Thursday, March 15, 2007

Chinese / English / Special Words

I think one of the most fascinating things about learning another language is not how much better you learn the language you desire but the one you already know. You begin to see the limitations of your own language.

For example, (this really just fascinates me and if you're skimming or don't care, I suggest skipping this part as it has little to do with the rest of the email) I was reading my Chinese book the other day, and the author was discussing ordinal numbers in Chinese and English and how in English it is extremely difficult to ask a question with no qualification and receive only an ordinal number in response. Take the sentence, "Ronald Reagan was the 40th president" and try to frame a question where you receive only "the 40th" in response. If you ask, "Which president was Reagan", then you could easily receive any number of responses like, "He was the one who was an actor," etc... To get "the 40th" you would have to ask with a qualifier, "George Washington was the first president, what about Ronald Reagan?" In contrast, Chinese it is very easy to ask in such a way that the only appropriate response is "the 40th" (di ji ge ren shi Ronald Reagan) What's fascinating though is not why it is so difficult to ask questions about ordinal numbers, but that it does not bother native English speakers that they cannot. And what's even more interesting is that they never think to ask why. My point is that language, whether we know or not, has a way of shaping the way we see the world and furthermore it shapes the questions we ask about the world.

There's even more I could write like in John's Book in the first sentence, he talks about the Word. The Greek for "the Word" is "logos", and literally it does mean the word, but it means much more It doesn't mean just the word; there's an entire portrait painted behind this word pointing to so much more. In Chinese, they translate logos as "dao". We really don't have an English equivalent for dao just like we don't for logos, but what's amazing is that with dao it paints a much brighter picture of the original meaning. Language is our lens for interpreting the world around us. What's even more fun is, does language affect our thoughts or do our thoughts affect our language? And how can you distinguish between the two? Can you?

With that said Following in China has really shaped the way I view Following in general. Here in China we don't use a lot of the Special words we use in the States. Things like righteousness and holy have little meaning in a country where people have problems saying their names using English. For example, meetings have become Meetings and family has become Family and asking, Asking. The mundane and normal words of our everyday life have been invaded by the holy. When someone calls and says "We're going Swimming", it no longer has the same meaning.

I see a problem in American Families in the language we use. In fact, as Followers in America (myself included) we have two separate languages we speak. We have our Sunday language and our normal language, and I'm not talking about cussing or rude jokes. We have Special words we use, like holy or righteousness. These words are great in that they express complex ideas in a succinct and understandable form. The problem is in that we don't live only on Sunday, and the overwhelming majority of our lives are lived out Monday through Saturday.

Maybe the reason we have such a hard time Sharing is that we're speaking a different language. Maybe the reason American Followers are so shy about Telling people is that they don't have the right words. The words they use to express their feelings about Him are not the words they use in their everyday life. The problem isn't that they don't want to; the problem is that they don't know the words. When was the last time you used, "holy" or "salvation" in an everyday conversation?

The great thing about living here is that the holy has invaded the mundane. Words like family don't just mean family. Books are not just books. Following isn't just following. Instead of sectioning off our lives and our language the holy is breaking through into every aspect. Don't get me wrong, Special words are great. We are a different culture, and we should have a different language. The problem becomes when we don't know how to explain these words with our everyday vocabulary. The problem is when we can't translate. It then becomes the wrong lens to view the world. Instead of the holy being everywhere and our becoming aware of it, the language we use tells use that the holy belongs sanctioned off in specific areas.

Language is the glasses we use to interpret the world around us. The danger is that Special words teach us that maybe Sundays are just a game we play apart from our everyday life. The holy must break through the mundane.