Languages Are More Important Than You Think

Languages are fascinating.

For all of you who endured through Spanish or French in high school, you may disagree with me, but there is a reason that we take foreign languages in school. Language is a fundamental part of being human. It is one of the irreducible components of every society. Every culture, every group of people, communicates through language. It may be English, it may be any one of thousands of foreign languages, or it may even be sign language. Everyone that can communicate does so with language.

That makes language very important, and we need to keep that in mind as we do ministry in the United States today. I am a firm believer that good ministry can happen across language barriers. Language can often be an excuse for not reaching out to our new, foreign-born neighbors. It should never be so, and even when we do not know their language, we can still begin to engage. However, we desperately need to realize how important language is to culture, because it has a huge impact on discipleship and missions.[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Language does not merely express what we think it affects how we think.[/pullquote]

Language does not merely express what we think; it affects how we think.

Language is a means of expressing the content of culture, but it is so closely tied to culture that it is often hard to distinguish between the two. The two work in tandem, developing one another and shaping one another. Just like culture, language affects our worldview. It shapes the categories for our thinking, and it determines how we process information.

Let me give you a personal example:

When I served as a missionary in West Africa, I learned the language of an unreached people group there in order to do church planting work. Some of the differences between English and that language are remarkable and reveal differences in worldview.

English has three basic pronouns for gender: he, she, and it. The West African language I learned does not. In fact, it only had one pronoun that could refer to a male, female, or inanimate object. The worldview in which English springs up places enough value on identifying the differences concerning this detail of an object that it has separate words for it. However, this African language does not see that detail important enough to need its own words. In conversation, I would often find myself asking if they were talking about a guy or girl. They, of course, could answer with the noun for man or the noun for woman, but it was always with a follow-up question. Furthermore, my follow-up question was usually seen as a little odd. You could tell they often wondered why I thought that detail to be significant.

On the other hand, the African language had an extra first-person plural pronoun (we). In English, we only use one word for we, but they had two words for we. The difference was one of inclusion or exclusion. In other words one pronoun meant “we all,” or everyone in the current conversation. The other pronoun meant “we excluding you,” or a group of people that does not include the person being spoken to. That may seem like an unnecessary distinction, but it was very important in that African culture.

Finally, English has a wide variety of abstract nouns. In fact, we all learned the difference between abstract and concrete nouns in school. These are words that name concepts like love, fear, anger, and hate. This African language had only a few of these. Instead, it much preferred using concrete phrases to describe abstract ideas. In order to say that you were upset in this language, you would say that your “heart was standing.” To say that you were at peace, you would say your “heart was laying down.” And, to be crass, to say you had diarrhea, you would say your stomach was fighting you! (Do not ask me why I know that.)

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Little differences in language like those above may seem trivial, but they evidence a much deeper truth about worldview.[/pullquote] Little differences in language like those above may seem trivial, but they evidence a much deeper truth about worldview. The Western world is far more individualistic, and this is reflected in our need to identify everyone’s gender and specify extra details about the individual. The West African worldview is very communal, and most often thinks in terms of community. Their concern for the group explains the need for two plural pronouns, one that includes and one that excludes. Many non-Western worldviews place a high value on honor and shame, and even their language makes it clear when someone is or is not invited to participate. This avoids the shame of assuming that you are part of the whole. In this West African worldview, the individual often has no say by themselves.

This matters in terms of the gospel. I cannot tell you the number of times I had people tell me that they believed the gospel was true, but that it did not matter because they were part of a group that was Muslim. They did not even think they had the option to accept something with which the whole disagreed.

The connect between culture, worldview, and language has massive ramifications on ministry. For those of us who grew up only speaking one language, in a world where all communication basically happens the way we understand it, it is easy for us to think of language as little more than switching out vocabulary. We think that all we have to do is find the equivalent word in another language and we have communicated the same thing. But it just doesn’t work that way. The language itself carries meaning, and people think in a way that is tied to language.

In our communities, we have to realize the need for ministry in many languages. We need more than churches with translators. We need to be planting churches that can reach the wide range of peoples, that can think natively in languages and thought-forms that address the wide range of peoples around us. This does not mean that we have to know that language completely to begin reaching them, but it most definitely affects our end goal. Discipleship will always be done best in the language that makes the most sense to a person, and more people can be reached when we try to multiply the gospel witness in a city by planting many churches that can each express the gospel intuitively in different languages.

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