Seven Biblical Themes for Language Learning Michael Lessard-Clouston
Although vital to cross-cultural missions, language learning presents a major challenge for missionaries. This article introduces seven biblical themes for language learning, noting possible applications for second and foreign language (L2/FL) learning and teaching. It refers to scripture and resources to help missionary language learners and educators.
First, let us acknowledge that language learning can be difficult, particularly later in life, and is often just one of many tasks missionaries face. William Smalley rightly observes that there is a world hierarchy of languages and that native English speakers conveniently find our mother tongue’s popularity to be an easy “out” for not learning local languages (1994, 482). There will also be several languages in multilingual ministry contexts, since trade and minority languages are important for minority-language speakers and those who work with them (Mustol 2004, 80).
Yet Lonna Dickerson states that agencies doing things right value target language and culture competencies and have policies to balance individual approaches to missionary language learning (2004, 79). With God’s help “people who would learn languages can…enhance learning potential, and facilitate normal language acquisition” (Brewster and Brewster 1980, 209). Missionary language learning can be a redemptive activity which God uses to bless people.
Language is “the system of human communication which consists of the structured arrangement of sounds (or their written representation) into larger units” (Richards and Schmidt 2002, 283). In everyday terms, language involves both speech and writing.
In working toward a Christian theology of language, I am making several assumptions.
1. Language finds its source in God and is thus central to an understanding of God, human beings, and God’s creation (Vande Kopple 1991, 200).
2. The Bible is the inerrant written word of God and is authoritative, clear, necessary, and sufficient for knowing, trusting, and obeying God (Grudem 2009, 304).
3. A Christian perspective on language should reflect what the whole Bible says about it.
4. As God entrusts people with his common grace in all realms of life, we can learn from truth in related writings as well.
In a principled, but eclectic fashion, I read the Bible reflecting on relevant passages and noting themes that emerged. Using a concordance, I examined verses where “language(s)” and related terms (speech, written, and word) are used in the New International Version, as well as scriptures that came to mind as I thought about language and the Bible.
While admittedly a limited study, I found seven themes and pondered how they might guide L2/FL learning and teaching. Although there are limitations to this view, my main purpose is to work on an evangelical Christian theology of language pertinent to missionary language learners. Clear connections exist between Christian faith and theology and various aspects of language learning and teaching, because language is significant to people’s understanding of God, ourselves, and our world.
Theme 1: Creativity
Language and creativity appear in the Bible’s first chapters with the creation narrative and continue through to the book of Revelation, where we read that God will create a new heaven and a new earth. He has communicated this reality to human beings in both oral and written form (Rev. 21). Genesis 1 reveals that language appears to be central to God’s nature and that it is part and parcel of his creative work. God spoke audibly and used language in creation (days 1 to 4) well before he created living creatures or human beings (days 5-6) who might have responded. It’s also through spoken language that God carried out his creative activity. As Moises Silva notes, this fact draws “attention not only to God’s power but specifically the power that is attached to his word” (Silva 1990, 21).
God created human beings in his image with the ability to understand and use language (Gen. 1:27-28; 2:19ff). Language is therefore meaningful to our identity as human beings and in our relationships with God and others. That Adam was involved in naming God’s creatures (Gen. 2:19ff) also affirms that God’s creativity in language has been passed on to humankind. William Vande Kopple (1991) thus treats language as a creative gift God has given uniquely to human beings. Language and creativity are interconnected.
Possible implications are that:
• From a biblical perspective, creativity in and through language is standard, both in people’s use of it and in any activities carried out through it, including language learning.
• People who appreciate idioms, jokes, or creative turns of phrase can praise God’s goodness in language when others reflect God’s creativity through it.
• In language learning and use, creative language play is the norm among children and adults and should therefore generally be encouraged.
As language students, coaches, or teachers, we need to remember that language is changing and dynamic (McLain 1996). As much as possible, we should allow language learning and teaching to reflect the creativity of God and others, and as appropriate teach new vocabulary and structures that result from such creativity. We also need to be aware of changing standards for language use.
Theme 2: Understanding
Language and understanding is evident throughout the Bible. Throughout his creative work God named things (Gen. 1:5-10); it’s assumed that people understand language and the things, ideas, or concepts to which these words refer. Similarly, in Genesis 2:19 when Adam named the creatures, the understanding of what they were (the concepts) and what they were called (the symbols) is taken for granted.
Jesus reveals that some will hear but not understand. He also shows that when people don’t understand, they often need explanation in order to comprehend (Mark 4:13-20). From 1 John 5:20, we know that Jesus, “the Son of God, has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.”
Names for things and ideas may be random, as most linguists suggest, yet they work together in a comprehensive and comprehensible system (Field 2005, Part 1). As Vande Kopple declares, the human language facility appears to be innate and involves a complex system of symbols and concepts that enables us to be creative and to understand the communication of God and others (1991, 209). When possible, we should help learners see connections that exist in the target language, as well as those between their native language and the one they’re learning. Some writers try to explain complicated connections between language and thought. While this may be helpful, Silva rightly concludes,
The question of whether thought is possible without language is theoretically interesting, but it has little practical relevance. As far as we can tell, all of the thinking that in fact goes on is inextricably tied to linguistic competence. (1990, 25) The Bible reflects human experience with difficulties in understanding when we read of “obscure speech and difficult language” (Ezek. 3:5-6). Jesus makes clear, however, that misunderstanding may derive from sin or a lack of ability or desire to hear the truth, rather than from a lack of clarity in language (John 8:43-44). We can empathize with those who struggle to understand a language they’re learning. Studies by linguists such as Deborah Tannen (2001) show how a lack of understanding may relate to communicative style—something we can address by helping learners understand dominant communication styles in the target language and culture.
Theme 3: Communication
The Bible is full of examples of God and others using language to communicate. The Genesis 1-3 narrative shows that God created human beings to understand language and to communicate through it, as he does. Charles McLain states that communication requires a communicator, a spoken or written message, and an audience (1996, 21-22). He also makes clear that communication doesn’t occur unless the audience understands the message. McLain notes that unless one’s message is intelligible to the audience, understanding and communication don’t happen and one is just “speaking into the air” (1 Cor. 14:9).
Psalm 19 shows that communication can reflect God’s glory (v. 1) and reveal both God’s general and special revelation (vv. 1-11). In the Bible, God communicates orally with Adam and Eve (Gen. 3) and Moses (Exod. 3), and through dreams (e.g., Jacob; Gen. 28:10ff) or visions (e.g., Saul and Ananias; Acts 9:1-19), both of which also involve verbal communication, and in writing (e.g., the Ten Commandments; Exod. 31:18, 34:1). A key point is that God communicates to people in ordinary, everyday human language (Packer 1980, 197): “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Exod. 33:11). Jesus also relates to people in ordinary language, even in their own vernacular (Mark 5:41).
Ordinary human languages have tremendous value. God can reveal himself to people in and through any language, and no speech or language is foreign to him (Ps. 19:3). This fact should encourage us to teach and learn various languages. It also suggests we should teach normal, everyday language use, and that dialog and interaction are human norms. In teaching, then, we should consider communicative approaches, and acknowledge that language can be used both positively (to bless; Gen. 1:28) and negatively (to curse; Deut. 11:26-28).
Theme 4: Community
Language and community appear throughout scripture. In Genesis 1:28, God created human beings to be in fellowship with him and commanded them to be fruitful and increase in number—a clear push for community. In Genesis 2:18, God said it was “not good for the man to be alone,” so he created a suitable helper. Genesis 10:20 notes various communities—clans and languages, territories and nations. After Babel (Gen. 11), it’s clear that there were different linguistic communities, and at Pentecost in Acts 2:7-12, people from numerous language communities are listed. Pentecost also shows that through the Holy Spirit God can and does empower communication and understanding within and across communities. Furthermore, community usually develops through language, and language and community are clear when the elders fall down in Revelation 5 to worship the Lamb, declaring he purchased “men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (vs. 9), those from various types of communities. Communities typically reflect differences, and one can be an insider/outsider due to language, culture, race, nationality, etc. Paul said, “If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me” (1 Cor. 14:11). To encourage understanding within and across communities, language and culture are key and are connected in community.
Christian language learners and teachers need to pray for and be sensitive to the guidance of the Spirit in enabling our communication through language and culture, as well as our understanding of their interconnectedness. Hospitality relates to community in L2/FL learning and teaching, and David Smith and Barbara Carvill (2000) offer a view of hospitality and of the stranger (Paul’s “foreigner”) which I believe reflects Christ’s incarnation: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).
Theme 5: Sin
In Genesis 3:1-5, the devil uses language to tempt Adam and Eve through the twisting of what God had said. It’s clear that there are consequences to sin in how Adam and Eve relate to God and in the way they each blame others (Gen. 3:8-13), as well as in God’s response (Gen. 3:14-24). This theme is further developed in Genesis 11. The Hebrew word Babel means “gate of God,” but sounds like “confused.” People rebelled with pride by building a tower and refusing to be scattered. In response, God confused their language, scattered the people, and created a variety of different languages (vs. 5-9).
Hebrews 4:12 also tells us God’s word is sharper than a double-edged sword, judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. So through God’s word language helps us to understand and be convicted of our sin. McLain observes, “Language is affected by the same decay and corruption that characterizes all creation since the Fall” (1996, 27). Thus, in language learning and teaching we must be aware of our sin and the sin of others. Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Genesis 3 was reflected at Babel in Genesis 11, just as it is in our language use (Col. 3:8-9). Jesus teaches that our speech, what comes “out of the mouth,” is what makes us “unclean” and through our speech, our sin—false testimony, slander, etc.—is evident (Matt. 15:16-20).
As appropriate, both Christians generally and missionaries in particular should aim to be human “gates of God” who address various types of “confusion” and share our knowledge of language, culture, salvation, and scripture with those with whom we work, whether students, colleagues, etc.
Theme 6: Diversity
In Genesis 10:20, 31 we read of “clans and languages,” and Genesis 11 reveals that in response to sin God created a diversity of languages. The scattering of people mentioned carried on with the Exodus, and in Nehemiah 13:24 it’s evident that God’s people and their children spoke a range of languages. Daniel studied “the language and literature of the Babylonians” (1:4b) and in Zechariah 8:23 we find diversity in God’s promise to bless Jerusalem.
The diversity of languages is evident in the interactions of Jesus (Mark 5:41) and Paul (Acts 21-22) with people in Aramaic and Greek. As Paul wrote, “Undoubtedly, there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning” (1 Cor. 14:10). The variety of languages used in Acts 2 at Pentecost points toward heaven, where John tells us in Revelation 7:9 there is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb,” praising God. From Babel to Pentecost to heaven, God created ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity.
The Bible reflects our experience of linguistic diversity and reveals that varied languages and linguistic, cultural, and ethnic groups will continue to exist in heaven (Dan. 7:13-14). While affirming linguistic diversity, the Bible reveals the issue of native languages, as John 8:44 and Acts 2:6-11 attest. As the “native speaker” notion has been criticized in recent years (see Davies 2003 for a balanced view), the fact that the Bible mentions the concept should encourage us to recognize the insights a native speaker offers on language and culture. The Bible also makes clear that this theme incorporates different types of and uses for language, including plain versus figurative speech (e.g., John 16:25), confirming the value of different genres in spoken and written language central to language education. Finally, we should recognize individual approaches to language acquisition and use the diverse styles and strategies that people bring to it.
Theme 7: Redemption
By God’s grace, Christians wait with hope (Titus 2:13-14). After the Fall in Genesis 3:15, we see God’s intervention to deal with sin through judgment, as well as the promise that he would “crush” the serpent. That God communicated the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin to them verbally through language is significant, as is the fact that he revealed his plan of redemption both orally to people down through the ages and in his trustworthy written word.
This pattern is the story of the Bible—God redeeming people and saving them from their sins. In John 1:12 we read of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, becoming flesh and granting “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name…the right to become children of God.”
This theme is further evident in the “word of faith” Paul proclaimed in Romans 10:9-11, where the role of oral and written language in redemption is prominent. Paul also refers specifically to the written scriptures (Isa. 28:16 in this case), upholding their role in redemption, as in 2 Timothy 3:15-17. In Revelation 14:6, we similarly learn that an angel had “the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language, and people.” Spoken and written language are vital in redemption.
The importance of language in redemption reinforces the roles of orality and literacy in language learning and teaching. Language is used to communicate salvation, and language learning can reflect the redemption we learners and teachers have experienced. We in language education need to understand the redemptive aspects of language learning as reflected in Christ’s incarnational approach to ministry and his sacrificial work on our behalf. Missionary language learners and teachers can reflect the redemption we have experienced.
While not exhaustive, these seven themes may be integrated into missionary language learning through examples we provide in our lessons, textbooks and methods we choose, and in other activities. These themes reveal God’s goodness and faithfulness, echoing the praises of the great multitude in heaven: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory” (Rev. 19:6b-7a).
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