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Is it time to learn a new language?

by
26 May 2023

Learning another language is an enriching and hospitable act, says Andrew Davison

Alamy

Pentecost: panel from the high altar of the Charterhouse of Saint-Honoré, Thuison-les-Abbeville (1490-1500)

Pentecost: panel from the high altar of the Charterhouse of Saint-Honoré, Thuison-les-Abbeville (1490-1500)

THE world’s diversity of languages does not come off well from the story of Babel and its tower, in which human tongues are multiplied to curb our hubris and rein in the capacity to defy God. That would make learning other languages powerful — but probably also a rebellion against a divine sanction.

With the day of Pentecost, however, we see God beginning to heal the linguistic breach. Christ has broken down walls of estrangement between people (just as he has between humanity and God), and the fruit is there, in the Church, as something universal from its very beginning, embracing every culture and nation.

At Pentecost, diversity was maintained, even as division was overcome. The Spirit did not impose some new Christian Esperanto; nor was variety jettisoned for the lingua franca of Latin or Greek. Instead, we hear the languages of “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judaea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs”.

That casts a new and more positive light on the diversity of languages. Frustrating though it can be, those many languages are a good part of a good creation. They are something that the Spirit preserves, or even celebrates, at Pentecost. They are vehicles for much noble human creativity, and part of that creativity themselves.

I will not subject Acts 2 to the indignity of a naturalistic interpretation. The gift of tongues was a miraculous gift, transcending nature. None the less, miracles generally teach us something about the non-miraculous.

As a parallel, consider that God sometimes heals miraculously, but that has not prevented the Church from founding hospitals or employing parish nurses: quite the opposite. So, too, with prophecy, which does not absolve anyone from prudence or good management.

I have no qualms about recognising a miraculous gift of tongues, whether in the first century or now (although I would not accept everything as that gift today, just because it is unusual and people give it that name); but, just as miraculous healings stand alongside building hospitals, so might Pentecost’s gift of tongues inspire us to make a natural effort to expand our linguistic reach.

 

AS WITH those hospitals, history is full of examples, whether in Bible translation or in the part that Christians played in translating Aristotle from Greek to Arabic, and from Arabic to Latin. In our own time, those Bible translators continue their excellent work. I also much admire a culture that I have experienced in the Roman Catholic Church: that, since the Church is universal, it is useful for any priest, theologian, or religious Sister to pick up some languages along the way.

Working on another language, even to a limited degree, offers a potent recognition of the value of cultures beyond one’s own. There is an ethical charge to having a go at obtaining even a smattering of some other languages. We see that in a beautiful video, doing the rounds on social media, of Anna Livingstone, a GP who worked in the east end of London. She learned Bengali in the 1980s because there were no interpreters available. What an example!

I have spent enough time in North America to think that having some Spanish, even if it is only very basic, shows courtesy towards those who don’t have English as their mother tongue — or, at least, towards the largest bloc for whom that is true. After all, the United States has no official language.

Of course, it is more likely that any Hispanic interlocutor will have excellent English, but why should the work of building a bridge go only in one direction? Nor is the mismatch between me and, say, an El Salvadorian Uber driver without a chastening value of its own. I, with all my educational advantages, find anything beyond reading another language excruciatingly difficult. He, with few of those advantages, speaks at least two. I bow to my intellectual superior on that front.

Born in 1974, I belong to a benighted generation of comprehensive-educated people who went through school when teaching grammar was thought to be an elitist endeavour that we would do well to be spared. Or, at least, how else can I explain my education, or lack of it — in German, as in English — than that it was thought an intolerable burden to subject us to the sort of grammatical instruction received in private schools?

Among my many reasons for gratitude to the Church of England for putting me through a theology degree, therefore, is studying New Testament Greek. Grammar in that case was far from optional, and, suddenly, the German that I had learned at GCSE achieved a new coherence. Finally, someone told me what the dative was about, offering me more than “It’s a line in the table on page 17.”

I studied that Greek where I now teach, in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge. Here, we periodically ask ourselves whether the requirement of a year of a scriptural language (Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek, or Arabic) is unhelpfully off-putting to prospective students. The position for now (and, I hope, for years to come) is that languages are indispensable for the sort of theological study to which we aspire.

Rather than relaxing the requirement (which is, after all, the barest shadow of what our predecessors would have expected), we put effort into resources to help students get a start before they arrive. We assure them that students are well-supported, and pass on the news that — far more frequently than not — they tell us how glad they are to have studied a language for at least a year. Some, indeed, discover a love and facility for language which they never expected.

 

WITH languages, I am convinced that a little is better than nothing, and a little bit more is better still. That is true of modern languages, but even more for scriptural ones, since we are typically happy to spend time poring over scriptural passages. Certainly, I admire colleagues whose eyes pass over a page of Greek or Sanskrit as quickly as if it were English, but, even if it takes someone 50 times longer than that to understand, they will get there, none the less.

There is also a particular cornucopia of resources available when it comes to scriptural languages, with interlinear publications, for instance, online resources with every word linked to a lexicon, or Zerwick and Grosvenor’s Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament. Once you can read the script and have a sense of the grammar (and its terminology), those resources all stand open before you.

Learning languages brings other benefits. In her book Power of Language (Pelican, 2023), Viorica Marian explores the cognitive advantages of bi- or multi-lingual people: benefits that start accruing relatively soon into learning a new language. These include greater creativity and facility in parallel thinking (or so scientific studies suggest).

Knowing more than one language also seems to hold off cognitive decline in later age, by four to six years: as much as having kept up a regime of physical exercise, as Marian points out. It is not, in fact, that the brain degrades any slower, but that the mind weathers those changes better. (I am reminded of studies on the brains of deceased nuns, which suggest that the ordered life of the convent and the rhythms of daily prayer do much the same.)

Looking around the world and down history, monolingualism is the exception — even the aberration. Given what we now know about multi-lingualism and the brain, we might almost call monolingualism a sort of pathology.

Claims have been made that people who speak different languages understand the world in fundamentally different ways (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). That doesn’t have much traction among scholars of linguistics today — at least, not in exaggerated forms that have done it no favours. If knowledge is about reality, even more than it is about how we know, then reality impresses itself more or less alike, in this language as in that.

None the less, I still think that aspects of the world, and of human life, are opened up by learning the vocabulary that describes them in other languages. Katrin Kohl (in Modern Languages: Why it matters, Polity, 2020) gives the example of Feierabend in German, as the portion of the day which comes after work. Having a word for this, she suggests, helps Germans to recognise and defend it. She also points to sobremesa in Spanish: time spent together at the table after a meal, talking to one another. That Spanish has a distinct name for this, and English hasn’t, opens up something good about Hispanic culture, and reveals something unhealthy about the Anglosphere.

The miracle at Pentecost teaches us the value of working at understanding across cultures. Cognitive science adds its own incentives. Learning even the 1000 most common words in another language offers surprisingly good preparation for understanding any given sentence.

As Marian writes, if the best time to learn another language is in infancy, the second-best time is now. It is never too late. Indeed, we live in something of a golden age for language-learning, with smartphone apps, international film and TV on streaming services, and the internet to link people to tutors.

Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. The Church, right from the start, was an international family. There may be no better way to embrace that than by finding a small phrasebook or grammar in a charity shop, and keeping it in your coat pocket, to put in a bit of practice every day.

 

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Starbridge Associate Professor in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and currently a visiting fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, New Jersey.


Read his review of
The New Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine here

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