Becoming Bilingual

May 22, 2010

I had a great week in Arizona. I’m flying back feeling fortunate to have such gracious friends and fortunate for my calling. It’s interesting for me to travel to places with such a diverse population. Many of the residents and visitors I encountered bounced between English and their native tongue with fluency. There were times when I felt I was the only one who wasn’t bilingual.

Thursday, there were two Japanese women sitting near me during lunch. When ordering and engaging the waitstaff they spoke with polite and calculated skill, choosing their words like sifting jewels from a box of pebbles. Likewise, the ladies at the hotel’s front desk could welcome guests in English and field questions on the phone in Spanish. Smiling all the while.

The diversity made me think of my first non-USAmerican friends. Their names were Risto and Maria, emphasis on the first syllable RI’-sto and MA’-ri-a. They were from Finland, sent by the Helsinki Evangelical Association to work with the large Finnish population found in Palm Beach County Florida. (who knew?) They had two children, were warm hospitable people, and used our church as a base for their ministry.

It was a long time ago and our paths only ran parallel for 7 months, but I remembered something about them as I waded through the various languages and dialects this week. It was their family policy when it came to language. I remembered Risto telling me, “We speak Finnish in our home and English in public.” They considered themselves as courteous guests in our country and felt responsible to speak our language.

Yesterday I read something from So Beautiful, by Leonard Sweet, that braided together several random strands of thought which had been flapping in the breeze of my mind. He said, “Christians need to be bilingual, proficient in both the language of faith and the native language of the culture, but our public voice is the language of the culture.”

The pages of the Old Testament are filled with references of God’s people as strangers and aliens. In the New Testament both Jesus and Paul talk about the tension we live in being residents of one place while being citizens of another kingdom. Unlike Risto’s family, many in our tribe feel no responsibility to learn the language of our culture. We become the spiritual equivalent of the ugly American, expecting people to adapt to our language, customs and traditions. In my opinion, our lingo and jargon are foreign here and should not be not be used in public.

To learn the language is to pour the first footing in building a bridge to the culture around us.


4 thoughts on “Becoming Bilingual

  1. I’ve been really wrestling with this thought lately. My biggest question in all of it is how do we learn the language of our culture without being completely engrossed and “sucked in”? Don’t we have the responsibility as Christians to guard oursleves from some things? How do we both learn the language of our culture and not destroy or lessen our beliefs? Any thoughts?

  2. Amanda,

    I know every metaphor breaks down at some point but I’d point back to Risto to start. Their time together at home was very intentional. Not only did he not want his children to lose their native language, he didn’t want them to be swallowed up in American culture. He wanted them to remember where they came from, who they are, and why they were there.

    I think maybe the church can take a lesson from that. Our time together should very intentionally do the same, reminding us of where we came from, who we are, and why we’re here. It reminds me of the old quote: “If we spent more time telling people who they are we wouldn’t have to spend any time telling them what to do.”

    I agree with your reservations of being “sucked in,” but never we see Christ’s followers instructed to take on a defensive position in scripture.

    Maybe the only way we can learn the language of culture is by learning to live in the tension of embracing God’s family (which can be difficult) and learning to love the people in our culture. Tension is a better word than balance because tension holds things together. Balance tends to get tipsy or unrealistic.

    I doubt I answered your question but those are some of my thoughts. Thanks for asking.

  3. Great post my friend. I myself recently failed at this. We have friends from my daughters school that had visited our church for an event. They said as a “recovering Catholic” they had been considering finding a church to attend. It was only after I had talked to them that I realized I had spent most of the time discussing the doctrine of the church and what the church believes. When instead I should have focused on Jesus and his saving grace. I should have spoken the language of the culture to them and not the language of the church. I pray that i get another chance and that I too choose my words carefully like Jewels from a box of pebbles.

    Grace and Peace my brother.


  4. I think Amanda’s concern is quite common. I also think that she, like others who share her concern, is far more equipped than she realizes. The language of nonbelievers is not so difficult to understand. For the most part, they want to be loved, respected and understood. We can do these things without embracing their every action.

    Spending time with God, in the Word, and with fellow Christians helps me to hear the Spirit’s promptings and gives me confidence that I am operating within God’s will. There is no safer place than this.

    I find the thing that holds me back most often is the fear of rejection. I’m sad to say that this includes a fear of being rejected by my fellow believers. What would they say or think of my unbelieving network of friends or family?

    I’m thankful God taught me that I can survive rejection early in my walk with Him. It’s given me the confidence to be bold despite this fear knowing that though rejection hurts, I’ll survive. It’s more important to make the most of the opportunities we have.

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