“Bonjour. Ça va?” A young man from France greeted me in the aisle as I walked into services at the Belgium Feast site last year.
“Wait a minute!” I thought to myself triumphantly. “I know what that means!”
“Oui. Ça va bien!” I replied enthusiastically.
But that’s when everything fell apart! Incorrectly assuming that I spoke French beyond the greetings we had just exchanged, my French friend continued casually chatting away. I stood smiling blankly, barely comprehending a word. How could I have forgotten so much of the French I labored to learn in high school? I lamented silently.
Nothing is quite so effective at putting the brakes on meaningful human communication as lack of common language. Fortunately, however, at this Feast site, all was not lost in my endeavors to communicate with the French brethren. There were a number of bilingual members in attendance whose language skills were of tremendous benefit to the rest of us. They were happy to step in and bridge the communication gap where they could, and on several occasions, I was able to take advantage of their interpretation services.
As this example illustrates, foreign language ability can be of tremendous value. Developing skill in a foreign language is a challenge, but for those willing to take it on, it can be a life-changing experience that develops your mind and personality, enriches your education, and creates exciting opportunities to serve others!
Bridge Communication Barriers!
Since the tower of Babel, the world has been divided by barriers of language. Improved efficiency in communication and travel has shrunk our modern world and brought people on different sides of these barriers into more frequent contact. This is the case even within the Philadelphia Church of God, as can commonly be experienced at international Feast sites.
If you’re reading this article, it means you speak English, probably as your first language. Many growing up in Western English-speaking countries have come to assume that a command of English exempts them from a need to communicate in a foreign language. It’s true that English is studied commonly as a second language around the world, but this trend is changing as the cultural and economic dominance of English-speaking countries is eclipsed by other rising nations.
The fact is, many people on this Earth—and within God’s Church—speak no English, and the confrontation God instituted at the tower of Babel is still powerfully in effect. For people divided by language to interact and communicate, someone must be trained and ready to stand in the gap as an intermediary.
Imagine yourself serving as that bridge—a vital link across the barriers to communication between people from opposite sides of the world! For those committed to learning another language, opportunities abound to bridge these chasms! Whether it be interpreting between two individuals, or simply conversing with someone disconnected by language, you can serve as the means by which important human relationships are built, which would have otherwise been impossible.
And who knows where developing such valuable skills could ultimately lead! Within God’s Church, for example, translators are in high demand, serving as a vital lifeline to enable those with a limited knowledge of English to receive God’s truth. With sufficient skill, someday you may even be able to play a part in translating Church literature or interpreting sermons!
Develop Cross-Cultural Understanding
Our spoken language helps shape the way we think, and strongly reflects our cultural characteristics and values. The culture of a region is therefore strongly connected with the spoken language. For this reason, by learning a language, in essence you’re actually gaining insight into how speakers of that language think. And so, as you develop your skill in a foreign language, it’s nearly impossible not to simultaneously deepen your understanding and empathy for the culture connected to that language. In this way, foreign language study not only enables you to bridge communication barriers, but it broadens your horizons through cultural education as well. This deepened awareness of the attitudes and values associated with a particular group of people goes a long way in helping you to relate to and build meaningful relationships with the members of that group.
As Edward Trimnell writes in his book Why You Need a Foreign Language and How to Learn One, “[W]hen you restrict yourself to speaking only English, you restrict the number of people whose hearts and minds you can reach.” The Apostle Paul was an excellent example of someone capable of meaningfully reaching the hearts and minds of those of differing cultural backgrounds. His ability to speak what probably added up to Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Latin not only enabled him to teach God’s truth powerfully to Jews and Gentiles alike, but it also gave him a profound ability to relate to their differing cultural characteristics, becoming “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
Develop Your Mind
The cultural education that comes with foreign language study is a valuable educational opportunity for expanding your understanding of the world and developing your personality. But another amazing thing about foreign language study is the benefit it brings in completely different academic subjects. Research has shown a strong connection between foreign language study and improved grades in English and math for American students! Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Learning a foreign language can actually improve a student’s command in his or her native language and improve ability in a subject as seemingly unrelated as math! The reason is that learning to think and express ideas in a foreign language is a powerful exercise in developing analytical skills. These skills can be applied to problem-solving in many other subjects and help students to use their own languages more effectively.
With these academic benefits come expanded career opportunities. The current global economic crisis shows how closely tied together the world’s economies have become. In such a global economy, companies doing business overseas are in great need of employees with the language skills necessary to make international business cooperation possible. Whatever career goals you might have, foreign language skills can only make you more marketable to potential employers.
Take Up the Challenge!
The Hebrew word Babel means confusion. A world of so many different languages certainly has been a cause of great confusion, and so we look forward to the day coming soon when everyone on Earth will be given a new global language! When that day arrives, such communication barriers will be a distant memory (Zephaniah 3:9).
Until then, however, there must be people with foreign-language skills willing and able to step forward to bridge those barriers.
No one can learn every language, but learning just one foreign language opens up an entire new world of opportunities for you and others who may benefit from it—making this one of the most rewarding and interesting subjects to study. If you have the opportunity, take up the challenge of learning a foreign language!
Which Language Should You Study?
With so many foreign languages to study, how do you pick the one that’s right for you? Your options at school may be limited, but you should still put as much thought into your selection as possible.
One important consideration in selecting a language is personal interest. Selecting a language that ties into your interests will make your foreign language study more interesting and help motivate you to devote the time and energy needed to learn your language. If there’s a particular culture or country that has always fascinated you, let that guide your selection. Your hobbies or areas of career interest may also have a strong connection to a particular language. If you’re planning a career in engineering or industry, for example, German might be your best route. If you’re fascinated by geopolitics of the Middle East, you’d probably enjoy studying Hebrew or Arabic. If you love the arts and gourmet cuisine, consider learning French or Italian. The point is: Make your foreign language study as interesting as possible by linking it to what you like!
Another important criterion in making your language selection is practicality. The more opportunity you have to put your hard-earned language skills to use, the more valuable they’ll be. For this reason, you’ll want to consider factors that determine the usefulness of a particular language for yourself and others. The number of speakers of that language, opportunities for contact you’ll have with speakers of that language, the role the language plays in global trade, and the job-market demand for skill in a language are all important considerations. You’ll also want to consider the availability of classroom instruction and study materials for a particular language, since these resources may be limited for less commonly studied languages.
Level of Difficulty
It’s also a good idea to consider the difficulty of a foreign language when selecting the one you want to study. Some languages are easier to learn than others. For native English speakers, the difficulty of a language can usually be gauged by its similarity to English. Western European languages such as Spanish, French and Italian are similar to English, and can therefore be learned relatively easily by English speakers. Asian and Middle Eastern languages, on the other hand, can be quite different from English and are usually more of a challenge. Even if a language is considered difficult, however, don’t let that discourage you from choosing the one you’re interested in. With enough hard work and study, any language can be mastered!
True Education, January-February 2009