I recently listened to a TED Talk by linguist John McWhorter giving four reasons for learning a foreign language. This brief talk was very interesting and well-done. Particularly striking for me was his first reason: “if you want to imbibe a culture, you have to control, to some degree, the language the culture happens to be conducted in.” For those seeking to minister cross-culturally, this is a very important point.
McWhorter begins his discussion of the benefits of language learning by pushing back on the notion that learning language teaches one to think differently. He argues that worldview is not uniformly reflected through language. As an illustration, he notes 3 different English speakers who clearly have differing worldviews. I would only partially agree here as I think there is a closer relationship between worldview and language than McWhorter allows, especially in many languages other than English. Further, in my experience, learning another language does stretch the mind and open up new avenues of thinking.
McWhorter then moves to the main content of the talk: why learn language? For me, reason number one is reason enough. While language may not always perfectly reflect worldview, one cannot effectively operate within a culture without speaking that culture’s language. For missionaries, this is especially true: one cannot hope to communicate the message of the gospel in a culturally meaningful way without understanding the language of that culture. Put otherwise, good contextualization necessarily involves language learning.
Beyond the obvious (people in many parts of the world don’t speak English), there is a further reason for this. Concepts merely translated directly from English into equivalent words of another language often fail to accurately communicate one’s message. Simply translating words from one language to another does not result in culturally meaningful communication.
For example, Chinese people have been told by English-speaking Christians “你是一个罪人” – “you are a sinner.” Many Chinese balk at this notion because “罪人” in Chinese most commonly refers to “criminals” – murderers and the like. Very few Chinese would agree that they are this kind of person. Obviously this is a rather simple example, but it illustrates the point: without learning the language, one can very easily miscommunicate.
Learning language is essential for gospel communication and cultural understanding. It demonstrates love for those we serve.
Here’s McWhorter’s talk: