Today’s post is an excerpt of a longer talk given by David Lyle Jeffrey in May 2019 at a conference sponsored by the Christian Association for World Languages (CAWL). We are thankful for the opportunity to share Dr. Jeffrey’s wisdom for the benefit of Christian scholars of all disciplines. His commitment to the importance and power of language learning for the cultivation of Christian virtue demonstrate yet another way Christ can animate learning.
—Perry Glanzer, Editor-in-Chief

Last night one of my sons, in a telephone conversation, apologized for calling in later than he promised because his two-year-old was having a meltdown–a tantrum, “a real howler,” he said–and he had finally to put him in his room and shut the door. Those of you who have raised children will know that these things happen frequently with two-year-olds; it’s part of that particular stage of their life during which children are very self-oriented. If they don’t get their way, they ‘go ballistic,’ right? It’s considerably less attractive, however, when somebody on an airplane goes ballistic because they couldn’t get Diet Pepsi served to their seat, or when people go ballistic in a McDonald’s restaurant because service is too slow or there is a mistake in their order. It’s less charming still to see that kind of narcissism, that self-centeredness, in an adult–as we know all too well from contemporary political leaders and Hollywood celebrities. It would be nice to be able to put some of these people in their room and shut the door. And yet we, in our culture, in our time, are far more tolerant of adult narcissism than we should be. 

That is what makes your theme for this conference so interesting to me. I am grateful for it. Cultivating virtues of any kind is much more difficult in an essentially narcissistic culture. Your theme virtues for this year’s conference are prudence, temperance, courage, and justice.  At least three of those require a minimum community context in which there are challenges to prompt our exercise and practice of those virtues. It occurs to me, and not just because I hang around with philosophers, that all virtues are, in some degree, vitiated by self-absorption and self-centering. Your virtuous theme is, I note, drawing on a secular model–a Roman and Stoic model–the cardinal virtues. The Stoics thought that virtues put into practice became second nature. As second nature they became the bones of good character. I think that something like the Stoic model is requisite for every culture that values training in the formation of civic virtues. 

It will obviously have occurred to you, as you chose this emphasis, that mainstream university culture has become something of a contradiction to such classical virtue formation, cultivating and rewarding in their place hyperbolic overstatement, intemperance, and merely clever snappishness, all while advocating advantages for some at the cost of real injustice for others. What is the result? Well, the result is that universities are now more concerned with students’ self-esteem than with their acquiring competencies. In practical terms, we’ve been permitting a turn inward, a kind of ego-centering, even in the communities of modern intellectual culture. One result of this is featured in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article reporting that 651 colleges and universities in the US have dropped their foreign language programs over the last three years. Even more had disappeared in prior yearsand there are no visible signs of that trend abating. 

In this context I regard you language teachers as noble warriors in a very important virtue struggle. You are called, I think, to be signs of contradiction to this narcissistic culture in which we find ourselves, and to negotiate for a healthy alternative in the lives of your students. This is not always an easy task. Nobody in this room will have failed to see that the very idea of foreign language instruction is now more contestable–contestable even by deans and senior administrators. You will have observed to your chagrin that defenses of modern foreign language learning on purely instrumentalist grounds have increasingly failed to impress those administrators. They are bent on attracting students to a kind of Club Med undergraduate paradise which will gratify their preoccupation with creature comforts and freedom from too much obligation to work hard. I want to suggest that, however belatedly, we should consider changing somewhat our apologia tactics. It’s not that what you do doesn’t have instrumental value–Lord knows it does–but I think advocating language learning along the lines of virtue formation you are talking about in this conference may be the right way to go now. 

Every foreign language class is an invitation to otherness. To the degree that we learn another language well enough to sojourn in that culture, we discover that culture to have insights refractory to our own, and these distinctives actually serve to fire our own imagination in a way that would have remained closed to us as a monoglot. When we learn a number of languages we discover still more–for example, that different grammatical structures make possible different orders of conceptualization. This is one of the great things that I learned, starting already as an undergraduate at Wheaton studying German and Russian along with Hebrew. If you know anything about German, indeed any Germanic language, you know that the subject-verb-object structure formally predicates a certain kind of logical progress through the idea going from subject into object. That’s the way it works, and in such syntax the subject is crucial. If you study Mandarin Chinese, you’ll discover that there are some very interesting and peculiar differences in this rather different isolating grammar. One is that the auxiliary functions of “to be” and “to have,” so common to Western European languages, don’t exist in the same way. Their functional formation is different, and this–especially, by the way, if you’re interested in philosophy–makes discussing “being” and “having” somewhat more challenging. 

In my advanced age I’ve decided to do something I’ve resisted all my life. I refused, when I was a boy, even though there were native speakers around me in the community where I was raised, to learn any Scotts Gaelic (pronounced ‘Gallic’). I thought it was an archaic, irrelevant tongue and it needed to be done away with. I am 78 now, and about at the age of 75 I thought, “I need to repent,” so I bought some materials. I still had a Scotts Gaelic Bible and I invested in a book offering some basic grammatical assistance. After a time, Katherine and I went to Cape Breton and I practiced. We enrolled in a Gallic folk song workshop. Then we went to Scotland and spent a couple of weeks immersing ourselves out on the Isle of Skye, which is where both of our ancestors came from. One of the things that struck me when I was doing that afforded an insight into the way that we think toward meaning. In Gaelic, it’s not subject-verb-object, it’s sometimes verb-subject-object, sometimes maybe verb-object-subject. The verb in the tense that it bears determines almost everything in the sentence. Because in Scots Gaelic nouns historically have not only prefixes and suffixes but also infixes, sound change over the centuries has created horrendous problems for trying to make a dictionary, but most importantly what this grammar still does is to infuse all locution with the centrality of the verb rather than the noun. And so, for those of you who may have at some point in your life wondered why Duns Scotus comes across a little bit differently than Thomas Aquinas on some of the same questions, you might start with thinking about the influence and inflection of first language learning on each. That the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins did think about the influence of Scotus’s first language was one of the reasons why in his poetry he experimented both with sprung rhythm and turning nouns into verbs. Hopkins had some interest in Gaelic (Welsh, actually, in his case) and in that particular common Celtic grammatical feature. 

Now, when you think about such matters for a while, you begin to realize that while considering the same subject or the same topic people from different groups are going to form understanding in different ways, and they are quite likely to produce different insights. Putting this all together in conversation can be an enormously rewarding experience. We are not quite the same person when speaking French as when speaking Italian, right? Even though both are romance languages. I’ve lived in both of those cultures–French culture mostly in Canada and Italian culture while studying for a while in Italy–and can bear witness that there are moments when we recognize that we, in fact, are comporting ourselves slightly differently in one language than in the other. What happens in the wake of such recognition is that we become more resistant to the monoglot prejudgments. For example, in French one says, “Le cœur connaît ses propres chagrins, et un étranger ne saurait partager sa joie.” That’s a quotation from Proverbs 14:10. Instead of the plural “chagrins” the Italian has amarezza; while the English has “bitterness” translating Hebrew mareth.  Amarezza is a very interesting word, meaning “regret” as well as “bitterness.” But chagrins does not mean the same thing as English “chagrin.” In French this is a word charged with a sense of the loss of opportunity; it implies remorse about a time when you failed to act–when you didn’t do something you ought to have done. The memory of it still lingers in your consciousness. You can’t say that sentence in French without feeling that feeling. The Italian easily turns into something like, “the spirit of vindictiveness”; if you know Italian culture, amarezza is frequently used in that way.

When speaking another language we’re typically also more deferential to the opinions of others. When we drop into another language environment, most of us find ourselves thinking, “well, maybe I need to put a check on what I was about to say.” And that is a wonderfully virtuous learning experience. 

So, I have suggested today, and I’m going to conclude with this suggestion, that modern foreign language learning has a potential to be a kind of cultural psychopharmicon, a cultural medicine apropos for social health as well as the health of families and individuals. It’s necessary for teenagers to understand that “mine” is not the only point of view. A linguistic introduction to epistemic humility may be one of the most practical benefits of properly conducted study abroad programs. I like to think of all language learning as having the potential not just for acquiring mechanics and some fluency but also for acquiring the sense that the individual mind is not the only source of intelligence. One of the most salutary experiences a student can have is to be placed in a multilingual environment long enough to see how language difference both nuances and advantages mutual understanding. 

I want to offer a tribute to a still-living language teacher of mine. I had the blessing of being taught German and Russian by a woman named Alice Naumoff. Alice was a converted Jew from a Polish-Russian background, and when she came to Wheaton College she was the most “different” person you could think of. She was impossibly funny, and not just because of her Crown Heights/Brooklyn accent. She taught her classes in a way that I’d never experienced before, or since. One thing she used to do when she knew you were in both her classes is to ask us to “Say that in German,” and she’d write those words on the blackboard, and then, “Okay, now say it in Russian,” and write again.  “Okay, now, here’s the Yiddish. What are the differences?” So she’d put us right on the spot, and force us to think about cultural differentiation through language.  Languages, like people, have personalities.

I’ll give you an example: Alice Naumoff once called on me, “Jeffrey, what is it to say ‘welcome’ in French?” “Bienvenue. She said, “Yes, quite true form. What is it to say it in German?” “Willkommen.  “ExactlyIf you want to show more sincerity you have to say herzlich willkommen. And then you get a little closer to warmth.” Then she asked,“So now, what is it to say it in Russian?” Well, I’d been reading quite a lot of Russian fiction, and I thought, “what do people say when people come to the door?” I had no idea. And she said, “I’ll tell you. It’s dobro pozhalovat.’

Now, dobro pozhalovat’ actually has to do with the custom of greeting somebody by kissing them on both cheeks. So, unfortunately, two years ago we had some Russian guests at our house for dinner; they were medical practitioners from Belarus and not of that earlier, more poetic generation. I saw them coming to the door, and I said, looking at this woman who I’d never met before, and her husband, who I had, and I said “dobro pozhalovat’” and her husband started to glower. He said, “Why do you want to kiss my wife?”  I was using an archaic idiom that I had been taught, and was acutely embarrassed to be rather painfully out of touch with post-Soviet colloquial usage. Nevertheless, one of the things I treasure from that error is it reminded me again, just how expressive and emotional Russian is by comparison to some other languages. 

At the same time as I was studying with Alice, I was taking Hebrew from Walt Kaiser. He taught me Old Testament, in courses at the graduate as well as undergraduate level. Walt Kaiser was a most wonderful teacher, energetic and deeply philological. I loved the language, and I remember very well the class where he had us reading Exodus 3 and we’d come to verse 14. The Hebrew has God offer from the burning bush a concise analysis of his name Yahweh, a play on hawah, the verb “to be”:  eyeh asher ehyeh. So, Kaiser asked, “is the name of God a noun?” We hesitated.  “Well, actually it’s a verb. What difference does that make?” 

Good question!  I happened to have from my childhood a wonderful seventeenth-century book, the title of which–you’ll get this right away–is Le Verbe IncarnéThe Incarnate Verb. Not le mot. So what does the divine name as verb imply when we start to think about Exodus 3:14 in relation to the first chapter of John’s gospel? Just possibly it helps us better understand what at the deepest grammatical level the Incarnation is–and thus more clearly who God is. The verb puts the emphasis not on anything static, but on the dynamic and transitive character of God both as Creator and as Redeemer. This is one place where I think Luther missed an opportunity. He translated John 1:1 as “ Im anfang war das Wort,” taking the edge off what might perhaps have been better here rendered with Zeitwort. So, theology is frequently well served by the interplay of languages. 

In our own teaching context, I think that students need affectionate but firm reminders that there is more to wholistic health than self-advertisement and self-esteem. Learning languages is, among other things, a royal road to a better, more mature understanding of the self. In short, a robust dose of language learning is both purgative and restorative. It helps to develop virtues, not only the four cardinals that you have identified, but also other virtues whose practice forms good character. In a Christian environment, which I think most of you teach in, one indispensable virtue is clearly love of neighbor. And when we have a student culture or a university culture which does not value language learning sufficiently and for the right reasons, allowing students to minimize or maybe drop foreign language learning altogether, our lassitude is a betrayal of Christian principle. It seems as though we do not love these neighbors as ourselves. Administratively, the will not to love the neighbor as oneself through language learning needs to be advocated, not repressed, I suggest, on these grounds. In fact, language learning, the enterprise in which you are all engaged, cultivates many virtues, both secular and sacred, cardinal and theological. If you’ll permit me to say this in a translated Gaelic way, in virtue education it helps a lot to put the verb back into play.

 I want to close with a poem. I thought of a Russian poem, but I don’t know if people would understand it. I did do some translating of poetry at one point in my life, and though it can be impossibly difficult, I gained greatly by the attempt. But here’s a poem in English that says something a little bit like what Boris Pasternak was trying to say in one of his lovely Russian poems. It’s an untitled sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and if you listen attentively to my recitation, you’ll recognize that the octave, the first part of the sonnet, presents a kind of problematique, namely the ever insistent self, to which the sestet has a redemptive answer. So here’s Hopkins’ (untitled) poem:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

—And features of their languages too.

May you teach the virtues that Hopkins teaches—in whatever language you teach. 

David Lyle Jeffrey

Baylor University
David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University.