Tag Archive: language


Following closely in the footsteps of, ‘Breaking Bread [with Trev]: Changing Your Mind’ comes ‘Finding the Words’, the second post in a Tandem Blog Conversation piece which sees a conversation of 5x100ish words each, this time on the topic of the languages we speak [or don’t]:

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Brett: My wife and i started learning isiXhosa just over a month ago which is exciting and long overdue. With a hope of being involved in conversations dealing with race, unity, reconciliation it felt like an absolutely critical part of the relationship building that is happening and still needs to. You are all about connections Trevor and the focus of your blog is on positivity and life. What are some other ways you have discovered that prove helpful when it comes to bridge-building or drawing people together?

Trev: Languages are absolutely key at drawing people together and I am embarrassed that I can only speak English well. I have taken stabs, but need to understand and get over the barriers that stop a proper effort. John Mcinroy is putting in big bridge building efforts. I think that he and Robert Le Brun did this year walking from Cape Town to the start of the Comrades, was an incredible additional step. What we have spoken about though, is how much better it would be for conversations if, while talking, the talking could be in languages which make people feel comfortable and connected.

Brett: i think it is one of the biggest blind spots and areas of entitlement [wow, there’s a minefield word i haven’t gone near yet in my blogging] in South Africa right now. The expectation that someone of another race should speak to me in my language. And i say ‘blind spot’ because it’s not an intentional choice most of us have decided on. We’ve just always had it and so it becomes a natural expectation. Which perhaps is entitlement in its worst form. Hopefully a rich arrogant racist tosser already knows in part that they are that, but for us ‘normal folks’ just trying to live well we perhaps need to be shaken a little bit more by the reality of this?

Trev: I think we need to admit that English is a very useful language. People want to learn it. I found being in Sweden and Finland instructive. They welcomed me speaking English as a chance for them to practice. I didn’t have to do the ‘speak in Afrikaans and then hesitantly mention English’ thing I was taught to do in France. The fact is there are thousands of small languages that don’t have the global support of movies, books, theatre, music etc. that make them easier to learn. Think of the difficulty Gluten Free people face going anywhere other than Starbucks and McDonalds. As Global Citizens, I think showing an effort… learning Please, Thankyou etc. and learning any other languages is the important thing. Learning to empathise with the difficulty of struggling to get your point across.

Brett: Perhaps it is a little different in South Africa because of the sheer numbers. English first language speakers are in the minority and so expecting someone to speak in your language [which might be their third or in some cases seventh or eighth even] feels a little lop-sided. I imagine the same would apply in Sweden or Finland if you lived there – that you would need to make a bigger effort to speak the local language. The first step is definitely learning greetings and the basics but my personal conviction has been that I need to try and learn as much as possible so as to start bridging the gaps. Actually the process of learning from and with someone can be huge as a means of relationship building in itself.

Trev: Absolutely, living somewhere makes a difference to which languages you would choose to learn. I like the idea of being a Global Citizen, and so in trying to prioritise which languages to try I have been looking at where it could open up the most connections. French and Arabic seem to me the most useful in an African context when combined with English. Because of its dominant colonial history, Spanish is one that would open up many conversations. Gabe Wyner from ‘Fluent Forever’ is doing some epic work on language learning. His method starts with the most common words, and getting pronunciation correct. Then it is all about creating connections to words, so you aren’t ‘translating in your head’.

Brett: i should take a look at that as i can definitely use as much help as i can get. My wife and i are studying through an organisation called Xhosafundis  but there is huge emphasis on finding a practice partner to meet with regularly and to just be brave and start speaking to people you meet on the street. The theory can be helpful but you need to dive into what feels like the deep end [what if i mess up? what if i’m embarrassed? /oh no. Really?] to really see how your language is coming along. A little bit of embarrassment, laughter [on their part] and stuttering [on mine] feels like it is worth it if i end up being able to engage in some kind of meaningful conversation starters at least. The Global Citizen question really changes this whole conversation. Mandarin, anyone?

Trev: It does. Zulu, my first stumbling attempt at a third language has 10 million native speakers. Roughly the same as Czech. Xhosa, my second stumbling attempt at a third language has about 8 million. About the same as Belarussian. Mandarin (935m), Spanish (390m), Hindi (310) and Arabic (295) are in a different league. Borders are stupid. I think we live under a system of Global Apartheid where passports are dompasses. Learning to get over the emotional stumbling blocks and getting to the point of a Xenophilic exchange of flavour is very exciting. We can choose the best from everywhere and build a bigger tribe. Social media helps make borders redundant, but I am very aware that all of my exchanges are currently in English. Learning a new language is like getting a new passport. It opens up the world.

by Jroehl

Brett: That is true. But it does feel very overwhelming and when you put it like that [in terms of your border talk] even more so. One language we can all speak and understand feels like the way forward but i imagine none of us will be too quick to volunteer that that language not be our own. We clearly can’t learn every language and be able to have everyone in our tribe or community and so it makes sense to me that this becomes an area we are intentional about. Understanding which language groups of people are most going to be in the circles i choose to move in i should make my language learning decisions based on that. But at the very least be prepared to step beyond the comfort of just doing and expecting everything to be done in my own language.

Trev: I think the key point is a shared journey of going beyond our comfort zone. I am no expert on the starting, but think most of the barriers are emotional rather than walls that can’t be broken. Google Translate and Artificial Intelligence might help us with the factual translation. Imagine a world where we have personal UN style translators sitting in our ears. I am a big believer in making small attainable goals. Creating habits. Your suggestion of having groups and people who want to learn helping each is a good one. Partnering with someone who wants to learn English and speaks a language you want to learn sounds like a great idea. Like a running buddy, feeling some sort of responsibility towards them gets you out of bed early. After all, it isn’t the language that is the important thing. It is the relationships.

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You can take a look at Trevor Black’s first guest post on my blog, titled ‘One Person who Gives me Hope in South Africa’ as well as taking a look at his blog, ‘Swart Donkey’.

[To see our conversation about People Changing their Mind Mid Conversation, click here] 

i like the english language. i like it to do my bidding!

and so for years now i have played around with it, removing most capital letters [except for words associated with God like Love, Grace and Justice when i mean them in a God-related way way], changing nouns into verbs [see “vibe” and “vibing”] and other parts of speech, spelling words in my own unique, often phonetical way [thort for the week] or sometimes just adding in letters that don’t make a lot of sense just because they feel like they make sense in my mind [thankx] and more.

turns out i’m not the only one:

Calvin manipulates the word

we like me some Calvin and Hobbes…

i also very much like the three dots, and i know they have an official name, but i don’t like that so much [but please do remind me what it is again] so i will stick with ‘the three little dots’ thank you very much… i end way too many sentences with them.

but not that one…

it’s a life to the full thing i think. you do only live less than twice so you might as well have fun with it. is it silly? absolutely. but it’s my quirk [well one of them]. some people wear make-up. i don’t generally wear make up so think of this as the make-up of my speech or at least my written speech. the three dots are my mascara.

what about you? any words you deliberately change or misspell? any conventions you like to cut corners on? do you too like ending sentences a preposition with? cos rumours are you can’t!

however, i am still a bit of a ‘there’ ‘they’re’ ‘their’ stickler so please keep those in Hors d’oeuvre!

that is all…

…continuing with an extract from the ‘Why I am Mystical/Poetic’ from Brian Mclaren’s ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’

‘This mystical/poetic approach takes special pains to remember that the Bible itself contains precious little expository prose. Rather it is story laced with parable, poem, interwoven with vision, dream and opera (isn’t this the best contemporary genre to compare to the book of Job?), personal letter and public song, all thrown together with an undomesticated and unedited artistic passion. Even Paul, who, at the hands of lawyers like Luther and Calvin comes out looking (we shouldn’t be surprised) like a lawyer – and who at the hands of prose scholars comes out sounding like a prose scholar – needs to be reappraised in this regard. Have you noticed how he resorts to poetry in Romans 11, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1?

Yes, this element can be pushed too far, straining both generosity (by asking us to condone every vision or dream proclaimed by an array of kooks, nuts, charlatans) and orthodoxy (by asking us to ignore doctrinal nonsense promoted in the name of mystical experience). Kyriacos Markides describes the needed balance well:

Christianity, a Catholic bishop in Maine once told me, has two lungs. One is Western, meaning rational and philosophical, and the other Eastern, meaning mystical and otherworldly. Both, he claimed, are needed for proper breathing… Both the mystical and the rational approaches to God were part of the early church. They were only set asunder by subsequent historical developments.

Perhaps this balanced approach means that serious theologians in the years ahead will more often, along with their scholarly work, write poetry, or make films, or compose music, or write plays and novels – not as their avocation, but right along with their primary theological vocation. Can we celebrate this kind of artistic play as the serious work of generously orthodox Christians?

I used to be embarrassed that I work as a pastor and write books on theological topics, yet have no formal training in theology, having snuck into ministry through the back door of the English department. Even though I’ve been on a seminary’s board of directors, even though I am adjunct faculty at several seminaries, and even though I have spoken to many seminary presidents and faculty and I have deep respect for the work of seminaries – and, in fact, have received an honorary doctorate from a respected seminary – I myself have never taken a single for-credit seminary class.

Even though I am unapologetically pro-education, believing that our need is not for less education for Christian leaders, but rather for better, deeper, broader education, I’m not so embarrassed by my lack of “proper credentials” anymore. In fact, I can see God’s guidance in it. My graduate training was in literature and language, which sensitized me to drama and conflict, to syntax and semantics and semiotics, to text and context, to prose and poetry. It gave me a taste, a sense, a feel for the game and science and art and romance of language. It helped me to see how carefully chosen and clear, daring words can point to mysteries and wonders beyond words. It prepared me to see how a generous orthodoxy must be mystical and poetic.

There’s mystery and poetry in everything, really, if we have eyes to see, ears to hear: in botany, in biology, in history, in architecture, in medicine, in mathematics, even in astronomy – as Carl Sagan’s movie Contact made so clear. In fact, as we learn a generous orthodoxy, we become more and more prepared to see the mystery and poetry everywhere, to hear it, to feel it, and to sing.’

last nite at enGAGE (our sunday evening vineyard church congregation weekly gathering) we held an open mic vibe

not after ‘church’, not on a different day to ‘church’, not instead of ‘church’, but as church, and it was great

it was a celebration of some of the talents and giftings that God has placed in different people in our group and so we sat around tables and munched on chips and sweets and spinach and feta rolls (as one does) we watched some Flight of the Conchords (a band parodying a parody band and they nailed it!) and heard some songs and saxophone and watched some magically illusioned tricks performed by the Roy (who also excellently mc’d the event) and some photos on the big screen and some poetry (in two different languages) and hung out and gave God thankx and vibed

and then everyone pretty much got involved in the cleaning (you know, all the smashed piggy banks and burnt cards on the floor curtesy of the Roy) and setting up of the hall and a bunch of us headed off to our weekly hangout at Ginos for some drinks and to hang out with American Phil just before he heads back home

some people, a lot of people, would not call what happened last night ‘church’ cos we didn’t read out of the bible or have an official worship team leading us in worship or have a thirty minute preach or any of that…

but we had biblical stuff happening, and we welcomed and celebrated and called on God and He was definitely there in the midst of us, we had some words on celebrating community and if you really wanted to you would find reference to all of it in Corinthians 12, and we definitely had some worship going on courtesy of Megs ‘mountain’ and other songs and Phil’s worship songs and the photos we got to witness and all the living in and celebrating of community we did…

i love being part of a church where that’s seen as ok, no more than ok, where that’s seen as church

i’m not saying that what happens on a Sunday week after week in traditional churches is not church, cos it is, or a part of it anyways, but i am definitely saying that other expressions, other celebrations, other gatherings, other instances can also be church as well

as one pastory type guy made a few congregations and gatherings awkwardly try join him in the past in singing this refrain to a Fall Out Boy parody chorus – “Church is the people, it is, not, the, place”

let’s break that box. let’s do church.

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