‘To know two languages is to possess a second soul’, Charlemagne once quipped. But how does our attitude to learning a foreign language shape us both individually and as a society?
The British Council’s recent Language Trends report reveals a decline in post-16 foreign language study in English schools. If this trend continues, the UK will miss out on the economic benefits of having a workforce able to speak another language: in a recent survey, 74% of UK business leaders thought that young people are ill-equipped to operate well in a globalised economy.
Language learning brings not only economic benefits but personal and community ones too. Our connection to a holiday destination is enriched when we try a few words of Spanish with the waiter or bus driver. We make new neighbours feel at home when we venture out, however haltingly, onto their own ‘linguistic turf’. And learning a language keeps us humble, as we battle with the absurdities of English pruh-nuhn-see-ey-shuh-n, or when we German word order once again completely mess up.
For Christians, an experience of foreign languages reveals the beautiful diversity of gospel expression within the community of faith. Hearing our brothers and sisters pray in their native language reminds us that God’s reach extends beyond our own linguistic and cultural boundaries, even when we can’t understand a word they say.
Reflecting on the Tower of Babel story in Genesis, John Piper wrote that, ‘if the spectacular sin of Babel had not happened with its judgment, the global glory of the gospel of Christ would not shine as beautifully as it does in the prism of thousands of languages’. Fast forward from Genesis to Acts 2, when a crowd ‘from every nation under heaven’ heard the disciples declaring the wonders of God in their own language.
A teacher interviewed for the British Council report said that the introduction of language learning into her primary school ‘dovetails into our whole approach to loving our neighbour’.
Wednesday this week was the 2018 European Day of Languages – but it’s not too late to mark the spirit of the day, perhaps by asking a Polish friend to teach you the Polish worship chorus that has 23 z’s in it (yes, I’ve counted). Or research the main language groupings in your community and invite neighbours to a multi-cultural evening at your church. You’ll be loving your neighbour and developing your second soul: it’s a victoire/victoire.
Nick is English, speaks fluent Polish, reasonable French, and somewhat dodgy German