Wednesday, June 1, 2011

God's Esperanto

Anybody who's still reading this blog after my post yesterday about culture might be waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The other shoe being languages, since in many world history classes, international cultures and languages pair up quite nicely as definitive social characteristics.

You'll recall from your Old Testament studies that at the Tower of Babel, God instigated confusion by creating a plethora of languages so mortals would not forget their subservient role in His sovereign, created order.

Yet, I don't take that clear warning from God as an indication that languages, in and of themselves, can be as dangerous as cultural mores and norms can be. Aren't languages more an expression of a people group? A vehicle for communication?

Yes, sometimes "the medium is the message," but not usually languages themselves.

Un Poquito de Espanol

After my family moved to Texas from Upstate New York, I decided that living so close to Mexico, it would behoove me to take Spanish classes. I took two years of them in junior high, and three in high school. I even managed to test out of three semesters of Spanish in college. But since I hardly ever speak it, I can barely communicate with it.

Indeed, language must be used for it to be relevant and retained. Consider Latin, once the language of rulers and sages. After centuries of general disuse, however, Latin has been relegated to academia as a vestige of historicity and even a contrivance of elitism.

Many unsaved scholars, of course, consider the Tower of Babble to be a myth or legend used by uneducated people to come to grips with why so many languages exist around the globe. But people of faith should not forget that while the creation of multiple languages occurred in a punitive fashion, the perpetuation of these languages and their evolution actually speak to the creativity God has placed within us humans.

No other created entity boasts the ability to speak multiple languages and track the idiomatic changes in particular languages over time. Most languages have some sort of slang version, but can your dog or cat bark or meow in slang?

Finished with Finnish

My father grew up in Brooklyn's Finntown, a corner of Sunset Park where hundreds of immigrants from Finland settled. He and my aunt went to public school not speaking a word of English, and my aunt, now in her 80's still speaks Finnish at the small Finnish church that meets in Manhattan.

When my brother and I were little and my father's mother was alive, she and my aunt would converse in Finnish in our presence whenever they wanted to say something they didn't want us to hear. My father pretty much stopped speaking Finnish when he married my mother, who only spoke English. I thought it was cool that people in my family spoke what I considered to be a foreign language, but I was never interested enough to learn it myself, much to the disappointment of my grandmother!

Aside from those Finns who live scattered around the world, Finnish is only spoken in Finland. Whereas Spanish is spoken throughout Central and South America, Spain, and even the Philippines. English, of course, is really only "native" to the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, but it's considered the language of business, which means progressive cultures around the world learn it to compete in our global marketplace.

And in reality, it's money, isn't it, that's brought the English language to the fore as the world's universal language. Sure, people have tried to invent independent languages, like Esperanto, unassociated with any particularly country or people group. But nothing has flourished quite like English has.

Perhaps one day, if as some people predict, China engulfs the world economy, the language of business will shift from English to Chinese. But at least for now, even the Chinese are content to learn English, because they recognize the financial centers in the English-speaking world still control most of the Earth's money.

And when it comes to money, many people of faith warily eye national and regional currencies, like the Euro, with suspicion. Some End-Times prophecies indicate that having a global currency will be a sign that the Rapture is about to take place. Not only is a global currency a sign, but having a global language as well. Which, some say, could soon be English.

I don't know about you, but I don't need the complication of juggling interpretations of End Times scenarios. And I'm lazy enough to appreciate the fact that I, as a native English speaker, don't need to learn another language to access our increasingly global community.

But I do envy those people who have mastered two or more languages. My cousin in Finland is one, as is my next-door neighbor here in Texas. He's from Berlin, and teaching his two toddlers both English and German so effectively that he can switch languages between sentences, his two-year-old daughter can nod nonchalantly with comprehension.

Heart Language

Some multi-lingual friends of mine who've retired from Wycliffe added even a further dimension to what a language is and does. Born in Holland, they both speak Dutch as their native language, but from their teenaged years until his early retirement, they lived in California, and became fluent in English. They joined Wycliffe's program that places non-translation professionals in service positions around the world, and these friends of mine went to live in Papua New Guinea for several years. In the process, they learned the fundamentals of a third language.

Ever since I was a child, I've been familiar with Wycliffe because of all the missionaries that my parents have known. Wycliffe's mission is to provide the Gospel to people groups around the world so they can have God's word in their "heart language," or the language with which they best associate truth and through which they most easily assimilate their experiences.

For my friends who had been born in Holland, raised a family in the United States, and done missionary work in Papua, what language would be their "heart language?" And specifically, what language would they prefer to study and memorize the Bible?

Turns out, both of them decided years ago that their heart language is English. Yes, they can read and recite Scripture in Dutch, and probably the native language they learned in Papua, but they're most comfortable and have the best recollection of Scripture they've learned in English. That's the translation that runs through their mind as they pray, memorize, and recite Bible verses.

Of all the languages spoken on Earth, the language God most wants to hear from us is our heart language. He invites His people to communicate with Him truthfully, cognitively, intimately, and fluently, and whether we realize it or not, our heart language allows us to do just that.

In faith, believing He hears us.  All of us, at the same time.

Talk about a universal language!


  1. You're right that it was money which brought English to the fore. I'm an Esperanto-speaker, and I've used the language in over a dozen countries, including Finland. Esperanto has no money behibnd it. The language is kept alive and acquires new speakers thanks to a grassroots movement of ordinary people.

  2. I agree with the comment by Bill Chapman.

    Esperanto is indeed alive and well. In fact many people do not realise how popular, as a living language, Esperanto is.

    The new study course is now receiving 123,000 hits per month.

    That can't be bad :)


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