Speaking Faith as a Second Language

Today at the beginning of class, Elisha–who speaks Korean and Spanish fluently and is learning English now–was trying to recall a phrase he had read. “It’s a locution,” he told me, “a locution your grandparents might have used.”

I raised my eyebrows. “You mean it’s an old phrase?” I asked.

“Yes!” he said. “It is ‘low and…’ something.”

“Lo and behold.” I guessed. His face lit up.

“That’s it!” he cried. “I love it. It is so beautiful.”

Teaching English as a Second Language, the beauty of our “locution” is ever new for me. I listen fascinated as my students use outdated vocabulary words or unique sentence constructions, unwittingly assigning new depth or stronger meanings to the words by their new context, and I fall in love with language all over again.

I haven’t always felt this way about teaching ESL. When I began, with a newly-minted B.A. in English Lit., I was in a small town in Southeast Asia with exactly two other native English speakers. Everyday conversations with my students and language-learning friends were mostly stumbling, stilted, and heavily reliant on body language. For months I used only the simplest of vocabulary words and the slowest of speech in an effort to communicate clearly, and I worried that as a result my own ability to speak eloquently or even articulately with native speakers was slipping away.

At some point, despite feeling like all my neural pathways for language were overgrown with weeds, I began to appreciate what happened when our communication was reduced to the lowest common denominator. Beauty existed in that simplicity; We agreed on the most basic things, and didn’t have to push beyond them. When words failed us, we took action. When my electric motorbike ran out of battery power on a lonely stretch of ricefield, I found a pregnant woman, my age, alone in her small house. She plugged in my bike and macheted through a coconut for me, pouring out the sweet milk of hospitality for the stranger.

Soon I began to hear the words I had grown up with arranged in new poetic ways, sounding strange and lovely from both clumsy and careful language-learners’ lips. When I moved from Vietnam to Cambodia, I kept in touch with my former students over email. “I’ve received your email,” a student wrote to me in my second year of teaching, “and I’m very cheerful to hear that you’ve organized Thanksgiving. It was jolly, wasn’t it? I wanna send you my regard…I imagine there is snow in the US now and there are many animated Christmas activities.”

What native speaker would have called my Thanksgiving “jolly” and my Christmas activities “animated”? And yet, what better way could there have been to describe them? What better holiday gift to receive than a student’s “regard”?

I had discovered one of the enduringly lovely gifts about teaching English to language learners: Their speech makes old, tired words suddenly new and full of possibility. Somehow the grammatically incorrect structures open up the poetic meaning of the words; the surprising word choice can enhance the message rather than distracting from it.

I was also learning that English–though my native language and one of the great loves of my life–didn’t belong to me. It didn’t belong to me, or to America, or to England, or to native speakers. As a language, it is a tool to be used, not wielded in domination or colonialism, but used for negotiating meaning. Together. Yet the transformation of my English has forced me to realize something even more important: that the language of faith needs to undergo the same kind of reconstruction for me to love it and use it rightly.

I used to think that I spoke “Christian” as a native language, that it belonged to me. I was born in a Christian-speaking family, and I “asked Jesus into my heart” practically as soon as I could form a sentence. I memorized large portions of the Bible, creeds, and catechisms; I sang hymns by heart and praise choruses with hand-motions. As a native speaker, I trusted my comprehension of the language, and doubted the legitimacy of anybody who understood the words differently than I did.

But entering my third decade of speaking the language of faith, I found that the words were stale. I needed the language to become new for me just as English had, or I was in danger of losing it altogether. Familiarity with the Bible had dulled my perceptions, and the deepest truths had become tired clichés to my evangelical ears. I needed to find people who spoke this language differently than I did, people who could help me find new ways in to the well-worn truths I wanted to hold on to.

It was in Vietnam, when my English was slipping away in my first year of teaching, that my faith language began to be renewed. Out of the Bible Belt for the first time in my life, I met people who had literally never heard the story of Noah and the ark, or Esther and Mordecai, or Mary and Joseph. I was shocked. The words were all new to them, and that made them become brand new to me.

Hearing the words in the new context of Southeast Asia gave them fresh meaning. Before that, I sort of understood what it meant for Jesus to be the Bread of Life. But it wasn’t until I lived in a place where every meal began with a bite of rice in order to honor the food that brought our ancestors through famine; where “how are you” translated literally as “have you eaten rice yet?”; where every meal–breakfast, lunch, and dinner–relied on rice, and for many of my students, was little more than rice; that I began to comprehend what it meant for Jesus to be the rice of life.

Letting go of your ownership of the language of faith can be frightening, unmooring. Instead of being the person with the answers, you become a person with questions. Instead of colonizing, you work to cooperate. But in seeking to agree on the most basic of things, like the meaning of the word “prayer,” you find a simplicity of language which lends itself to coordinated action. Your words take on gestures, form and meaning in the real world, incarnating the love you once only spoke of. Surrendering ownership of the language of faith means recognizing that I can only speak it as a second, and learned, language.

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