After I finished teaching a group of young people in Costa Rica, my dad (a fluent Spanish speaker) graciously pointed out to me the reason two teenage boys had been giggling throughout my talk. I had just spent the past hour repeating a word that, though technically correct in translation, had inappropriate connotations (the kind that teenage boys can’t help but giggle about).
Though I have spoken some Spanish all of my life, I have yet to master it. There are days I come home, pat myself on the back, and tell myself, “You’ve really got the hang of this now.” But those days are rare and far between. Most of the time, I walk in the door feeling slightly defeated as I replay my blunders.
But language learners must not reflect long on their mistakes, remembering that God works in us — including our weaknesses and missteps — to will and to work for his pleasure (Philippians 2:13). Our motivation to continue learning rests not in how quickly we learn, or even in how effectively we communicate. If this were the case, I would have given up long ago. Rather, after twenty-plus years of butchering the Spanish language, my motivation comes from God, who has the power to use my imperfect speech to spread the news of his love for us in Christ to more Spanish-speaking people.
If God’s chosen people are going to hear and receive the gospel, many of us will have to learn a second language. Through my studies and struggles, I have stumbled on five ways God is glorified in the process of learning languages to reach the lost of every tribe, nation, and tongue.
1. God is sovereign over your second language.
In learning a new tongue, we learn to recognize and trust God’s sovereignty over language.
God is the source of words and speech (Genesis 1:3). It is by his word that he creates (Genesis 1:1), relates (Genesis 1:26), and mandates (Genesis 1:28). As the Creator and sustainer of human language, God has the right and the power to confuse communication or enable understanding. Because language is in his hands, I must not lose sleep thinking about the 20-minute conversation I had in which I referred to Francis as the current Roman Catholic potato. Despite these types of repeated, and sometimes embarrassing faux pas, I can trust that God will sovereignly use my (slowly) acquired second language for his name’s sake.
His sovereignty should never be an excuse for laziness in learning, but rather a reason for joyful confidence in his grace as he grants us the ability to communicate with others despite our mistakes and weaknesses.
2. Learning a language conquers sin’s consequences.
As we acquire a language, we begin to cross the boundaries of Babel, battling the effects of sin on speech. From the beginning of sin’s history on earth it influenced, and was driven by, language. Satan used it to tempt (Genesis 3:1), Adam and Eve used it to blame (Genesis 3:12–13), and God used it to condemn (Genesis 3:14–19). Then, in Genesis 11, men’s sinful plans at Babel provoked God to distort and confuse their language.
I have often wondered why God, after intentionally confusing our ability to communicate, would give us the difficult task of reaching the lost of every tongue. God confused language because men sought to steal from his glory. We learn languages, with God’s help, to give him the glory he deserves until he is praised in every language.
3. The church’s mission depends on language learning.
The diversity of languages can be a stumbling block for the proclamation of the word of God (1 Corinthians 14:9–11; Ezekiel 3:5–6), but it is also evident that God has designed language as a necessary part of his story of redemption (Romans 10:17). Our language acquisition should be motivated by the need to break down the barriers that impede gospel proclamation.
In Acts 2, Jewish believers were enabled by the Holy Spirit to declare “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11) in many different languages to men from all over the first-century Roman world. And the people present at Pentecost were astonished (Acts 2:12). We have the same goal in fluency: to leave men and women perplexed and amazed by the gospel being proclaimed in their own tongue.
The task of the Great Commission cannot be completed unless faithful disciples intentionally strive for fluency in second languages.
4. Learning a language always humbles us.
Language learning elevates our view of God by humbling us. Any serious language learner understands the pride-destroying powers of language acquisition. I still have flashbacks of the time I tried to flaunt my language skills to a female Spanish teacher and opened the conversation by referring to her with the male pronoun. No matter how embarrassing, we must learn to channel the humility of these experiences toward a greater dependence on God in all things.
The humiliation of this process never ends, even when we achieve greater fluency. We imitate Christ’s humility and suffering for us by humbling ourselves and working hard to learn a language. We build lasting relationships with the lost through clear communication, so that they might be transformed by the gospel for the glory of God.
5. Languages allow God to be worshiped everywhere.
Finally, language learning helps us recognize the intentionality of the diversity of earthly languages. Although God confused language because of sin, language variety has always been a part of God’s plan.
We will meet the task of language learning head on when we understand that God’s kingdom, dominion, and glory were always meant to extend to all peoples, nations, and languages (Daniel 7:14). The most joyful times of congregational worship I have participated in have not been in my first language. In fact, worshiping and engaging with believers in my second language has provided hopeful glimpses of Revelation 7:9–10, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude . . . from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . . crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
God will redeem all tongues for his exaltation, and we will, for eternity, sing praise with a unified voice to the glorious God of language.