The Pain of Language Learning - The Curse of Babel
So many people say that learning a second language is an amazing thing to do. They say it broadens your horizons, improves your brain functioning, allows you to connect with new people and cultures, and improves your employability. But when articles, studies, and people on Facebook extol the virtues of multilingualism, learning a second language is almost never what they’re talking about. They mean to say it is great to have learned a second language. Learning a new language is hard, often embarrassing, and frequently painful.
My experience of learning Spanish was sort of like climbing a mountain covered in clouds. Every 25 feet revealed a new slope, with new challenges, and I never quite reached the top. It began with a lot of headaches. Trying to make sense of a language I barely understood felt like my brain was working overtime for half the pay.
While I was struggling with comprehension, opening my mouth to speak took a tremendous amount of courage. Until people reliably recognized the words coming out of my mouth multiple times, it felt like I was speaking nonsense. Every single grammar tense and vocabulary word had to be tested on actual people before I could trust that I was actually talking and not just babbling.
The next stage of the journey: I could communicate reliably, but my personality was still very limited by what I was able to say. Meanwhile, I constantly risked embarrassment by using incorrect words, words that meant one thing when I learned them but a different thing in this context. And as my understanding of the words grew and grew, my understanding of culture had only just begun.
The first time I traveled to Nicaragua, I found myself one night in an evangelical worship service in a home, lit by a single bulb, listening to songs I did not know and hearing theology that I understood, but I did not agree with. My stomach hurt from stress and indigestion. And I wondered, “what am I doing here?”
Every stage of learning this language, learning these cultures, challenged me, even broke me, in new ways. And after going through all of this, I remember so clearly the day I called a bank in Nicaragua, I was sharing my e-mail address and I realized I had never learned the word for the “at” sign. I attempted to describe it. The person on the other side got impatient and said, “could you please put someone on who speaks Spanish?” In that moment, all the pain, the embarrassments, the headaches, counted for nothing.
And every time I hear a story of someone being accosted on the street for not speaking English, every time I hear someone say, “Why can’t this person learn English already?” I have to believe they have no idea what they’re asking. As if switching languages were as easy as changing your socks. As if it didn’t require giving up, at least temporarily, the deepest sense of self and security.
This pain is the curse of Babel. When God sent Adam and Eve out of the garden, they went with the curse that wresting food from the earth would be painful and so would bearing children. When God sent the people forth from Babel, they went forth facing the reality that building relationships was going to be painful.
Many Voices Rise - The Blessing of Babel
To build the true city of God means embracing the destruction of the tower at Babel as more blessing than curse. The univocal, single-minded unity of Babel was a lie. Where there are multiple people, there are multiple voices. In human life, such unity only comes from the suppression of the marginalized. You only get a monolithic narrative from bulldozing a thousand stories. The community that built the tower of Babel wasn’t a human community; it was the Borg collective.
“To ignore… the vast and varied terrains that comprise the strands of our histories throttles our humanity in creation.” Those are the words of the Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes (Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, p. 27). She is a womanist ethicist and one of the greatest luminaries of American Baptist thought, the first African-American president of the American Academy of Religion and Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School. A woman who entered the University of Chicago Divinity School decades ago, and was told simply, “You will be lonely here.” Because the University of Chicago had a narrative. And it was not hers. “The story,” she reminds us, “can be told another way.”
The single voice of Babel is a voice that has drowned out many others. When God scattered the people and confused their language, the great cacophony that emerged was many voices rising together. That is humanity.
From Babel to Pentecost
So how to we build a city of God after Babel? A community made up of many voices, not a single story? How do we arrive at Pentecost, where we are gathered together, and each hears God’s Word in her own language? To borrow a phrase from Pastor Rony: through holy headaches. Through the pain of climbing that mysterious mountain that is the world, language, experience, of another.
Coming to North Shore, I found myself richly blessed with the opportunity to know the Karen Fellowship. Cecilia graciously invited me to attend the celebrations that occur at various homes after worship. I was welcomed into the home of someone I did not know. I did not know where to sit, when to stand, what to do, without being guided. I was entirely dependent upon the guidance and the goodwill of my hosts and the community. It was a humbling experience. I found, invariably, that my trust was not in vain.
As a person who moves in spaces where, by and large, I am proficient in the languages being spoken, I have found that sitting for an hour in a worship service in which I do not speak the language is a vital spiritual discipline.
It’s not easy. It can be confusing, frustrating, and give me headaches. But it never fails to remind me that the work of the Holy Spirit extends far beyond my ability to understand. There is nothing like a holy headache to remind you that worship is not primarily about you. And as discomfiting as that can be for someone who is used to having her values reflected in the worship she attends, I have also found tremendous wonder in knowing God is moving in ways and words I quite literally do not understand.
I recall one celebration in particular. I had settled into the discipline of reminding my mind that it did not need to make sense of words it didn’t understand. I was enjoying sitting quietly on the wooden floor in the company of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
And then the preacher switched to English. I had gotten so used to the mild discomfort I experience when my brain cannot make sense of what it is hearing. I didn’t realize it was there until it was gone and I was hearing the word of God in my own language.
The story of Pentecost took on new meaning in that moment. The delight my brain felt at understanding these words for the first time, that has become for me the joy of Pentecost. Part of what we strive for in worship – and in the life of the beloved community- is for everyone to have that Pentecost moment. For everyone to experience the joy of hearing about love in their own words.
But the words that bring me joy may be frustrating nonsense to the person sitting next to me. If my headache brings another joy, it is a holy headache indeed. One of my favorite quotes about worship comes from a professor named Kay Northcutt, who once said, “If you enjoy more than 85% of the worship service you attend, your church is too homogenous.” Some of the parts of our shared life we participate in to be a balm to someone else’s heart.
I hope something in this service moves you. But I also hope something frustrates you. I commend to you the frustration as a spiritual discipline to cultivate humility, and maybe even awe, at a God who moves outside the boundaries of what we recognize. A God who calls us to step into the pain and discomfort that lies beyond those boundaries.
Babel came out of domination and hubris. A true city of God comes out of humility and awe, which can only be built with a good share of frustration and discomfort.