The messy miracle of languageWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
An exchange student friend once commented on an aspect of North American life she found particularly puzzling. In her words, “When people over here discover that you speak more than one language, they think you must be some kind of genius or something.”
It’s true. When it comes to language, we North Americans who speak only one (most often English) can find it hard to fathom how people from other cultures routinely speak two or three or more. Lacking perspective from which to compare, we can even be guilty of viewing English as the default language by which all others are measured. It’s like that old joke from Steve Martin, “Those French! They have a different word for everything!”
Indeed they do, as do all the languages of the world. Besides different words, they also have different ways of putting them together, plus different idioms and expressions with no equivalent in our language.
In a way, we monolingual North Americans are missing out. And it’s not just because we might have trouble ordering a ham sandwich or finding the train station while travelling abroad. We’re missing out because we often fail to appreciate the messy miracle of language, how it bears the indelible imprint of our Creator God.
The origin of language
Secularists deny that language has anything to do with God. Rather they assert that it’s a by-product of our supposed evolutionary past, one that developed because it gave us a survival edge over other creatures. But intellectually honest atheists will admit that such explanations are facile in the extreme. They recognize that the existence of language – and of the mind itself – remains an embarrassing problem for the materialist worldview.
Unique in all of creation, our minds are self-aware. We have thoughts about ourselves and thoughts about our thoughts. We have thoughts about things material and abstract that have no conceivable bearing on our survival, immediate or long-term. It’s untenable to reduce all of that to nothing but brain chemistry. Unlike our thoughts, chemicals sloshing about in our grey matter can’t be “about” anything.
Along the same lines, language is a system of symbols for ideas shared between two or more minds using organized sound patterns. I make the sounds forming the word “apple” and another person knows whether I mean a round red fruit or a computer company. Again it’s impossible to imagine how this facility to transmit and receive information could have developed, bit by bit, in many individuals at once, through fortuitous random chemical activity in all of their heads.
It’s far simpler, and more reasonable, to recognize that language originates in the mind of a personal, relational God who made us in His image and gave us something of His capacity to communicate.
How we learn language
If the origin of language is mysteriously rooted in the mind of the Triune God, the mystery only deepens when we consider how we learn language. For nearly all of us, the process begins before we can remember. We assimilate sounds from our parents and other people with comparatively little effort or self-awareness. Our earliest incoherent babblings begin to cohere into simple then more complex words and sentences. Eventually we become fluent native speakers in any number of languages we learn at this early stage. We think in these languages without confusing one for another. We intuitively grasp the nuances of each. They become second nature to us, almost like breathing.
Then at some point in later childhood or very young adulthood, this amazing capacity to acquire language vanishes, or at least becomes severely diminished. For adults trying to learn a new language, it’s no longer an effortless process of assimilation and imitation. It’s often a lot of hard work, striving to memorize vocabulary and learn rules of grammar. Although they may become proficient in their new language, there’s almost always a difference, a hint of an accent or unfamiliarity with an idiom that sets them apart from native speakers.
As might be expected from such a mysterious gift, language refuses to fit neatly into any one style of learning. For creative types, the process can become tedious because of all the memorization and rules. For the literal-minded, it can be maddening because the rules are so often broken. At some point, every language teacher is forced to throw up their hands and admit there’s no reason why we say something the way we do. It’s just how it is.
The strengths and limits of language
According to Scripture, the people after Noah’s flood spoke a single language. But when they attempted to build the Tower of Babel to reach up to heaven, God came down, confused their language so they could no longer understand each other, and dispersed them over the whole earth (Genesis 11:1-9).
As is often the case with God, this act of judgment also proved to be an inestimable blessing. Throughout history, the sheer number and variety of languages has formed a rich tapestry of cultural expression. Like different courses of a fine meal or colours on a canvas, they complement one another in conveying the totality of the human experience.
But language also has its limits. As it was at the Tower of Babel, so it is today: people of different languages cannot readily understand one another. In fact, the nature of the differences between languages makes wooden, word-for-word translations problematic. This is borne out by the curious results one sometimes receives from programs such as Google Translate. As the saying goes, something is always lost in translation.
The ultimate purpose of language
And yet, just as God took on human flesh in the person of His Son, so He chose to communicate the infallible Truth of His Word through limited human language. This is an incarnational mystery we can’t fully grasp. God, the infinite, eternal, relational being, has ordained finite human language as a means to reveal Himself to us and to have a relationship with us.
He has also made language to be beautiful. Its multifaceted nature reflects the unity and diversity that God loves, which He has also imparted to His human image-bearers. This diverse yet unified beauty will have its ultimate expression through the worship of God by all His redeemed people in the New Heaven and the New Earth:
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10)
It’s clear many of us are fascinated by the vagaries of different languages and dialects. Otherwise, how to explain this pair of popular (and linguistically creative) YouTube videos?
In the first, a young Finnish singer named Saara uses gibberish and nonsense syllables to mimic the sound of various languages with remarkable accuracy. You can view that video here.
In the second, British actress Siobhan Thompson deploys her knack for accents to demonstrate 17 different regional dialects of the United Kingdom. You can check out that one here.
[As always, these external links are provided for information purposes. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Focus on the Family Canada. Curious viewers should watch with discernment, and in the spirit in which these resources are intended.]
© 2014 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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