A key problem with immigrant churches and their children is basically the inability to speak the same language. The majority of those born in the US are not fluent in the language of their parents. In order to succeed, they have to speak English in schools and at work, which means the mother tongue gets a rest, sometimes a permanent vacation.
It seems that the priority of English in order to succeed – read: English as a first language beats ESL any day, leads to rifts in the church. We can’t worship together (efficiently and/or effectively) and we have problems communicating as a whole. In fact, language is at the very crux of the problem in many churches and homes. Both generations can often feel like strangers in the same home. They speak to each other and kind of understand one another, but something always gets lost in translation. When parents speak among themselves in the mother tongue, it seems like plotting. And when the children retort in English slang, the parents can’t help but feel disrespected.
But does globalization possibly change that dynamic? Or does English truly become the new lingua franca? Does the tension increase or decrease in our families/churches? Is language seen as an inefficiency (again, sorry to borrow verbiage from economics) or will it be viewed as an asset? And one question further for our immigrant churches – is there a strong theological rationale for the preservation of languages? Do we keep the inheritance of the Tower of Babel as a good thing or a bad thing?
Interestingly enough, globalization tends to support ghetto-ization, at least in my observation. Channels of distribution that increase the import of ethnic foods, television, music and movies means the children of immigrants stand a better chance of preserving the mother tongue. It also means that there’s less of a delay in culture. That means there’s less of “time capsule” effect that occurs with first generation parents. For instance, if my parents came from Korea in the 1970s, they bring over a 1970s Korean mindset. So even though Korea undergoes its own cultural shifts and trends, my parents are like time travelers somewhat, and the picture of Korea that I inherit from them is not necessarily the Korea that is.
But now that’s changed, and the real question is then what effect will globalization have on language.
Here are some excerpts from some Freakonomists pondering that very question:
English is a tool, just like a piece of technology. Much of the world’s economy is tied up in English-speaking countries and for that reason, English is like a cell phone provider offering the best plan. But if the dollar continues to drop, the most viable option could shift. Mexico and Korea don’t need English to communicate if Korea begins to find it profitable to learn Spanish.
In fact, globalization means that we have more reason than ever to learn a language. While globalization has its benefits and drawbacks, learning a language, like almost any other skill, is at best useful and at least a bit of personal edification (like learning Ancient Greek or fly fishing).
It’s obvious that English promotes American power in the global linguistic marketplace — but a slogan of Li Yang’s Crazy English movement is “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!”
one of the intriguing consequences of globalization is that English’s center of gravity is moving. Its future is going to be defined not in America or Britain, but by the new economies of places like Bangalore, Chongqing, and Bratislava.
Realistically, fifty years from now the world’s big languages may be as few as three: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and English. Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, and Punjabi will also be pretty big — but chiefly because of massive population growth on their home turf. Arabic, too, will have grown — for religious reasons at least as much as economic ones.
So while organizations like Wycliffe are busy translating the Bible into minor indigenous languages across the world, dozens of other languages are simply going to vanish. Is that a good or a bad thing? What does that mean for ethnic churches – Fight to keep the language? or learn to lose it? And what if we can’t pick it back up again? How much culture can I retain without the language? Why is it that I feel like I’m holding water in my hands? or rather, my tongue?