I was never required to take a foreign language class until I got to college. A few foreign language classes were offered at my high school, while my grade school did little to nothing with foreign language. As far as I can tell, this seems to be the case in most of our Protestant Reformed grade schools and high schools. Foreign language is not a common topic in catechism classes or a point of discussion in sermons or societies. While our schools are lacking in the foreign language department–be it from lack of qualified teachers, interest, or resources–public schools are rapidly expanding their foreign language departments. Are we forgetting the importance of foreign language in our own schools and churches? I believe knowledge of foreign languages and the ability to speak them is very important for all believers in their place in the kingdom of God.
So important is language to God that Word is used in the Bible to speak about God himself or his Son. As sinful, earthly men we weren’t able to fully comprehend this Word that was God the Father. Therefore Christ, being very God and very man, came to us in a way that we could understand. He became like unto us for our benefit. The Word came to earth as a man. Lord’s Day 14 (Q & A 35) explains Christ’s incarnation, “What do you confess when you say: He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary? The eternal Son of God, who is and remains true and eternal God, took upon himself true human nature from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary, through the working of the Holy Spirit. Thus he is also the true seed of David, and like his brothers in every respect, yet without sin.”
Just as God came to us in a way that we could understand—Christ as very man, so must we approach others in a way that they can understand—in their native languages. Coming to someone in their native language shows respect for that person. By learning other languages besides our own, we respect the uniqueness and diversity of all the different cultures God has created. While this creation is full of diversity, we should also be seeking unity. Genesis 11:6 reads, “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from the, which they have imagined to do.” There is power in unity. By learning other languages, we seek to unify ourselves with the people of that culture.
Learning someone else’s language in order to bring the word to them in an understandable way also shows love for that person. It shows that you care enough about them and their salvation that you would put the time and work into learning their language. Not only does it show love for the other person, but it also shows a humble spirit. You are admitting that your language is not better than another, and by implication that your culture or group of people is not superior or more loved by God than any other, for God tells us in Revelation 7:9 that the elect shall be gathered from “all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues.”
I believe that foreign languages have importance for every believer, whatever their role in the kingdom may be. For some members of the church, the importance of foreign language to them is clearer. Missionaries must learn the language of whatever group of people they are ministering to in order to build relationships built on trust, respect, and community. Ministers in general could benefit from a more general knowledge of different languages, especially the prevalent minority languages in the area they are serving. If someone would come to the church seeking information about what we believe, the minister being able to communicate somewhat with that person would give credibility to what the minister says and show a welcoming attitude.
It would be a great resource for our churches to have evangelism committee members and writers who were familiar with more than one language. The purpose of evangelism committees is to get the word into every area of the world in order to bring about Christ’s second coming, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matt. 24:14). Thankfully we have translators who are able to assist in this process, but if we had these resources within our own churches the process could be much more efficient and powerful. Article 2 of the Belgic Confession of Faith discusses how we know God: “… Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.” The Bible is one of the primary tools by which we know God, and yet many do not have access to this great resource because of language barriers. Translating scripture and religious materials into all the languages of the world is one way to fulfill our calling from Mark 16:15, “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”
Knowledge of and appreciation for foreign languages should also be important for our teachers. One purpose for this would be so that our schools can offer more foreign language classes. But a simpler purpose is that if our teachers appreciate the diversity found in cultures and languages around the world, they can instill this appreciation into their students. Children will grow up being more aware of the fact that the body of believers is made up of people from every nation, tribe and tongue. This knowledge will help our children to be less self-centered and could spur on more passion towards missions.
Christian businessmen should also recognize the importance of foreign languages and should consider learning another language. As a college student, I am frequently told that if I want to make myself more hirable, I should become fluent in a foreign language. Large corporations already do a good job of marketing to other cultures and areas of the world because they have employees who can form relationships with these people in their native languages. Businessmen know that in order to be successful, they need to be able to form relationships built on trust and respect. Christian businessmen could be more of a witness around the world by learning different languages so that they can do honest, trustworthy business with other groups of people.
Ministers, evangelism committee members, teachers, and businessmen might benefit the most from knowing another language, but general knowledge about different languages and therefore different cultures as well, is important for every believer. It is neither expected nor practical that every believer be fluent in many different languages. Simply realizing that not everyone speaks the same language as us or comes from the same background helps us to be more aware and appreciative of the diversity God created in this world. It also encourages us to know and understand our doctrine thoroughly so that we might be able to explain it clearly and simply to someone we might come into acquaintance with who only has a limited vocabulary in our language. God places opportunities for each and every one of us to be witnesses out in the world and an appreciation and knowledge of foreign languages will help us to become better witnesses.
Bres. “Belgic Confession Article 2.” Protestant Reformed Churches in America. 1997.Web. 30 May 2016.
Eckel, Mark. “Speaking in Tongues: The Importance of Foreign Language Learning.” Warp and Woof. ACSI Bible Integration, 2001. Web. 30 May 2016.
Olevianus, Caspar, and Zacharias, Ursinus. “Heidelberg Catechism.” Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005. Lord’s Day 14 Q&A 35. Web. 30 May 2016.