Wednesday, February 18, 2015

New Language, New Eyes

I have started trying to do more and more of my bible reading in German. Not all of it, mind you...English is still very much my heart language. But as I have gotten more and more comfortable in German, I have tried to do more reading in the language, as well.

One of the reasons for this comes from someone we know in Minnesota that taught ESL (English as a second language) to immigrant students in a local school system. She would see children in her class year after year that were newer in the community and language and watched them learn English throughout the course of the year*. One observation she gave was that the students that read at home were the ones that progressed much quicker than the ones that didn't.

Based on these experience,s I want to offer the following observations:

1. The bible uses specialized language to communicate key points. This is in no way a critical point, but more a point of fascination. Growing up the in church, I am used to the way the bible talks about things or biblical language. Because I have also had the privilege of studying one of the original languages as well (Greek), I recognize both the difficulty of rendering texts in ways that are true to the original and understandable to the reader. But often there is a collective translation history that we draw on and certain words are traditionally translated this way, even though they aren't in common usage.

I once heard a story that illustrates this point. A number of years ago, a missionary came to Austria and started learning German, while at the same time spent a good amount of time studying his bible to explore his newly acquired skills. He ran into issues, because he would learn all this vocabulary used in biblical texts, but they were old words that no one really used in every day speech.  He realized after a few funny looks and friendly comments that it would be best to separate out those old vocab words.

2. This can be a sign post to stop and take a closer look. As I am adventuring though the scriptures again, it is really fun to see how these new translations of such old words display the truths of scripture. I could get into long explanations of how this works, but that might get a bit boring. The central point of it all is, there are many times when I am forced to take a closer look at a text. Some texts that I would just gloss over, jump out at me with new passion and fervor as I read them in German.

Because reading in a second language requires more mental energy, I am forced to think deeply about what I am reading and put effort into understanding what I am reading. This is very helpful and rewarding.

3. Thought organization is key. Something that has been very apparent to me as I have learned German is that languages are not just different works pasted onto the same ideas. Languages organize thoughts in different ways. You can express things in one language that there just aren't words for in another. Or in order to express that single idea, other languages would need a paragraph that would just end up being an explanation of that usage.

This is a deeper level of language learning, but it is wonderful to see through new eyes, and learn to express ideas in new ways. Coming back to the scriptures, it is great to see how biblical ideas such as grace and justice are expressed in a different language.

Often I feel like I am just scratching the surface even after over two years in the language. There is so much to learn, but God has been gracious in allowing us to learn so much already.


*I must say here, anyone that has studied or taken classes in a language other than their native language has my undying respect! I can't imagine how challenging that must be, especially with out any real time to adjust to the language.