In the year 2000, when I was 28 years old, I became a child again.
We had come to Albertville, France, for a year of full-immersion language study. I had been warned it would be difficult, but I was unprepared for the humility it required- the loss of self, and self-reliance, and self-confidence. And the isolation that happens when nobody speaks your language.
Je Ne Parle Pas Français
We arrived in the middle of the night, in December, in the French Alps, speaking no French. The people who picked us up at the train station spoke no English. All communication that night was done by pointing and nodding and guessing. That was just the first day, but didn’t get any better on the second day, or the third, or the fourth.
In that first week, I went to a laundromat and didn’t know that the sign on the dryer that said en panne meant it was out of order until I had already dropped my coins in. The French man who pointed it out to me didn’t do a very good job of hiding his smirk, and I was embarrassed that I couldn’t even do something so simple.
I went to a grocery store and a woman stopped me and asked me a question. I had to shrug and say the one phrase I knew. Je ne parle pas français. She laughed uncomfortably, made an apologetic gesture and moved on. I was lonely, separated from everyone around me by a wall I hadn’t scaled yet.
I took the kids to school, and the teacher tried to tell me something about my child. Had he done something wrong? Had he done something right? Had I just forgotten to sign a piece of paper? With the help of an intern who spoke a tiny bit of English, I figured out that they didn’t approve of the way I had dressed him for the winter weather. I was frustrated, both that I couldn’t understand, or be understood.
I went to church and didn’t understand a single word. I had the words to the songs on a paper in front of me, but didn’t know how to pronounce them. Didn’t understand the sermon. Spent the whole message daydreaming about home. I was hungry, realizing I would have to find God again on my own, in my own language.
But one day, several weeks into our stay, I went to Géant, the French Walmart, and there was music playing in the speakers overhead. I wasn’t paying attention to it until something in my subconscious tugged at the sleeve of my consciousness. “Hey. Did you hear that? English!”
Did you hear that? English!!!
I stopped, right in the middle of the store, with a cart full of groceries, and listened. It was so stupid. Brittany Spears singing “Oops I did it again.” Sugary pop music and utterly absurd. But it was English and something inside me latched onto it and wouldn’t let go.
Months passed and I started to learn French. I went into the chocolate shop and could haltingly ask for a raspberry truffle. I went to the Farmer’s Market and could ask to try a taste of the goat cheese. (It’s amazing. I highly recommend it.) And each week, I understood a little bit more of the sermon, was able to sing more and more of the songs, and could tell my son’s teacher that he was dressed fine, but thank you for your concern.
But still, I loved that Géant’s playlist played that song over and over again. Loved that McDonalds had USA Today in English. Loved that I could sometimes find a book in English in the bookstore.
Finding a little bit of English was always like being handed a cup of hot coffee, out of the blue, on a really cold morning.
That’s because my heart speaks English. It’s my mother language, or what is also referred to in cross-cultural circles as my “heart language.”
A heart language is the single language that speaks the most powerfully, tenderly, intimately, or personally, to a person’s heart.
Speaking someone’s heart language matters. I’m not talking about “thanks for the chocolate. You’re speaking my language. ” I’m not talking about the five love languages. I’m talking about the fact that every human being has an actual language that speaks directly to their heart, no matter how many languages they speak. It’s usually the one whispered to them in the cradle, or in their earliest days.
Bible translators know the power of the heart language. It’s one of the most compelling reasons to continue translating the Bible into every language on earth. Because even people who have access to scripture in a language they speak deserve to hear about the love of God in a language that speaks directly to their heart. Organizations such as Wycliffe and SIL are still actively translating the Bible into as many languages as possible.
In a multi-lingual setting, such as where we work in West Africa, the heart language is really important. There are somewhere between 1,500- 2,000 languages on the continent. Most people are bi-lingual or even multi-lingual, and in many cases, children don’t learn the official language of their nation until they go to school. So in our part of Africa, while most people understand French or English to varying degrees, these foreign languages just don’t speak to their heart the way their own language does.
Speaking someone’s heart language is the most powerful and effective way to communicate the love of God.
Pretty big talk for a missionary who only speaks english and french.
We spent a year in France, and it’s been seventeen years since then. We speak adequate French, which means that between French and English, we can communicate with most people in all of the countries we are actively working in. But we work in sixteen different nations. One nation, the country of Cote d’Ivoire, has over sixty different languages. It would be impossible for us to learn every heart language. But we do use translators who speak the local language. Is it ideal? No. A personal connection through the language of the heart would be ideal. But in our case, it’s not feasible.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Where we live, in Lomé, Togo, the primary tribal language is Ewe. (Eh-vay) We speak a few words of Ewe and are picking up more and more as time goes on. On any given day, I am probably pointing to half a dozen things in my home and asking my housekeeper what the Ewe word for it is. She says it and I try to pronounce a word that either sounds like a conga line of vowels or like a bunch of consonants doing the tango. She laughs and I try again.
But I’m trying. And that’s what matters. And when I go to the market, or to the church, or anywhere out into daily life, and I say Mawu ne yrami , they usually look at me funny for a minute. Then I try again, and it dawns on them that even though I’m butchering the pronunciation, I’m saying “God bless you” in their heart language.
Without fail, their faces light up. Sometimes they shake my hand, or laugh, or even hug me. It’s powerful.
People matter to the heart of God. If we care about people, we should make an effort to understand that every human being has a heart language, and that it isn’t always English. And that there is power in leaving room for someone’s heart language.
Maybe we should try to understand this in America too.