How many languages can you speak? I mean, how many can you speak fluently?
I feel convicted as a citizen of the world that I am monolingual: I speak only one language fluently. And I’m not happy about that fact about myself.
Yes, I studied German in high school and college. But I had five different teachers over the span of four years, so I never got far in mastering the language. And yes, I studied biblical Greek in seminary, but that doesn’t really count. (Besides, it’s a reading-only skill.) In the final analysis, right now I can speak fluently in only one language, the language of my birth.
There is something significant about that last statement: the language of my birth. It is a sheer coincidence of genetics, timing, and God’s sovereign will that I was born to English-speaking parents in a predominantly English-speaking country. Nothing in my daily life requires me to know any language other than English. And if you’re reading this article, changes are that you are in the same situation.
I strongly dislike the fact that I am monolingual.
This feeling rose up in me during the trip to Europe which Tara and I enjoyed last month. For the second half of this trip, we were in Riga, Latvia, participating in the biennial World Choir Games. (Think of the Olympics, except all the competitors are singers.) Choirs from around the world filled downtown Riga with song and with multiple languages.
Our hotel was a 15-minute bus ride from the main arena venue. Local shuttle buses transported us and other choir members to and from the arena. On these buses, we regularly sat or stood next to people from Nigeria, China, Russia, South Africa, Canada, Venezuela, and other parts of the world. Hearing all the different music styles and spoken languages was an amazing experience!
One event captured my attention. On a trip back from the arena, we packed into a bus along with a large children’s choir from China. The American person next to me – a member of our local choir – made a comment under her breath that was not disparaging or disrespectful, but it was something she did not intend the Chinese children to understand. (My memory fails me now as to what she said; it was something innocuous such as “There sure are a lot of them in this choir!”)
Partway through our bus ride back to the hotel, a few Chinese girls standing nearby began speaking to us. In perfect English.
I could not return the favor of speaking in their native language.
What’s worse, my friend’s comment was in fact understood by those children.
I learned a few valuable lessons that day:
- Never assume that your neighbor cannot speak English. You may be surprised to learn that he or she does!
- Always remember that many millions, even billions of people in this world speak a language other than English.
- Our lives and cultural experiences are enhanced when we are multilingual.
I am grateful to have learned English at an early age. But now I feel that I must redouble my efforts to learn at least one other language, in order to be able to communicate with more people.
Remember also that the gospel was proclaimed in many native languages on the Day of Pentecost:
Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? (Acts 2:8 NIV)
Do you want to learn a new language? Check out www.duolingo.com – it is a free website that will teach you any of a number of languages at an easy, comfortable pace. I’m learning Spanish there!