Monday, April 28, 2008

A little bit on language

As someone who works cross-culturally in the midst of an English speaking congregation, I often hear a lot of hullabaloo about non-English speakers learning English. Hullabaloo is the nice word, just for the record. Having learned a second language myself, I understand how difficult it can be and how long it takes. (Even with regular classes, it was 7 years before I had enough exposure and practice to be truly bilingual, and even still there are "specialty" vocabularies I don't know--like vocab for under the hood of a car--areas of language that even in English I might not be exposed to if it weren't for a special interest, a medical emergency, or whatever).

Knowing the culture, the people, and the workweek schedules, I also know that when someone works 12-14 hours a day to support their family, or his/herself there's not a whole lot of leftover time to sit down and study a language. So, often, when people fuss (by people I mean English only Americans) I get frustrated. Having not learned a second language themselves, they are virtually oblivious to the difficulties, and often seem to completely disregard the life, circumstances, and trials of those who are not learning English.

Being in the church, I also hear further complaint about Spanish, or Korean, or Mandarin (or whatever other language) services. Yesterday, in thinking about Palmdale UMC and the ways they aim at those who are not in the church and do things as they would want them done, not necessarily as those in the church would prefer, I thought about how this applies to language ministries.

These are some of my thoughts: We have to affirm people in their differentness and work with them in that. There has to be a place where people who speak different languages feel comfortable and feel incorporated, not just an after thought but a primary thought, a forethought of what we do and who we are. If you drove by a place and everything were written in Korean, all of the signage, all of the paperwork, everything was in Korean, all the voice messages were in Korean. If you don't speak Korean, you'd probably know that's not the place for you. Similarly, for folks who are learning English as a second language, if everything is in English, and nothing applies to them, they know that it's not the place for them.

Our job at the church is not to decide when, or where or how fast somebody learns English, our job at the church is to deliver the gospel in a way that is accessible and meaningful to them. And if that means we have to do it in Korean or Spanish or in Mandarin that's our job. That is our call--to make disciples throughout all of the nations, which means speaking their language and doing what makes a difference to them. Now, we may have our own opinions about when and how and how quickly people should learn English, but that's not the work of the church to define that. Yes, we can offer classes, and, yes, we can help people and encourage them as they grow in this country. But our primary responsibility it to share the gospel. First and foremost, always and everywhere in a way that is meaningful and accessible.

1 comment:

Cassy said...

I like the way you think! As a teacher of newly-arrived children in a bilingual program, its more my job to raise up good students and citizens. The language will come, it takes a while, but it will develop. And being bilingual is a super-positive!