Transcending the Language Barrier

God has a great sense of humor. I am never at a loss for words – unless I can’t speak the language. In ministry, my husband and I travel all over the world. I am more often than not in a situation where I cannot speak the language.

We minister often in Poland. I don’t speak Polish. We go frequently to Spanish speaking countries. I can’t speak Spanish. Although we lived in Germany, I only learned a small amount of German. We spent a year ministering in France. I don’t speak French. We have traveled to Austria, Portugal, Italy, Ukraine, China and countries in the Middle East where English is not the national language. Not once could I do what I do in America – meet people on the streets and carry on a conversation.
Although I would very much like to get to know people on these trips, I am handicapped because I can’t communicate in their mother tongue. I often give locals who want to practice their English a workout, but I would rather speak to them in their own language. I wish I had a gift for languages. I don’t.
The common denominator in all these places is that someone I work with speaks English. I must rely on her for all the information about the area, how to conduct myself, how to shop and use the transportation system, etc. For those dear friends who are gifted in multiple languages, I pray that God will especially bless them for their service. I couldn’t do what I do without them.

I am able, however, many times to get my point across without using the local language.  There are a few things that transcend the language barrier.

In a special service in Poland, for instance, I had a meaningful worship experience even though I didn’t understand a word that was spoken. What I did understand, through song, message, testimonies and tears, was a love for God and a desire to praise Him. The language barrier was transcended by the common bond I have with the family of God. His Spirit was with us all.

Music is a special language all of itself. Familiar tunes to hymns and choruses I hear in church services around the world make me feel at home and connected with the other worshippers.

I try to learn a few phrases in each language, especially “Good day” and “thank you.” I find myself repeating those expressions over and over again, sometimes appropriately, sometimes not. My mispronunciations are received with good-natured laughter.

Everyone is complimented when you at least try to greet them in their mother tongue. Occasionally, I will learn an additional phrase. In China, I also learned the expression “God bless you.” I will never forget the smiles on the faces of some of my new friends as I left and said, “God bless you” in Chinese.

Although I must be careful about how I do this, sometimes charades works. Resulting in lots of laughter, physical demonstrations can communicate.

Intentional presence makes a statement. Even among English speakers, many times, just “being there” is the preferred message of the moment. Sometimes there is nothing that can be said to remedy a situation. Presence can transcend the language barrier. Facial expressions and mere presence can communicate, “I’m here because I care.”

Expressions of greetings are different in every country. They vary from a handshake to a one cheek kiss to a two cheek kiss to a bow to a big hug. Even though I try to find out what is practiced locally, sometimes I just do what is natural for me and give a big hug. I have yet to have someone chide me for this even when it is not common. Especially when I greet another woman, our eyes meet and there is a big returning smile, when I give her a hug, she returns it with gusto. It always seems to communicate.

Although I know my handicap will not be a problem in heaven, my attempts to communicate here result in a lot of laughter. God does have a sense of humor.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28)

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