WorldView: What language does God speak?

4/12/2007

By Erich Bridges

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RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--It was no sin to be uneducated in the red-dirt countryside my Georgia kin farmed generations ago.

Many rural folks worked too long and hard in those days to get very far in school, assuming there was a school to attend. If, however, you got the precious opportunity to learn and let it pass by … well, that was just ignorant (pronounced “IG-nernt” in those parts).

That’s about where Americans stand today when it comes to the study of languages other than English: willfully ignorant. It’s hurting our future – and our participation in spreading the Gospel around the world.

In a recent column, I quoted a Time magazine story about the skills students need in a globalized world. “Kids are global citizens now, even in small-town America, and they must learn to act that way,” Time reported. “Mike Eskew, CEO of UPS, talks about needing workers who are ‘global-trade literate, sensitive to foreign cultures, conversant in different languages’ – not exactly strong points in the U.S., where fewer than half of high school students are enrolled in a foreign language class. …”

The personal and social benefits of learning to speak another language are well-documented: better overall academic scores, better career prospects, increased cross-cultural understanding, greater potential to contribute to an interdependent world.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, strategic analysts talked about how important it was for Americans to study foreign languages to strengthen national security and represent U.S. interests abroad more effectively. College-level language studies spiked – at least for a while.

But foreign language study at the high school level continues to limp along. Of the students who pursue any foreign language at all, more than 90 percent choose Spanish, French or German. Relatively few achieve real fluency. Non-Western languages? Many schools don’t even offer them.

We’re not alone in our linguistic isolationism. Two years ago, the British government dropped its requirement that public school students ages 14-16 study at least one foreign language. “Of course, the numbers (studying a language) went into a free-fall,” reported The Economist magazine in an editorial on the sorry state of language skills in England.

The writer sarcastically added: “Brainy Britons may master several tongues; the others will continue to converse with mankind in God’s own language, English.”

We know God speaks other languages, of course. But if we don’t bother to learn some of them, how serious are we about communicating His saving love to all nations?

True, English still dominates international communication in many fields – science and technology, transportation and trade, popular culture. Besides hundreds of millions of native English speakers, an estimated 1.5 billion people speak it as a second language. It continues to spin off fresh dialects across the globe as new English speakers mix in words and idioms from their native tongues.

However, the status of English as a “global language” may be peaking, predicted British linguist David Graddol in a major study on the future of language, published in the journal Science in 2004.

Most global population growth is occurring in Asia and Africa. In the mid-20th century, nine of every 100 people in the world grew up speaking English as a first language. That number is expected to fall to five in 100 in 2050. By then, English, Spanish, Hindi/Urdu (major languages of India and South Asia) and Arabic will claim about the same number of native speakers – roughly 500 million each, according to Graddol’s study. Mandarin Chinese, by far the most-spoken native language today, will continue to be the global leader with more than 1.3 billion native speakers.

More and more people will find it essential to speak several languages in order to participate in the global economy (translation: get and hold a decent job) and communicate with others in their own countries and beyond.

“Native English speakers – particularly monolingual ones – have been too complacent about the status of their language and the lack of need to learn other languages,” said Graddol.

What does this mean for mission-minded Americans? It’s high time many more of us committed ourselves to learning the “heart languages” most of the world’s people use when they speak, listen, think and learn. That challenge applies not only to international missionaries, but to you and me. If we make the effort, God will open the minds and hearts of immigrants next door and lost peoples across the world to us as we share the Good News of Jesus.

I’m ashamed to admit that after many years of international travel and trying to understand the world, I have yet to learn a second language with any degree of fluency. If they were still around, my rural Georgia kinfolks would call that “IG-nernt.”

But it’s not too late for me, I hope. And if I have anything to do with it, my children and their children will speak at least two languages fluently. I urge you to set the same goal for yourself and your family.

In today’s borderless world, it’s basic training for life and ministry.

Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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