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Speaking In Tongue

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? 


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

14 responses to “Speaking In Tongue

  1. Bill Chapman ⋅

    Have you ever looked at the current and potential role of Esperanto as an international language?

    Take a look at Esperanto is a neutral planned language.

  2. elderj

    I think language is the largest conduit of culture and retaining it is important, even in a biblical sense. Often diversity of language and culture is viewed as a threat to unity, and the lack of English fluency is seen as a detriment to economic success. The irony is that multilingual fluency is more beneficial than simple English fluency.

    What must be remembered is that the dominance of English is intimately connected to British imperialism. The retention of language could be (and in my view should be) seen as a subversive act and even a justice issue. In addition, as a Christian, the fact that the gospel does not require language assimilation seems to reinforce the doctrine of the incarnation. It is a bad thing in some ways that languages disappear and the gospel has probably been the single largest impetus

  3. »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.«

    There are cultural issues not embedded in language that I’ve encountered. Usually I have very little direct conflict with my parents, but I’ve had some quite unappealing interactions with my grandma because of her expectations and my prejudices against Chinese people for the bad things I saw exemplified first in the example of her generation.

    This is largely not a language thing. On the other hand, knowing the same language helps. She thinks I’m pretty much like someone from Hong Kong who immigrated here early.

    »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?«

    I’m biased. As a linguistics major, I say keep as many languages for as long as possible. My prooftext is from Revelation 😛 But really? I have issues with the pragmatic view taken by some translators that it isn’t worth translating the Bible into moribund languages. Perhaps I’m overdramatizig it, but for me it evokes the image of not feeding someone who’s bound to die and is just waiting for it.

    »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.«

    This is true. I speak late-1940s–1950s Cantonese, and though I’ve been to HK before I know very little about its pop culture. Many of the Chinese songs I know are from the periods before I was born.

    »How much culture can I retain without the language?«

    Very little. Firstly, there’s Sapir-Whorf. Secondly, few people who don’t find it worth their time to acquire their parents’ language find it worth their time to receive the culture their parents want to transmit to them.

    It was a sad day when the Eyak language passed from living memory on this Earth, as it has been for the hundreds of languages that have been extinguished. May Taiwanese Hoklo continue to speak Minnan. Right now I have few concerns about Cantonese, as HKers rarely learn good Mandarin and most would resist speaking Mandarin at home.

  4. It was so good that Bill Chapman put in a serious word for Esperanto.

    I can totally confirm that it has become a living language, however it also has propadeutic values. You can see more evidence on

    In the British Parliament Esperanto is also gaining attention, eight British MP’s have nominated Esperanto for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008

    In China, for the first time, the Olympic Committe has appointed an Esperanto translator

  5. elderj

    Lue-Yee you’ve hit the nail on the head. I believe the church should work towards the preservation of culture rather than it’s obliteration

  6. Katie ⋅

    Does globalization mean everyone in the world use same language and share similar culture or cherish as many as languages and its culture? As Korean, I was raised up under the slogan of “globalizaion” which sometimes synonym of ‘ learning English’. Even Korean class teacher should acquire efficient English skills. English became the criteria of new Caste.

  7. daniel so

    David — Thanks for posting such a thoughtful, thought-provoking piece here. I feel like what you’re saying has a connection with the increasing amount of writing I have seen from Christian thinkers about Gospel and Empire. I appreciate that elderj points out the close connection between English-language domination and British imperialism. In this case, Gospel and Empire is more than just conceptual banter.

    I agree with Katie’s question about what, in particular, we mean when we say “globalization.” Certainly, there are Christians who would use that word as a justification to crush or absorb other cultures and languages. However, we might also paint a picture of God-given cultural diversity.

    I also agree with elderj’s sentiment that the church should preserve rather than destroy culture. My only concern, though, would be for churches to have a strong theological basis for doing so — to celebrate their God-given ethnic/cultural identities, rather than just upholding the culture for its own sake (but maybe I’m just being too idealistic).

  8. Bill — thanks for mentioning Esperanto. I have to admit, I’d never heard of it before this. I’d be interested to know if there is a church and/or bible in Esperanto.

    Lue-Yee – I’m so glad you as a linguist chimed in. You’re right to say that language and culture are inextricably linked. Then perhaps our little 1.5/2.0 designations (generationally) perhaps could be more accurate if we find some linguistic measurement, which would serve as a better indicator of cultural aptitude/comfort level.

    Katie – you’re right. English is the currency that we seem to have to operate in, but globalization seems to have that double-edge to it. Particularly if we make the connection between global markets, anyone will learn a language for money and opportunity. That’s the interesting notion. What’s interesting is what happens when people have a theology for preserving what is native…for instance, have you seen the movie, “The Mission” with Robert DeNiro? The Portugese missionaries to South America tried to preserve Indian languages and were successful until the colonizers pushed them out, which totally supports elderj’s point.

    Perhaps then as daniel finally points out, a great role for the ethnic church to play is precisely in all the korean language schools and cultural centers then. i just wish that connection was better and more explicitly stated in church. growing up i felt that the gospel and culture were at complete odds, or at least had little to do with one another.

  9. Bill Chapman ⋅

    In answer to David Park’s question about Esperanto: The Bible (La Sankta Biblio) was published in Esperanto by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1926. For about a hundred years Christians have been coming together at international events for worship using the language. There are a number of hymn books in Esperanto.

    Christian Esperanto organizations include two that were formed early in the history of Esperanto, the International Union of Catholic Esperantists and the International Christian Esperantists League (KELI). There are instances of Christian apologists and teachers who use Esperanto as a medium. Nigerian Pastor Bayo Afolaranmi’s “Spirita nutraĵo” (spiritual food) Yahoo mailing list, for example, has hosted weekly messages since 2003. Chick Publications, publisher of Protestant fundamentalist themed evangelistic tracts, has published a number of comic book style tracts by Jack T. Chick translated into Esperanto, including “This Was Your Life!” (“Jen Via Tuto Vivo!”). Therre will never be an Esperanto hurch, as such. Christians attending these services in Esperanto remain Methodists, Baptists, Evangelicals, Lutherans, Anglicans, and so on.

    For a Japanese view and some background information, take a look at :

    May I emphasise that the aim of Esperanto is not to make people less British, German, Korean and so on, but to emphasise what we have in common.

  10. Out of interest also?

    Pope Benedict used Esperanto in his Easter address from the Vatican at Easter.

    Perhaps this language is ecumenical as well? I certainly get angry when people claim that Esperanto is not a living language.

    May I ask you to visit

  11. richmx2

    What’s the matter with Latin? It was the common language of western Christiandom for a milenia and a half.

  12. Latin? I wish. Now if only I were good enough at Latin to resurrect it with native speakers.

    The fact is, though, that’s not actually the culture I would be transmitting.

  13. Lenny Robertson ⋅

    Growing up overseas, I thought I kept my home culture, no matter what language I used, but according to psychologists I developed my own “third culture” to cope with “jarring” transitions from culture to culture. We did move a lot and I had to develop a basic vocabulary of 800 words in Indonesian just to survive. Later, as a missionary in China, I did the same with Cantonese & Mandarin Chinese. While in Bible college I fulfilled my requirements for Christian service by being a Sunday School teacher to Korean-American children in Texas; some of the children were not fluent in Korean, but the pastor’s sons, with whom I sometimes got a ride were strick in only using Korean at home. However, except for the pastor, most of the childrens’ parents knew very little English (if any). Back to language across generations, especially when families are uprooted from their home countries, I was put in speech therapy the one year of grade school I spent in the US, because the English I spoke (like my nephews when they returned for good from South Africa where their parents where missionaries for several years) was different from the English spoken in Texas. In fact, I hardly understood my grandmother (on my father’s side; my mother, however, spoke “normal” midwestern English, as did her mother) who had a very thick southern drawl. I even barely understood a word my African-American classmates spoke my last year of high school in Texas. Now since I married into the culture, I do a little better, but my wife still has to translate Tyler Perry plays for me, since I just don’t get it at first. In terms of my own culture, whatever that is, my Chinese friends tell me frankly that I act just like a Chinese in my social interactions (since two-thirds of my kindergarten & early grade-school classmates—in Singapore—were Chinese, though I never learned [“learnt”] the various Chinese dialects then, but Malay instead—to this day I can understand every word Joseph Prince, the preacher, says on TV, including the [sometimes non-English language] jokes & colloquialisms). I used to get homesick when I heard a Singaporean or Malaysian accent, but I must have grown out of it now. I am now an avid Esperanist. It has been easiest by far of all the languages I have studied. When reading the Bible in Esperanto things jump out at me that don’t phase me in English, which have been very efficacious for me. Of the foreign languages I have begun to read the Bible in, I have made the fastest progress in Esperanto, even though Indonesian has a simpler grammar, perhaps because I have heard more of Indonesian. [Ah, some grammarians would want to correct my English grammar to “Of the foreign languages in which I have begun to read the Bible…”, no?] It is fascinating to me that a Chinese-Canadian classmate of mine, who went to China to learn her language, says that the switch from initial “n” to “l” in Cantonese which is happening in the Pearl River Delta, where I spent nine years, never occurred in the 4 generations of Cantonese & Taisanhua speakers in west Canada. Also, the native Spanish of Colorado & the southwest United States, as some of you may know, is closer to 15th century Spanish, including vocabulary forms, whereas the Spanish of Spain & even Mexico has changed tremendously over 500 years. At work, I was told a story by one of my colleagues (of Hispanic descent) that a priest from Spain lamented the loss of the spoken Spanish—its poetry & literature—of the 15th century, but became overjoyed when he was posted in New Mexico where it was still spoken by his new congregants. Just look at how Irish-sounding the midwestern version of American English is, compared to RP (that is, received pronunciation, if I’m not far of base—my UK Engish is rusty) in Britain—and Cockney is almost totally unintelligible to me.

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