We were invited by Swiss friends to eat in an exclusive restaurant during our last weekend in Switzerland. As we got settled around the table, my friend asked me: “Are you comfortable with speaking Swiss German, or should we speak English?”
There were four of us at the table and I was the only native speaker of English. All the others were native speakers of Swiss German. Even though the others could speak English, we were in Switzerland. Why would I force three others to struggle to accommodate me?
Truth be told, the lazy side of me wanted to speak English. Each speaker at the table had a slightly different dialect of Swiss German, and one of them spoke so rapidly I had to strain to catch every nuance.
Two days later, I was at a church service. The worship leader spoke in High German, the music director in the dialect of Bern, and the sermon was given in a mixture of High German and the dialect of Zürich. The Bible was read or quoted in High German, some of the songs were sung in High German and some in the Swiss dialect. I had to concentrate very carefully to worship and to understand.
Many years ago, in a seminary class, Lawrence Yoder remarked offhandedly, “Learning another language is a spiritual discipline.” He didn’t explain what he meant; he just let it hang in the air for us to try to make sense of it. As a teacher of languages for more than 35 years, that statement resonated with me, even if I couldn’t explain why.
The two recent experiences that I describe above may begin to give an indication of what he meant. In the first instance, my attention was completely focused on what my friends were saying. My mind was not wondering off to other places nor was I trying to form an answer before they finished speaking. I was fully present to them. It was “deep listening,” a practice so infrequently used in our everyday conversations that seminars and books have arisen to teach this practice. Being fully present to the other recognizes their worth as someone made in the “image and likeness of God.” It is a spiritual discipline.
In the second example, my attention was wholly focused on every part of the worship service. So often when I am in an English service, my mind wonders in and out of what’s going on. When I’m listening in English, I take my ability to understand everything for granted. In contrast, when I’m listening to a worship service in a language other than my native tongue, I need to be much more attentive. I can’t take my understanding everything for granted. This attentiveness brings me closer to the essence of the service and to hearing God’s message. Much writing on spirituality focuses on attentiveness and awareness. Learning another language facilitates this need to be attentive and present. They are spiritual disciplines.
Our culture is one of much distraction by so many different media and personal obsessions. Because of these distractions, it is difficult to be totally preset and totally aware. They clog our ears and blind our eyes. Yet these are spiritual qualities that even secular writers affirm. Jesus recognizes our need to be attentive and present to when he explains why he teaches in parables: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand’ ” (Matt. 13:13).
While we should develop awareness and presence in whatever our cultural or linguistic circumstances, learning another language helps us to expedite developing such qualities. Learning another language is a spiritual discipline.
Don Clymer recently retired as an assistant professor in the language and literature department at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. He is a writer, spiritual director and leader of intercultural programs in Guatemala and Mexico. He blogs at Klymer Klatsch, where this originally appeared.