The church service I went to today caters well to language-lovers like me. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the afternoon service on Easter day (technically called “Agape Vespers”) includes reading the gospel selection in multiple languages. (The selection is John 20:19-25.) At a minimum, the reading includes English, Greek, and Russian/Slavonic, but I’ve never seen the minimum only. Even though today the service was lightly attended, I read Hebrew and my wife read Romanian alongside others who read the standards. At a previous parish, I read Syriac every year. I’ve heard all kinds of delightfully unexpected languages: Japanese, Mari, ASL, Old English, for example. A rare opportunity to hear some of these languages!
All the language geeks come out of the woodwork for this service, and I always enjoy it. Since I know what the reading is, I like to try to figure out what words I can decipher from each of the languages. On a more emotional level, the delightful music of all the languages, one after another, pleases me to no end. I love practicing my part–my one chance all year to speak ancient Syriac aloud–and I love seeing the love of others to speak the language that they learned at some time. Today’s service offers an opportunity that is rare in our society: a chance to hear multiple languages and to speak publicly in a language which one may not speak fluently.
Again I see the problem of calling Americans essentially monolingual, because I glimpse how many people from all over can read a foreign language aloud. People enjoy speaking their language, too, and even the monolinguals seem to enjoy hearing all the languages. Sometimes the readings are not expert; the reader clearly does not speak the language fluently. But they feel that they can read well enough and are willing to put work into preparing a text in a foreign language.
Now that I think of it, I realize I would like to see more venues where speaking a little bit of a foreign language was celebrated instead of a point of embarrassment. Many folks I know lament that they don’t know Spanish/French/etc. “better,” rather than speaking and using what they know. If these folks could practice whatever they know, just speaking it in public might give them some more motivation to learn a little better. Rather than beating themselves up for not speaking fluently, they can enjoy speaking to the best of their ability. For example, I know that I enjoy employing my rote-memorized Somali phrases in a few set situations. Also, my young polyglot friend–of whom I’ve spoken before–speaks a little Greek. So when he found out that his Spanish teacher knows some Greek, he brought it out for fun. This church service manifests that such fun comes out for a lot of people–not just polyglots.
I think if we can make rote use of languages in public common, then we can all strengthen our language foundation, ultimately improving our chances of attaining fluency. What are opportunities we see regularly or can initiate for people to speak publicly in their budding foreign language? Comment, share on Twitter or Facebook–let’s see what ideas people have!
- American multilingualism? (lovinglanguage.wordpress.com)
- A family Somali language teacher: Community and teamwork (lovinglanguage.wordpress.com)
- 6 Ways to Simplify Your Foreign Language Learning (lifehack.org)
- How to pronounce foreign languages (telegraph.co.uk)