Language is…a graduation requirement.
Language is…something to boost your resume.
Language is…a job opportunity.
Language is…meant to be so much more.
I recently attended a conference for Latin American and Iberian Studies, and the main speakers talked about the value of language. This wasn’t a new topic for me–I wouldn’t have spent my entire college career studying to teach Spanish if I didn’t believe it was important–but I still got chills when Emily Bricker said:
“When I tell people I was a Spanish major, the first question they always ask me is ‘So you speak Spanish?’…Yes. I speak Spanish, but that is not what is important to me. I can listen to and understand Spanish. I can listen to people’s stories in Spanish. That means more to me than being able to speak Spanish.”
Wow. I think we’ve missed the point of language.
To ask for things. To advance. To impress. No.
Language is the ability to listen. To listen in a way that demonstrates the truest form of hospitality–meeting and welcoming the stranger, listening to their story, welcoming them into your home through an exchange of words.
But we do not see language this way, because we live in a world that is resistant to the other. We are told that the other is too different and dangerous, and we learn very early on that we are better off keeping to ourselves. Little by little we start buying into that idea that we don’t really need relationships out of our people group; the others aren’t our responsibility after all. We start to learn they are just too different, and we would never understand each other anyway. No, it’s better to stay with what we know. We build our personal wall and we stay there.
But language. It breaks down walls and it connects people and cultures that shouldn’t be connected. I have seen it in action. I have watched high school students use broken language to make friends with people from a “dangerous” country. I have seen people realize that different isn’t so scary after all. I have witnessed the look of relief on an woman’s face upon realizing I could translate for her in the US customs line. I have seen adult’s eyes sparkle as they are finally able to share their stories and dreams in their heart language. I have felt the same joy and relief when someone was able to listen to me in my own heart language.
I have shared meals because of language. I have shared laughs because of language. I have made friendships because of language.
Listening. Connection. Friendship. Love beyond borders.
And I sit here today and I think, how would the world be different if we could just latch on to this true purpose for language? What if we embraced differences and tried to connect? What if we replaced fear with wonder? What if we loved, regardless of skin or culture or stereotypes? What if we listened first?