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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Lost in Translation?

‘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 Tatchell
Nick is English, speaks fluent Polish, reasonable French, and somewhat dodgy German


  1. Thank you. Very pertinent to me as I am in Germany visiting grandchildren with totally inadequate German (not without trying to learn). The kindness and help given me is just amazing and reveals a love which I might not have experienced in the same way if I had spoken German. Also teaches me something about journeying in vulnerability with inability to communicate exactly what I want to say.

    By Cathy  -  28 Sep 2018
  2. What refreshing thoughts to read and how true. I thank God that my first steps in the Christian faith all those years ago were learned at the same time that I was studying German, French and Italian directly in the relevant countries! In those days nearly 60 years ago few people on the European continent spoke much English and so if you wished to sell your products, you had to learn their language. You are so right in that speaking and hearing Holy Scripture in foreign languages, the richness of the Word of God can be deepened in your soul.

    By David Shillitoe  -  28 Sep 2018
  3. I totally agree. It seems arrogant that English people don’t even try a few words but just speak more loudly! Writing this from Poland!

    By Jane Jana  -  28 Sep 2018
  4. Learning foreign languages (Japanese, French, German & Spanish) and traveling in other countries, has opened my eyes to our common humanity. I’ve seen the work of God in lives in a wide variety of places and cultures. Learning another languages, helps us to imagine the experience and frustrations of refugees & immigrants who strive to adapt to new situations. It helps to remind us that our perspective and cultural norms are not universal, but our humanity and need for God is.

    By Alicia White  -  28 Sep 2018
  5. I am interested to reflect officialdom’s attitude, be that of government or educationalists, who dictated when I was young that pupils must learn French or German. If we were later to travel, it was Spanish was the most used foreign language across the world.
    Living in Shetland where our nearest neighbours are Norwegian and many of our words are very similar, the schools still have to stick to curriculum prescribed list of languages, namely French and German.

    By John C Best  -  28 Sep 2018
  6. Yes – Chinese church in Singapore reminded me that the essentials of our faith must be able to travel across times and cultures: a salutary corrective to being too pernickety or prescriptive over finer points… Thank you Nick!

    By Sheila  -  28 Sep 2018
  7. So helpful as I embark on a course to learn Spanish. Our Sunday meetings are bi-lingual in English and Spanish. It brings a richness to worship that I haven’t experienced in the same way elsewhere.

    By Catherine Smith  -  28 Sep 2018
  8. One of my most moving experiences was in a congregation of British and Nepali Christians, all singing How Great Thou Art in our own Language but to the same tune.

    By Deborah  -  28 Sep 2018
  9. Jesus’ lordship over my life in Him has been deepened by the perspectives that Christians from other countries have shared with me.
    Learning & using other languages has shown me the greater diversity possible in being servants of God through Jesus. God made us many & various & delights in what & who He has made. God bless you even more!

    By Anne Susan Olive  -  28 Sep 2018
  10. Hear, hear. Although ‘when we German word order once again up-mess’ might have been better! I am trying to master the Welsh for Guide me, O thou great Redeemer…..

    By Ruth  -  28 Sep 2018
  11. very well put – bien exprime (with accent on last ‘e’)

    By Bruce Gulland  -  28 Sep 2018
  12. In preparation for missionary work in Colombia I went to learn Spanish by living with a Costa Rican family when I did not know any Spanish. I also attended classes at the Institute of the Spanish language. I discovered we can only really get to know people and their culture where we live and work if we know their language. It was a privilege to do this. I love Spanish and still to this day belong to a Spanish conversation group here in the UK and subscribe to a Spanish magazine that helps me improve.

    By Mike Glover  -  28 Sep 2018
  13. I find many English speakers convinced that they are “rubbish at languages”. Yet I taught a whole congregation the Greek alphabet in one sermon, with them all singing it to the tune of “Jesus’s love is very wonderful “. We celebrated the European Day of Languages by playing UNO in ten different languages. This weekend I’m teaching Esperanto: easy, fun and useful as a way to meet people from other countries and talk on an equal footing. I can also recommend teaching English to refugees as a very rewarding experience.

    By Elizabeth Stanley  -  29 Sep 2018
  14. Now aged 84 as a child I loved for one year in Egypt and was fascinated by the Arabic language, especially the beautiful written form.
    Four years ago I met a young Egyptian woman in my local supermarket; a Muslim lady she was delighted to be asked for coffee and to help me with my stuttering Arabic
    We meet once a week for coffee and to chat. Her family (husband and five daughters) have been to my home to share traditional English roast dinner.

    As a result of our time together my friend’s English has improved and my Arabic gains three new words a week
    My friend tells me about the Muslim feasts and I talk about a relationship with the Living God through prayer..

    By Angela Lucas  -  29 Sep 2018
  15. Yes, indeed! One of my most vivid memories of my pilgrimage to Israel last year is of arriving in the shepherds’ fields to hear at least three groups of people not from England singing their praises to God within a short distance of each other. Although not singing the same hymn the harmony was very powerful. It reinforced, if that were necessary, how much unity there is or should be between believers of all demoninations. When God himself is the focus of our worship nothing else matters.

    By Sue W  -  1 Oct 2018
  16. An encouragement and practical tip to learning a new language!!

    I think a big barrier to learning are our beliefs about what’s possible for us. As Henry Ford said “If you believe you can do a thing, or believe you can’t do a thing, you’re right”!!! If you believe something is possible, you will be motivated to take the steps to achieve your goal / dream etc.

    Remember as well that you’ve already mastered one language….. and the Lord has designed our brains so amazingly well that we can continue to learn new things all the way through our lives!! The core mechanism for this learning is neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to change through repetition…..

    From a health perspective, there is more evidence that keeping our brains active will stave the effects of degenerative brain conditions……!

    My practical tip is to check out the Duolingo app – after years of trying to learn Spanish with patchy success, I’ve used this free app to massively improve my rudimentary Spanish! It’s working so well, that I have now started learning (basic!) Japanese for a trip to Osaka next year!

    By Michelle McKail  -  3 Oct 2018
  17. Some great stuff here on “the beautiful diversity of gospel expression within the community of faith”. With a high proportion of Londoners not being monolingual English speakers it’s good to remember that “we” includes all of us. So “their native language” doesn’t jut mean “not-English” and you might also add “praying in our native language”, or praying in “all our language(s)”

    By Peter Brassington  -  11 Jun 2019

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