Thursday, June 23, 2011

Underrated in Congregational Life: Language Learning

Though I deeply appreciate the theological writings and ideas of Martin Luther, one of the things that inspires me most about a connection to the legacy of Luther is translation of the biblical witness into the language of the people. Sometimes I imagine the work of Bible translators, awestruck. I am thankful for Luther's pioneering translation work.

I love languages of all kinds. I enjoy Danish and French. I made an academic college try at Russian. I am attempting to learn Korean. I am intrigued by professional and social group lingo. I admire the dexterity in how the English language evolves. I don't like to feel foolish while I'm learning these manners of speaking, so sometimes I avoid them. It's not that I don't have the ability to learn the language, but the fear throws up road blocks. The challenge of connecting with my family and friends is stark enough; throw in the cultural differences, and I am tempted to say "why bother?" So I often give up.

Language is dynamic. We learn language often out of love for the other. Grandparents learn to use Facebook because they want to communicate with their grandchildren. An entrepreneur learns programming code because of their love for conveying a message. An adoptive parent learns Mandarin so they can know the more deeply the culture of origin of their daughter.

Here's why I think language learning is underrated in congregational life. Though we often engage in a world of dynamic language change, for some reason in congregational life, learning a new language is viewed with suspicion, or outright disdain. I think part of this is the fear and foolish factor, which I believe is modified by the deep emotional attachment to faith and congregational life. It hurts more to look foolish in matters of faith. It hurts more to look foolish in a place where we have so many and emotions and time invested in the milestones of life.

Another factor in language learning involves the theological and cultural roots of our understanding of God and change.

1. There is a very strong theological and cultural understanding that God does not change, therefore change in congregational language is considered suspect.

2. At attempt to keep language the same in congregational life may also reflect a fortress mentality. In the above link, I reference Pat Keifert, a theologian who has taught about how congregations are resistant to language change (and change in general) because the church was a "change-free zone" in the midst of a world full of change.

The variables in language learning accelerate rapidly in the Information Age, and many church leaders have rightly asked the question of stewardship of abundant information and how to prioritize usage. This burgeoning reality adds another wrinkle into how language learning choices have become more complex for congregations. Where does that conversation about language learning start? One of my favorite biblical questions from the Parable of the Good Samaritan. "Who is my neighbor?" The two things I have noticed as I drive into work: The US Military presence, and Korean language signage. I have a lot of language to learn from both communities. I cannot afford to underrate language learning anymore.

1 comment:

  1. Some of the biggest controversies in Christianity today are the result of misunderstanding caused by changes in meanings of words. Many of these are deliberate misuses of words.

    I would like to hear more from you on this.

    Congratulations on your new church "home." Whoops, sorry about the misuse of "home?"