Have you ever been told to “think before you speak?” Just hearing this phrase can easily bring back memories of embarrassing reasons for which we’ve heard it before! This oft-repeated idiom, so foundational that we consider it common sense, echoes recurring themes in Biblical teaching – such as Solomon’s counsel in Ecclesiastes 5:2 (NKJV) “[to] not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God.” Even when we dislike hearing someone apply these words to us personally, generally we tend to agree it is wise to consider what we say ahead of time. Yet, could there ever be a time in which it would actually be best to not think before speaking?
Recently, I (Jordan) have had the privilege of studying discourse analysis – a tool used to help identify tricky parts of a second language, in order that they can be studied and learned. What makes these areas so difficult? It turns out that, when speaking, we actually make many subtle situational word choices without thought! Furthermore, when trying to figure out what makes the pieces of a language fit together, it’s incredibly difficult for a native speaker to precisely explain things they never actually need to think through.
To illustrate this problem: think about how you would try to explain the meaning of the word ‘well’ in each of these contexts. Hint: it’s not just a ‘filler word’ – there is a different real meaning involved in each scenario. Have fun!
- “Wow, that was a great game!” “Absolutely; I’m so glad we came. Well, where should we go to get some food?”
- “So, how does gravity work?” “Well, I know it keep us from floating up into the air…”
- “Episode 8 was the best Star Wars movie ever!” “Well,
that might be a bit of an overstatement…”
- “What’s your sixth favorite color?” “…Well… I can’t say I ever really thought about that before.”
During a two week course with visiting consultant Bill Davis, a couple friends and I studied ten different types of these subconscious choices we make when speaking: including how we emphasize certain words, what makes our main subject stand out from background information, and how we keep track of which person we’re talking about at each moment. The strategies used vary widely between languages, but since we do these things without really thinking about them, we tend to use our mother tongue patterns when speaking in a second language!
This, unfortunately, can completely obscure the message we work so hard to present. Imagine hearing Lamentations read in a repetitive sing-song voice… how could the grief and agony possibly communicate? If each Psalm began with the words “Once upon a time,” what confusion would result? How distracting would it be to hear Goliath spoken of as the hero when facing David, or if Romans seemed to be written to Paul instead of by him? Even if these mistakes were identified as such by the listener, God’s Word – unintentionally presented in a juvenile, confusing, or outright ridiculous manner – would require continual re-interpretation by the hearer, and could easily be judged as not worth the effort.
Studying the higher levels of language unlocked by Discourse Analysis has greatly impacted my language progress. In one sense, I’ve gained an awareness of a whole new realm of things I need to learn in order to communicate God’s Word clearly. But on the other hand, the progress gained from tackling these issues has been rapid and obvious! Perhaps for the average person using their first language, these are indeed areas in which one need not think before speaking. For our family, however, the old adage once again seems appropriate as we apply it today in a brand new way!
Praise God with us!
- Despite opposition rising against those Nahuatl people who attend the chronological Bible teaching, a faithful core continues to come and hear God’s Word presented for the first time in their own language. What’s more, those who attend are showing evidence of truly grasping truth! Read more about this in my coworker Katie’s post, The Little Sheep of God.
- Our family is finally back to good overall health after a rough patch between Christmas and the New Year! As well, Amy in particular had a rough couple of months health-wise before that. We’re grateful to put that season behind us!
- Recently, the progress in my Spanish study has never been better! Things have gone well for some time, but God has allowed these recent weeks to be exceedingly encouraging – both in terms of language session quality and advances in my speaking ability!
Ways you can pray:
- For our coworkers teaching among the Nahuatl, who need strength, encouragement, rest, wisdom, and more – all of which they have in Christ! As well, for the Nahuatl hearing the Gospel proclaimed: for continued desire to attend, and clear understanding of the Word of God.
- For the Missions Week at Familia Cristiana Antioquía, beginning Sunday January 28th. I am preparing a 15-minute update on our family and the Nahuatl work (in Spanish, of course!) for that morning; please pray God grant me wisdom in preparation and clarity in speech!
- For my final preparations leading up to my next Spanish evaluation! A couple preliminary evals within the mission are next on my to-do list, and – Lord willing – an official language test shortly thereafter!