“Je suis désolé. Je ne parle pas français.” This is the phrase I memorized: “I am sorry. I do not speak French.”
I said this many times on my recent trip to France. For the most part, my apology did not bring about a sympathetic response. French people expect people to speak French. Period. And while many do speak English, there was an expectation that I would have also sought to learn their language.
I did give myself a quick crash course before I went, but it was not enough to even carry on a basic conversation. I could read some of it, and occasionally understand a bit, but that was about it.
We are fortunate, of course, that English is the international language of commerce, so that makes it easier to get by without the bother of learning the words of another. But I also became even more fully aware that our language insularity does not speak particularly well of us as a nation.
Two weeks ago, I was celebrating my oldest son’s birthday with a group of international friends he has made at the school he is attending near Paris. Gathered in one room were an Australian (married to a Dutchman who couldn’t come), two Spaniards, one German, one Colombian, two Americans, and three from France. We conversed in English since that was the one common language.
There were also seven children under the age of 2 ½ there, and I asked each parent what languages they were teaching their children. The Spaniards speak primary to their sons in Catalan, a Romance language with some French characteristics and one of the official languages of Spain, and also expect them to speak Spanish. They do not speak English to them. The French couple speak only in French to their children. They would like for him to learn English someday, but do not wish to be the ones who teach it to them. The Australian-Dutch couple speak primarily in English to their daughter, with some Dutch thrown in, but do not expect her to be fluent in Dutch. The American-Colombian couple speak primarily in Spanish to their children (my grandchildren), and expect that to be the first language, but with considerable facility in English.
Then I look to the words of Jesus and find that he spoke in the common language and used the words that everyone knew to help them bridge the gap between their lives and the joy of intimate connection with God. Living and working in a farming and ranching world, he reminded them that he’s a good shepherd, and his sheep respond to his loving voice. As did farmers, Jesus willingly scattered the seed of the kingdom of God everywhere—knowing, just as those who work the ground for a living know, that not every place would be immediately receptive and that some seed would fed the birds rather than growing into new plants that would feed the people. But that didn’t stop him from spreading it out everywhere. He reminded people that the things we experience daily can serve as doorways to the heavenly places, should we chose to hear the invitation to enter in.
Yet as I write this, I also know that as we enter into deeper intimacy with God that we must also learn to see and speak differently. We must learn to find the holy and sacred in the common things. We must learn the language of prayer, of worship, of radical generosity and service, and these words and concepts do not come easily to most of us.
With all this, I believe there is a call on all of us to expand our vocabularies and our language abilities. We need to learn the languages of others, and the language of God. By so doing, we open ourselves to far deeper experiences and find ourselves amazingly enriched. It’s worth the effort.