Speaking In Tongues: How Foreign Language Study Can Benefit The Church

I laid in wait for our server.

We were in Prague, Czech Republic, at dinner.  And our waiter had been an immense help, nothing but gracious to two Americans new to the city.  But I wasn’t content to be just an English-speaking American if I could help it, and so I watched and bided my time until, at the end of the meal, he returned with our credit card and receipt.  I gathered up my courage.

Děkuji,” I blurted. Thank you. It was one of the ten or twelve Czech phrases I’d learned before our trip and I was bent on using it.

Our waiter paused, surprised.  And then a delighted smile touched his face.  He bowed low.  “Prosím,” he replied. You’re welcome.

It was an insignificant event, I know, and yet I carry that memory and others with me as a reminder of how meaningful it can be to interact with people in their own tongue.  Jesus never spoke a word of English; Christians today speak a multitude of languages.  And yet the language we speak, regardless of what we speak, is a gateway to understanding: know someone’s language and you know a little bit of their culture, their life, and their worldview.  And it’s with that thought in mind I want to discuss the benefits of foreign language study within the church.

Foreign language study – either a set of classes or workshops or as a small group activity – can be helpful for the following reasons:

1. It’s a contact point between the church and the community around it. Interest in learning a foreign language, even as a hobby, is on the rise; apps like Duolingo and FluentU draw in hordes of users eager to gain a new skill.  Since the church is meant to serve the community in which it exists, why not offer foreign language study – either classes or workshops – as a way to connect?  Churches serve their communities in a multitude of ways, and teaching a foreign language (for free!) is a great way to bring in people who might not otherwise bother to show up.  For those wary of being proselytized, foreign language study can seem nonthreatening and inviting, and it allows people within the church to build relationships with those without.

2. It provides an alternative mode of fellowship for believers. I took a Japanese study class when my church offered it, and found myself in a class with about eight other people.  What’s fascinating is that we were all so different.  Some of us were college students, some post-grad, some married and some not; some were not churchgoers at all.  We were able to talk and grow friendships over the course of the class, but the burden of “fellowshipping” and awkward small talk vanished within the structures confines of a lesson.  We all had something to do together, and that focus – and the way we helped each other study, or provided each other with hints – created a neat sort of camaraderie in a group that otherwise might not have ever come together.

3. It gives you a new way to communicate with others.  Sign Language is fairly popular in the Christian community; seeing a need, many Christians want to reach out and bridge the gap by learning Sign.  It’s also possible, especially if you live in a community with a percentage of ESL (English as a Second Language) speakers nearby, to bridge that gap with other languages as well.  No one need become a genius; sometimes it’s simply enough to try, to learn basic phrases and methods of communicating with others.  There’s something kind and warm and graceful about wanting to speak to someone in the language they know best, and it strikes me as a very godly act to want to include people and reach out to them.

4. It allows for interesting cultural discussions. Part of foreign language study is foreign culture study, and learning about another a culture a) provides believers with an interesting perspective on how Christians in other cultures worship, pray, and learn, and b) permits us to understand others better.  It’s a wonderful access point to begin discussions about faith with people because everyone’s interested in learning about each other.  And it’s a fantastic way to understand the multitude of ways people share in and express the Christian faith – ways that we can learn from.  I’m speaking from my own experience here, but people interested in learning a foreign language are often interested in new experiences generally – and that can open doors for a variety of conversations and dialogues.

5. It allows for better integration within congregations.  About seven years ago, I attended a church that offered a Chinese-language service.  Or they said they offered it, at least, and I believed them, though I only rarely glimpsed any of the Chinese worshipers who came and they were segregated from the English service.  They even had their own Bible studies, meals, and fellowship activities.  For all intents and purposes, we were two churches sharing one building, and that always felt remarkably strange to me.

Today, we live in a diverse society.  In my area alone, I know Spanish and Somali ESL speakers.  I’ve taught students from Kenya, from Beijing, and from Sierra Leone.  We have a small but thriving Japanese community.  The thought of attending an English-speaking church must be daunting for ESL speakers, and yet the thought of segregating them entirely also doesn’t seem like the answer.  With foreign language study, slowly and over time it might be possible to build bridges to those who don’t speak English as a first language – to invite them into our lives as much as we can, to extend grace and warmth, to embrace them in our congregations.

I fully recognize, of course, that every church has neither the resources nor the need for foreign language study.  Some communities have a dearth of ESL speakers nearby; other churches might not have the resources or the congregational desire.  But in places where there’s a spark of interest, I believe it’s vitally important to let the flame grow.  Proverbs 15:4 reminds us that “the soothing tongue is a tree of life” – how much more so when that tongue can speak to God’s many multitudes of people in all their glorious array.

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One response to “Speaking In Tongues: How Foreign Language Study Can Benefit The Church

  1. Knowing a foreign language also opens up our understanding of cultural perspectives. As different as the east is from the west, we don’t have to change our perspective to worship the same God – but it is a great idea to learn how our brothers and sisters in another country understand Him. I’ve been reading: “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes” and I’ve learned tons – that telling Japanese people about heaven didn’t appeal because they were worried that they couldn’t go where their ancestors would be, that community is as important to other cultures as individualism is to us, and so much more. If I had never learned other languages, other perspectives, I might assume that the English is all I need to know and that would cut me off from a valuable source of insight.

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