Saturday, February 18, 2012

Language Learners Beware

Okay, so you may say, "Phil, I love the biblical languages and deeply desire to them in my personal ministry." You may further add," in fact, I love Greek and Hebrew so much because they are superior languages to my native English!" To this I would reply: is this good? In other words, is it good for someone to love Greek and Hebrew so much that they despise their native English? I would suggest that this is unhealthy because this is an attitude that falsely prizes one's acquired language and falsely despises one's native language. This is a condition that I would like to call: Reverse Linguistic Prejudice (RLP). There are several reasons why RLP is less than desirable for a student to maintain.

First, the student does not understand the nature of language. Language is a form of communication, which can be expressed through voice or manuscript by way of an intentional structuring of words used in convention. In other words, language is a way in which humans make intellectual contact with other humans. The way we make contact is through words, which represent our thoughts, feelings, ideas, and intentions. These words are used in structured ways. That is words are situated in intelligible patterns, which we would commonly referred to as sentences. These words are also conventional, which means the words we use have a shared sense of meaning. Now, certainly and without a doubt there are many languages, which express communication through many different means. However, the simple fact is all humans use languages to accomplish largely similar tasks. Languages differ in their particularities – the way they structure sentences, the way they express sounds, the way they tie certain sounds to particular referents – languages are united accomplish various tasks. All humans need to express their distress, their desire, their ideas, their reactions, etc.

Furthermore, language is a necessary component for any given society to continue to exist. Therefore, it could be said that any society that exists, has managed to find effective ways to communicate. This does not mean that every language community contains the same ideas of every other language community. What it does mean is that every language community has the potential to acquire new ideas and ways of expressing those ideas. A language community can coin a new term from previously existing word, it can take in a new term, it can create a new term by translating a word bit by bit. The idea being stressed is that – there is no such thing as a language that is superior to another language. Certainly we can say that there are language communities, which may lack a given concept at a given time, but this says nothing about the deficiency of the language itself. This is only a true about the status of a given language community. All this to say, it is not truly desirable to love the biblical languages while despising one's native language because this is a personal judgment based on a false reality. One can love the biblical languages but one need not despise the native language.

Second, if one continues to love the biblical languages [or any language for that matter!] While despising the native language, then one will be unable to learn and make accurate progress in one's knowledge of the language. This is because one is living out a false worldview. This will result in coming to false conclusions about a given language. For example, some people prize certain biblical words over and against English equivalents like words for love, justice, etc. an aspiring student may say something like – "this is the word in English "love" but the word in Greek is "agape" and agape means selfless love. This is not what the word means in English." (I realize I'm trotting on a well worn example, one which DA Carson as thoroughly critiqued, but I can't think of a better one at the moment). However, the problem with this so-called philological comparison is that it simply not true. There are cases in which agape can refer to the concept of selfless love, but this is not always the case. Furthermore, this is a misunderstanding of the nature of the way language conveys meaning. The word "love" in English can mean a wide variety of things, but it does not necessarily exclude the idea of selflessness. The meaning of the word is dependent upon the context (i.e. it's pragmatic function – what a given speaker is trying to accomplish by using in a meaningful sentence). All this to say, when a student prizes the biblical over the native, then she positions herself to make mistaken judgments about specific languages.

Furthermore, this attitude hinders the student to learn anything new about language and specific languages. If one person is in a position of Prizing/despising, then one cannot further advance in the field of language learning because language acquisition is contingent upon one's ability to find connections and similarities between one's native language and one's newly acquired language. The optimal language attitude is one of gratitude and openness. One must acknowledge the value of one's native language and remain open to learning new possibilities and concepts from the other language. For example, the task of learning foreign prepositions can be exceedingly difficult because prepositions rarely have a one for one correspondence in relation to any other language. Furthermore, prepositions in any language can function to indicate temp oral relations, spatial relations, conceptual relations. This can be very difficult because the overlap is rarely or easily perceivable. However, the task of learning prepositions can be ameliorated, if the student first learns the many meaningful possibilities found within prepositions within English. If one can appreciate the ambiguity in English, that one can grow comfortable with the ambiguity in other languages.

In conclusion, Reverse linguistic prejudice is an unhealthy attitude whereby the student falsely believes the newly acquired language is superior to one's native language. The way to overcome Reverse Linguistic Prejudice is by first recognizing the uniform possibility for all languages to communicate the same ideas. Second, the student must exercise gratitude for one's native language will remain open to conceptual possibilities discovered from another language community. The important distinction here is the difference between language and language community – it's not the language that teaches but is the instrument of instruction. Finally, the student can benefit by looking for ambiguity is present in one's native language. In other words, a new language can look more sophisticated to a student because she is initially overwhelmed by the complexity and ambiguity of that the language. However, ambiguity and complexity are present in every language. Therefore, learn about and get comfortable with it. Reverse Linguistic Prejudice is an attitude, which every serious student of language should seek to avoid.

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