“If you speak to people in words they don’t understand, how will they know what you are saying? You might as well be talking into empty space.” 1 Corinthians 14:9 (NLT)
If you’re looking for motivation to study Spanish, there are numerous top 10 lists out there to help you out (here, here, or here for example) Most of them hit the usual points: it’s good for your career; it opens up travel opportunities; studying a second language makes you smarter. All of these are true, and are good reasons to take up Spanish. However, as Christians, there are three more important motivations for us to spend time learning a language integral to the Western Hemisphere. (These are applicable to learning any foreign language, but as a Latin Americanist, I’m obviously a bit biased.)
- Seeing the image of God in others: We all want to be respected and valued, but how often to you think about your monolingualism as disrespecting or devaluing someone else? You don’t do it out of hate or mean-spiritedness. You just don’t speak Spanish (or French, or Dutch, or…). Yet, the common refrain “but everyone speaks English” communicates a great deal to those who have to accommodate themselves to our language. Taking the time to learn the language such a large portion of our country speaks, (13% given the latest Census data, and it rises to 37% here in Houston), communicates that we value those members of our community as they are, and that their inherent worth is not dependent on what language they speak. Leviticus 19:34 (NRSV) speaks directly to us today in this regard: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself… .” Whether alien or citizen, we are to love those living alongside us, and treat them with dignity. A first step is learning their language.
- Being stewards of our talents: I hear all the time “Learning a language is hard. Besides, everyone speaks English already.” My response is usually “Your God likely has bigger plans for you than you can imagine, and you hamper those plans by limiting how many people you can communicate with in this world.” The current culture pushes the idea of not wasting our time with things that do not directly apply to our intended career. Aside from the fact that speaking and writing Spanish makes you more attractive to employers, this perspective undermines God’s call for us to use the abilities He has given us to the greatest extent possible. This honors God and also serves to further the Kingdom. We tacitly ignore this call by refusing the hard things, such as learning a language, that do not seem immediately applicable to our present circumstances.
- Fulfilling the Great Commission: This is perhaps the most obvious reason Christians should learn Spanish. Jesus tells his disciples “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19 NRSV). This command has been passed on to the Church today and numerous mission organizations are based around the linguistic necessity fulfilling it requires Wycliffe and SIL among them. Abandoning language learning to others denies us participation in this blessing. Spreading the Good News in Spanish might not be as sexy as translating the Bible into a tribal language in Papua New Guinea, but it is no less vital to the Kingdom. Particularly here in Houston, there are ample opportunities to “go therefore” into the Spanish speaking community around us.