The end of the Gérard Dépardieu epic film 1492: The Conquest of Paradise graphically depicts the failure of the Spanish expedition to curb the greed and violence of the Conquistadores. In the midst of a tropical storm whose physical violence matched the inner destruction of the colony, Columbus’s faithful translator Utapan once again shaves his head and dons his tribal face paint ready to abandon his patron and return to his native people. He runs across the yard towards the beckoning forest and is entreated by a bewildered Columbus: Speak to me! But he finds no comfort. Before smiling and disappearing among the foliage Utapan exposes the depths of pain in his soul as he shouts back: You never learned to speak my language!
You never learned to speak my language.
Something as simple as this, but it seems it never ocurred to Columbus or his companions. The Tainos people had managed to learn Spanish, how come the Spaniards never learned theirs? It was certainly not lack of intelligence or curiosity, rather an insidious cultural supremacy that held that everything Western was superior to local mores, whatever shape these may take. And nowhere is this more clearly found than in language.
Language is more than the ability to communicate. It defines us, becomes part of us, draws many of the lines of our identity. It links us to the world around us, but only by separating us from part of that world. Language enables us make our mark, to leave a lasting impact on society, accessible to those that share our linguistic identity.
We are created speechless – a baby’s crying communicates loud and clear, but can hardly be considered speech – with a blank page on which language is slowly written by those around us. And so we acquire the ability to express ourselves, to relate socially to another – the Thou of Buber’s world – and to pour our innermost self out through our words.
It seems to me that this innate capacity for language is part of the image of God in humanity, and a most significant part at that. In the beginning was the Word – communication, self-revelation, expression, thought-given-form – and the Word was with God, for communication needs recipient as well as expression. And the Word was God. God was, and is, Word.
Tomorrow I come to the end of another course teaching language learning skills to a bunch of those who will make it their life’s purpose to bring Jesus to people and communities across the world. Perhaps better than anything else, learning local languages will connect them with the people they go to serve. As Eugene Nida rightly said:
“Language learning is not a matter of acquiring a simple mechanical ability to produce acoustic signals so as to buy, sell etc. It is a process by which we make vital contacts with a new community, a new way of life, and a new system of thinking. To do this well is the basic requirement of effective missionary endeavour.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself!