Have you ever noticed the unusual relationship that we have with our words? It seems like our relationship with words should be a one way process: our mind forms thoughts that are turned into words then spoken. But like most natural and biologic process – it’s not so simple our straightforward. Instead, it is reciprocal- who we are and how we think shapes the words we speak (as above), but the words that we speak and think also give form and shape to our thoughts and the words that we speak shape who we are and how we think about ourselves. (If you’d like to skip my eloquent philosophizing and just read about how we’re doing – Click here – It won’t hurt my feelings that badly.)
Perhaps your mom told you, “Don’t say that!” After you spoke aloud some bad thing that seemed likely to happen but every one was hoping against (and avoiding speaking). My mother did, often. I remember trying to convince her that saying or not saying something can’t affect the outcome. I even remember trying to convince her that believing otherwise was superstitious and not compatible with Christianity. But despite my logical arguments I could not persuade my mother that our words were just simple powerless declarations. Although she couldn’t articulate why, deep down my mother, and most mothers know that all spoken words have reality bending properties that call for caution.
In my Biblical studies I have come to realize that my childish view and argument were completely wrong. The biblical world view is founded on the truth that we are made in the likeness or image of God. We are called and equipped to bear the image of the God, the same God who spoke this world into existence. Because of this our words, in lesser ways, are empowered to create and change His world. Furthermore, we Christians are called to strive towards Christ-likeness, to be like Jesus. In the gospel according to John we are introduced to Jesus as the Word made flesh. And throughout the New Testament we are called to be like the Jesus, the man who spoke with such faith and authority that the wind and waves obeyed him. And in case we wanted this to be a special divine-only type event, he said these words to his disciples when their words failed to cast our demons: “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20 (ESV)
Clearly our mothers were right. We should take care when we speak. Our words and language are designed to have power. And as we follow Christ, our language becomes even more important. The truth is we do not simply shape our language, it in-turn shapes us and our world.
If you’ve never spent significant time trying to communicate in a language that is not your first tongue, you may not have thought about the way that languages themselves are not neutral or one-way actors. Languages develop out of a reflexive cycle with their culture. If precise time is important in a culture (The United States) than the language lends itself, more and more, to communicating precise times with ease and clarity. If flexible time frames are important (Central America), then finding out the exact time for when something will start may be difficult, the language will have lots of wiggle room in case you need extra time to talk with your neighbor or grab a coffee. Otherwise, if love, accountability, pigs, or directness are important in a culture, then the language develops many nuanced and quick ways of expressing different types and qualities of those things.
The converse is also true. Sometimes whole concepts are missing from a language (from the viewpoint of another language), but this can be difficult to describe in the language where the thing is missing. And difficult to wrap your mind around when trying to learn or identify a concept you’ve never had or thought about. It is almost impossible to discover what concepts might be missing from your primary language without spending time trying to translate concepts to and from another language.
For instance, one concept that many Biblical scholars have lamented the lack of in English is a distinction between the singular and plural second person pronoun. Let me break that down for those of you who aren’t grammar nerds or presently mastering verb conjugations in Spanish: “I” is our first person singular pronoun, and “we” is our first person plural pronoun, but “you” is our our second person singular pronoun and “you” can also be used as our second person plural pronoun, but most of the time our context isn’t clear and people just think of themselves individually (singularly) if we say “you.” So we have several informal work-arounds: ya’ll, you all, you guys and you lot. This missing expression creates a large translation problem when the Biblical writers carefully distinguish (in their native tongue) that they are addressing the church altogether or individuals in the church. In English, both for cultural and linguistic reasons, we hear the Bible as though it were always addressing us individually. For instance, consider how you might understand and reflect on these verses differently if translated with the southern work-around:
For I know the plans I have for ya’ll, declares Yahweh, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give ya’ll a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11, ESV)
…Work out ya’ll’s salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in ya’ll, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-14, ESV)
(Check out this Blog post for a more in-depth discussion of the problem and an interesting solution: http://donteatthefruit.com/2013/05/texas-bible-second-person-plural-chrome-extension/)
Alright, let me tie all this back into the reason you all read this blog. Our family has been working hard to master a new language, learn new concepts and get to know a new group of brothers and sisters in Christ. We’ve been here almost a month and we hope we are just about to hit our stride. On some level, especially in our children, we are rewiring the ways our brain conceptualizes and process input and output (consider that most of your thinking occurs in your primary language). We are in the intensive program, so Bethany and I spend 4 hours a day one-on-one with a native Spanish speaker (and grammar nerd) plus independent homework and study time and regular community immersion as we walk to and from school, shop, worship, and explore Siguatapeque. In all of this we try to absorb as much as possible about the culture, idioms, beliefs, and language of the people we have committed to serve. Our older girls start each day with one hour of language school and then review with us throughout the day.
In this time of transition we are striving to be careful with our words (in both languages). When our children declare they do not like a staple food of Honduras, we encourage them to revise the statement from “I don’t like it!” to “It’s not my favorite.” When they have a melt down and declare they will never again play with the other, we remind them of our family’s words that we say to each other every night, “We love each other, no matter what.” We use leading questions when we know a two hour kid’s church class in Spanish was tiring and difficult for them: “That was hard but fun, wasn’t it?”
Personally, it would be easier for me to pull an example of the ways that Spanish seems deficient when translating from my English for this post (rather than the example from Greek to English above) but I want to be careful with my words. I do not want to reinforce my half-formed thoughts or frustrations with the power of written or spoken word. If a concept is not easily translated, it’s likely not to be very important to my listener so I should find a different approach rather than getting stuck on my dilemma. I want to model what I encourage my girls to do. To speak what is not only true but also noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. To speak and pray a deep and abiding love for the people, language, and culture of Honduras into our lives.
Three powerful words have shaped our reality in the last weeks:
Elizabeth calls our apartment here, “home.”
Ruth spoke the 5th & 6th words she has ever spoken, calling out, “agua” while reaching for her water cup. And “adios” as she waved goodbye to one of our Honduran teachers.
So my brothers and sisters, take care with your words. In the words of TobyMac, “Speak Life.” Understand the reciprocal relationship you have with your words, that your language does not just express how you feel or what you want, but it also firms up, reinforces, and at times creates how and who you and those around you will be.
These are our praises:
-We have wonderful neighbors in our apartments, with wonderful neighbor kids and a great enclosed yard where the children can play.
-We love our teachers and the language school, and we feel like we’re learning and improving our Spanish at a good pace.
-We’ve been healthy and well.
-Little Hannah (our fourth girl who is due March 26th) is still growing and kicking.
-The coffee is wonderful and plentiful.
-Their is an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables.
These are our prayer request:
-That we would continue to make our home in Honduras and among its people.
-That we draw together as a family and love one another deeply through this transition and the emotional upheavals and stressors that go along with creating our home in another culture and striving to embrace different norms and routines.
-That Elizabeth and Lydia would find opportunities and age-mates to engage with local Honduran culture and language (our neighbors are also in language school and speak primarily English)
-That Bethany and I would have wisdom as we push our children to learn Spanish and give them space to struggle and relax from this process as appropriate.
-That we would know God’s will and have his guidance regarding the purchase of a vehicle
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are not the views of Samaritan’s Purse or World Medical Mission.