take the time to learn those languages to full fluency.”

    Helen’s response has helped me answer a question I’ve been asking myself for the past fourteen years as a Spanish and Portuguese language learner and teacher: why do we learn foreign languages? Specifically, why do we continue to learn foreign languages when a few languages (mainly English) dominate the international scene? I’d like to offer an answer that may seem as simplistic as Helen’s passion for living in a different country. We do it because we love our neighbors, because their cultures and languages are worth preserving and celebrating.

    The beginning of the language explosion story can be found in Genesis at the Tower of Babel. Prior to this, the Bible portrays God’s good world as having one common tongue. After the exile from Eden, humans are depicted as brash and arrogant, but also fearful. They fear that they will be scattered over the earth. To prevent this, they go against God’s commandment to fill the earth (Gen. 9:7) by building a tower that is impressive to the human eye but an eyesore to God. So, God scatters the people across the earth and confuses their language. Their downfall will be our downfall as well if we elevate one culture and language to secure human power. Tim Mackie from BibleProject says Babel “is humanity’s attempt to deify its own cultural heritage and homogenize humanity and make everything ‘one.’” Homogeneity is not something we should strive for.

    Pieter Bruegel The Elder The Tower of Babel

    Pieter Bruegel The Elder, The Tower of Babel (public domain)

    Arguably, we are living a version of Babel. The trend toward using English as a dominant language worldwide (and anti-immigrant efforts to enacting English-only policies in the United States and the United Kingdom) replicates the early tower and people. English is the language of upward mobility, a path to riches and authority; and it is increasingly becoming the exclusive language of international business. Even though no country in the European Union claims English as a native language (English is an official co-language alongside Irish in Ireland,) the group continues to use English as the official language to communicate post-Brexit. A study by the University of Winnipeg found that while English is a dominant language in only six countries, in forty-one countries it is an optional educational element and in 142 countries (including the country where Helen currently lives) it is mandatory. Of the five countries with the most English speakers, three are countries where the native language is not English: India, Nigeria, and the Philippines. Many of the countries that enforce learning English are former colonies with a diverse range of native tongues: Nigeria has five hundred languages and the Philippines has a hundred and twenty. Despite the decline of imperialism, English still prevails.

    The Tower of Babel is an incomplete metaphor, though. In 2009, 6,909 languages were counted in the world. Even if some of these are spoken by only a handful of people in the most remote parts of the world, each one is valuable. Within the next century, at least three thousand of these languages will be extinct, eliminating almost half in only one hundred years. And that’s only a fraction of what we’ve already lost. According to Richard H. Armstrong, a professor at the University of Houston, “linguists have estimated something like thirty-one thousand languages have existed in human history (and that’s the lowest estimate). … Using conservative figures, something like 81 percent of all human languages have become extinct.”

    This trend shows that rather than moving from a single language to many languages, we see the consolidation of many languages into a few. We are moving toward homogeneity. And when languages die, so do cultures rich in history and difference, cultures which illustrate the diversity in God’s handiwork. Mackie aptly says, “The story of [Babel] represents the human shortsighted attempt to unify the human family through elevating one family’s name … one culture and place and city.”

    In the Hebrew Bible, God begins a redemption mission of the scattered people of many languages by calling the Israelites to care for foreigners (Lev. 19:33–34; Deut. 10:18–19). In the New Testament, that redemption continues. At Pentecost (Acts 2) the people were not united by speaking only one language. The apostles instead were gifted the tongues of other nations and spoke them fluently, able to communicate the good news of Jesus as Messiah to anyone present. Even though all those present were Jewish, barriers such as language, skin color, and nuances of tradition remained. What a gift this was for the foreigners there: to hear their own language coming from a stranger. God used the various languages to his glory, to speak to the hearts of all who were present. Speaking in another language was a necessary component to breaking down barriers between people, even people of the same faith.

    The act of using another language is important as a way of reaching out and inviting others in. A simple “hello” or “how are you?” spoken in a learned language can have an impact on those who don’t feel like they are valued in the dominant culture’s space. I remember going to get my hair cut at the only shop where I could get an immediate appointment in South Minneapolis. My barber happened to be Latino, but I didn’t know that when he began my haircut. He asked me in broken English what I was studying, and I told him Spanish at the local university. His face lit up immediately and his whole demeanor changed. We began conversing in Spanish and he told me all about his family, where he grew up, how he came to be a barber, and more. Our conversation was richer because we talked in his native language rather than my own.

    In Revelation 7:9 we read: “And there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” There, at the end of days before the throne of God, all people will be worshipping the Lamb of God together. Scripture does not say that everyone will necessarily understand each other, nor that will everyone be speaking the same language (let alone speaking English). Rather, through many differences, all will be unified into one family of God while retaining their differences in a God-honoring way. Mackie continues: “Our humanity cannot be fully realized without understanding, appreciating, and being connected to the identity of every other culture. The family of God as a unified yet diverse whole is core to the biblical story.”

    The decimation of languages in favor of English as a dominant world language goes against God’s overall vision for what the earth will be in his kingdom. English-only policies and exclusively using English as a common day-to-day language may ease communication for us now, but as a result people are losing languages they would have spoken at home or with close friends in spaces where they feel safe and free to express themselves fully. If God values every language, shouldn’t we seek to do the same if we want to truly reflect his heart for people, especially the foreigner?

    In the beginning, being of one culture and one language was good. But when one group attempted to make their own language and culture the ultimate direction of society, God set us on the path of diversity, with language being one of the many outward expressions of our differences. In the coming kingdom, God demonstrates his love for all people, all languages, and all cultures by inviting all to his throne to worship him. He will be able to understand us all, even if we cannot.

    So, what can we do? Some will be able to support organizations working to save endangered languages or to make the Bible available in every language. But all of us can learn a new language, or at least some words or phrases we can use at the grocery store to express that we see someone. Or we can go to a restaurant run by those who are not like us, try their cuisine, and try to converse. It’s okay to be uncomfortable and struggle to communicate.

    Helen reminds me, when we talk, that she and I are different sides to the same coin: she is learning a new language in a foreign country to make the gospel known, and I am here in the United States teaching Spanish to make the gospel known. Before we say goodbye, unsure of the next time we’ll speak again, she says, “It’s worth it. As long as people are speaking a different language in their homes than in their education or in the way they interact with the world, the Word of God should be in that language.” After all, we hear God best in our mother tongue.

    Contributed By

    Ashlyn Heise graduated from the University of Minnesota with a master's degree in Hispanic Linguistics. She now works as a Spanish teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She was a summer 2021 intern with Plough.

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