Thursday, November 8, 2018

Language Learning

Spanish was my first language. My parents were missionaries in Venezuela, and as part of their practice and learning, they spoke only Spanish in our home. Some of my first words as a one-year-old were about things like turning the light on, turning the light off, etc.

Just before I turned two, my father died of an aortic aneurysm. This cut short our time on the field, so we came back to the States. Later my mother told me how at two years old I could tell we weren't talking like the people around us anymore, and I told her “Talk like they talk”; (“Habla como ellos”). I don't recall speaking any Spanish in our home until I formally studied Spanish.

In high school I took three years of Spanish. I had a native speaker from Puerto Rico for a teacher. Some students struggled with her accent, but having a mother who knew Spanish and had studied linguistics, I had an edge up on learning the language. I knew the consistency of phonics in Spanish, and the different nature of the vowels. I had also studied phonics for English in my lower elementary years, so that was familiar also.

Where my Spanish-speaking ability really took off was in my second year of Spanish class. Part of our grade was based on speaking Spanish in class, and the way our teacher measured that was with photocopies of Puerto Rican pesos she would give us for speaking Spanish with her. One time my competitive streak kicked in, and I decided to try and set the record for earning the most number of those pesos for speaking Spanish in a single quarter. That meant for about 45 schooldays straight I came in and spoke with the teacher for 5, sometimes 10, minutes. It wasn't easy, and she had a lot to correct, but that daily practice was immensely helpful in terms of getting over the hump of turning knowledge of vocabulary and grammar into a communication tool.

In summer 1996, I worked in a factory at Walt Disney World in the character head department where many people there spoke less English than I spoke Spanish. I was in a rather unique position of being able to speak to anyone on the shop floor. I got a lot of practice there as well.

To this day I'm able to use my Spanish at church and work. I don't always understand everything, but I'm able to have a basic conversation with people. If people don't know I speak Spanish, I have a little fun when they first discover I have this ability. When they ask me if I speak Spanish, in Spanish I'll reply, “On Thursday, yes; on Friday, not so much.” The days change, and with my varying degrees of comfort with the language, it's a true statement. It's helpful to make people smile during introductions.

I often encourage young people to learn Spanish whenever they are given the opportunity to study the language. The United States now has the second highest number of Spanish speakers in the world.

I once heard of a father advising his children to “Learn a language from the east, and learn a language from the west.” I think that's very wise advice. In today's world, the more you can speak and communicate with people, the more valuable you are economically. Learning languages is difficult, so the ability is rare which makes it more valuable and lucrative.

Learning your second language (your first non-native language) is the most difficult. You aren't just learning another language, but you're learning how to learn another language. If you're humble about it, you can also learn more about your own language in the process.

Once you've learned a third language, I've heard it gets really easy to learn more languages. Not only do you know how to learn a language, but you also know a lot to look for in learning a new language.

At some point one may begin to wonder how we ended up with 6,000 different languages in the world today. The origin of languages is currently considered “one of the hardest problems in science.” The Bible explains they came from the Tower of Babel, right before Abraham appeared on the scene. Unity is something God wants people to only find in Him, and when the people tried to find it in themselves, God disrupted their ability to do that by confusing their languages.

Fast-forward a few thousand years to just after Jesus was talking the earth, and we see something miraculous and amazing: God supernaturally overrides man's inability to communicate in other languages specifically for the purpose of uniting people to Himself.

We don't entirely know the future of language, but we do know a few things about it. One day “every tongue will confess to God” (Romans 14:11; Isaiah 45:23), specifically every tongue will confess “that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the father” (Philippians 2:11). The name of Jesus—Savior—can be translated into any language. It is better to “confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead” now so “you will be saved” (Romans 10:9) because “it is appointed to men once to die” and then “after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

For those who have trusted Jesus, heaven awaits us. Jesus has been spending 2,000 years preparing dwelling places for each of his people. I don't know what language we'll be speaking or if we'll still have to learn languages there. I've heard Hebrew referred to, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, as “the language of heaven.” Maybe, although I think God wisely inspired His Word in both Greek and Hebrew, two very different types of languages.

My personal guess is in heaven we'll all be able to speak in every language. That is, all languages could possibly (and sensibly) be rolled into one language. This would mitigate the phenomenon of having a good word for something in one language and no good comparable counterpart in another language for translating it. Whether languages get rolled into one big language as they once we're pre-Babel or pre-fall is not certain. Maybe it will be one big new language in heaven.

Just as the Bible began with a garden and ends with a city, indicating much growth since the beginning, so too language may grow much over time, too. We know that leading up to the consummation of all things “knowledge will increase” (Daniel 12:4), so too, then, language may increase to describe that knowledge. Maybe we'll be making and adding words for all eternity.

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