Now more than ever, people are learning English as their second, third or fourth language. English has become a lingua franca, much like Koine Greek was in Christ’s day. A recent estimate places the total number of English speakers well above 1.5 billion, with less than a third of those being native speakers.
Many American Christians have seen the opportunities this presents, both at home and abroad. Churches run adult English classes for immigrants, while sending members to teach English in countries where missionaries are forbidden. Other believers teach ESOL in K-12 schools or in a college setting. The growing demand for English teaching is surely a God-ordained occasion for Christians to love their neighbors and bring the gospel to the nations.
But what are the foundations for such an effort? Are there any unintended consequences? What should our motives be? In other words, does the Bible have anything to say about teaching English? Where does it fit into God’s big story?
Isn’t linguistic diversity a result of sin?
We tend to think of linguistic diversity as a beautiful thing. But isn’t it a result of sin? You may be thinking of the tower of Babel. In that story, we see that the diversification of languages was a judgment for sin! What were the sins that brought about this judgment? Pride and self-security. Instead of spreading out to fill the earth to God’s glory, the people huddled together and attempted to win praise for themselves. God’s solution was to confound their speech, halting their self-glorifying project and dispersing them across the globe. He confounded human language in such a way that it will never fully reunify on its own.
God’s speech creates, and we speak creatively
While the judgment at Babel is tremendously significant, we also need to remember that creativity is an integral part of how we image God. Even before sin entered the picture, humans were commanded to use language creatively, and this is reflected in ongoing linguistic evolution. God’s discipline of human hubris at Babel was a special act of diversification, to be sure. But the fact of linguistic change is due, at least in part, to the creational good of human creativity.
Pentecost reverses Babel
The most significant language-event in the New Testament is Pentecost. The Spirit of God fell on believers, and we should note what did not happen. Everyone did not begin speaking in the same language. Neither was it merely a miracle of hearing, as if the Holy Spirit were acting as a mid-air interpreter. Rather, in Acts 2 the gift of tongues enabled believers to testify to God’s grace in the language of their hearers. Visitors to Jerusalem from across the Greco-Roman world heard of “the mighty works of God” in their own languages. These were not indecipherable or private “prayer languages;” they were comprehensible to the foreign Jews in town for the festival. But neither were they languages that the Jewish believers had studied.
What we see at Pentecost is a stunning reversal of Babel. At Babel, God scattered a people by dividing tongues. At Pentecost, God gathered a people by giving tongues. At Babel, diverse languages were God’s barrier to rebellious unity. At Pentecost, diverse languages were God’s bridge to gospel unity.
Will there be one language in heaven?
Pentecost inaugurates the church age and provides a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God. So what is the future of human language in the new heavens and the new earth? If we take Pentecost as the pattern, it would suggest that in God’s eternal kingdom, linguistic diversity will not be eradicated, but neither will it be a barrier to genuine communication and corporate worship.
When “every tongue confesses Jesus Christ as Lord,” will each confess in her own language? Revelation 7 seems to suggest this. All peoples and languages will proclaim one message: “Salvation belongs to our God!” But in one language? There is no indication that believers’ other diversities are removed. Another scene in Revelation 19 describes the praises of God’s people as “the roar of many waters,” an effect that anyone who has been in a large multilingual crowd will recognize. As Darrell Guder writes, “The full confession of God’s grace and glory can only take place through the assembled choirs of all human tongues and cultures.”
This raises other questions, however. If human languages continue in the age to come, will they continue to change and grow? Will language continue to have limitations? We need to remember that the Bible doesn’t take these questions head-on; it only hints at answers.
Why teach English?
After all this talk about how Christ is glorified in linguistic diversity, you may be wondering: why bother teaching English (or any common language) at all? Won’t sinful humanity just tend to recreate Babel?
Your English teaching can empower immigrants
Because English is the language of power in many contexts, it can enable marginalized immigrants to self-advocate. A grasp of English can help them both to prosper in their work and to protect themselves and their resources from exploitation. English teaching is a practical way that English-speaking Christians can share power with minority-language immigrants. In fact, English teaching in an English-dominant society creates more power. This is how all teaching works. When you teach someone else how to do something (like how to fill out a form), at the end of the lesson, they have gained the power to fill out a form, and you still have that power. You haven’t lost anything except time, of which both of you have given equally. Power isn’t a zero-sum game: as it’s shared, it grows. (Thanks to Andy Crouch for this insight.)
“You know the heart of a sojourner” – so don’t squelch native language and culture
There is a danger inherent in these contexts, however: teachers can carry expectations (conscious or unconscious) that English learners will assume the ways of the dominant culture. English can be taught in such a way that devalues and even replaces a native language and culture. This should not be! Christians should be particularly sympathetic to the situation of the immigrants who desire not to assimilate, but to maintain their distinct identity while living responsibly in their host country. Perhaps the clearest statement of this principle is in Exodus 23: “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Hebrews 13 and 1 Peter 2 provide more thorough treatments of Christians as “sojourners.” Because of the gospel, Christians who teach English should be deeply compassionate towards their students who, linguistically if not nationally, are living as “resident aliens.”
This is where you come in. If you’ve read this far and your interest is piqued, you’re invited to join the conversation at a work-in-progress theology of teaching English. If you know other Christians who are involved in teaching English, please share it with them as well.
Victor King teaches ESOL for Carroll County Public Schools and Towson University. He lives and plays in Baltimore with his wife and their daughter. They worship at Faith Christian Fellowship, where he is training for pastoral ministry. You can contact him here.
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