Teaching the Language of the Gospel in Trump’s America

A BCC reader contacted us with a request for help navigating potential pitfalls in preparing to teach a lesson based on a talk by Elder Valeri V Cordón. This is my response, and I hope you will join the discussion too. 

Introduction

That language isn’t simply a vehicle for, among other things, communicating feelings but also the source of powerful emotions became abundantly clear to me one evening in 2002 when I attended a public discussion on the theme “Decline of the German Language?” in Salzburg, Austria. 

Sponsored by a local newspaper and inspired by the growing influence of English through the media and the internet, the discussion began with presentations by several panelists—journalists and linguists—more or less agreeing that languages change over time and that this is nothing to be especially concerned about. One panelist noted, for example, that the German language had survived the centuries-long period when French was the continental lingua franca, and while the French influence left behind whole vocabularies in the fields of war and peace, no one bats an eye at saying Infanterie or Diplomatie in German today.

Once the experts had taken their seats, the public was invited to stand and comment. And comment they did. One person after another—all middle-aged and older—stood up and recited lists of English words that they had heard in a German context, invariably noting that there were perfectly good German words for all of these terms and sharing great concern about the direction their language and society at large was heading.

One of the offending words I can still recall was “outdoor”; if the speaker is still alive today, he would be disappointed that the word is firmly anchored in the idiom and shows no signs of budging. A quick glance yesterday at the homepage of the newspaper that sponsored the event shows that even the paper of record has embraced English, including: Events, fake, Iron Girl (sporting event), Transferticker (updates on football team transfers), Liveticker (updates on President Macron’s visit to Salzburg), Fairness, Singles (those who are looking for partners), XL, Software-Update, Online, Musical, Talent Award, Sportcenter, Star (in this case Wayne Rooney), Happy Birthday, high end, TV-Studio, Lifestyle, Card and, last but not least, Outdoor.

That night, the experts with their descriptivist leanings were powerless to stem the flood of emotion that spilled out in response to the frustration among the retiring generation that they were likewise powerless to stop the rising generation from adopting English expressions into everyday usage.

The concern that one’s native tongue is beleaguered by foreign influences is of course not unique to German speakers, and it can be felt by both those who speak the predominant language of a particular region and those who belong to linguistic minorities.

The Language of the Gospel

I mention the above as a preface to the concern raised by Elder Valeri V Cordón in a talk delivered at the April 2017 General Conference:

After being called as a General Authority, I moved with my family from Costa Rica to Salt Lake City for my first assignment. Here in the United States, I have been blessed to visit wonderful people of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures. Among them are many who, like me, were born in the countries of Latin America.

I have noticed that many of the first-generation Hispanics here speak Spanish as their primary language and enough English to communicate with others. The second generation, who were either born in the United States or came at an early age and attend school here, speak very good English and perhaps some broken Spanish. And often by the third generation, Spanish, the native language of their ancestors, is lost.

His talk piqued my interest as I am a native English speaker living in a German-speaking country where I speak German with my spouse and in-laws and English with my daughter. At work I use both and am exposed to a third language spoken natively by the overwhelming majority of my co-workers.

In my experience, there is simply no substitute for exposure. Here, I am my daughter’s exposure to English; everyone else she has contact with speaks German. Consequently, my daughter feels most comfortable speaking German, and in the past it has taken several days of immersion when visiting my side of the family back in the US to overcome her self consciousness enough to begin using English.

Though I am no expert in language acquisition, it seems apparent that, all things being equal, speakers of a minority language would experience language loss from generation to generation. Elder Cordón’s talk addresses this, while also suggesting how strategies that preserve proficiency in minority languages—powerful teaching, strong modeling, avoidance of unholy traditions—could be used to likewise preserve the language of the gospel defined as the “teachings of our prophets, our obedience to those teachings, and our following righteous traditions” (emphasis mine):

Today in my analogy, I would like to emphasize not any particular earthly language but rather an eternal language that must be preserved in our families and never lost.
Language loss may happen when families move to a foreign land where their native language is not predominant. It happens […] among populations throughout the world where a native language is replaced in favor of a new one. Even Nephi […] was concerned about losing the native language of his fathers when he was preparing to move to the promised land. Nephi writes, “Behold, it is wisdom in God that we should obtain these records, that we may preserve unto our children the language of our fathers.” […] We can therefore conclude that powerful teaching is extremely important to preserve the gospel in our families, and it requires diligence and effort.
One factor that influences language loss is when parents don’t spend time teaching their children the native language. It is not enough to merely speak the language in the home. If parents desire to preserve their language, it must be taught. Research has found that parents who make a conscious effort to preserve their native language tend to succeed in doing so. […] It is not enough just to talk to our children about the importance of temple marriage, fasting, and keeping the Sabbath day holy. They must see us making room in our schedules to attend the temple as frequently as we can. They need to see our commitment to fasting regularly and keeping the entire Sabbath day holy.
Another way language can be altered or lost is when other languages and traditions are mixed with a mother tongue. […] As families, we need to avoid any tradition that will prevent us from keeping the Sabbath day holy or having daily scripture study and prayer at home.

Again, I’m not an expert, but the concerns Elder Cordón outlines strike me as plausible in light of my own experience, his suggested remedies straightforward and his qualification sufficient. The Church is even doing some modeling of its own by organizing wards and branches that allow speakers of minority languages in some regions to worship in their native tongue (or at least a language more familiar than the predominant one). According to this paper, “Integration into multicultural, multilingual units was based on the ideal—and idealized—philosophy that gospel unity produces social unity.” So what possible problems might arise in teaching a lesson based on this talk?

Potential Minefields

As I illustrated in the introduction, you don’t have to belong to a minority to feel that your language—and with it your culture and way of life—is under siege. In fact, even powerful majorities can be persuaded that the influence of relatively powerless minorities is a(n existential) threat. For example, the dramatic influx of refugees since 2015 where I live has fanned great concern about the emergence of ethnic ghettos in a city that has prided itself in the accomplishments of its forebears in avoiding the kinds of neighborhoods that plague, say, Paris. While locals might be inclined to live and let live when the numbers of new arrivals are very low, the dramatic scenes of unstoppable masses on the border in the fall of 2015 have cemented the notion that anyone planning to stay has a duty to proactively integrate without delay.

In this light, a language ward or branch would not be seen as a way for the speakers of a minority language to reinforce the language of the gospel in their homes and communities. Far from producing unity—gospel or otherwise—ethnic congregations impede cultural and social integration and are a pox on the Body of Christ. At least that was the thrust of the argument advanced by a fellow white North American who was upset by the Church’s statement last week on the situation in Charlottesville declaring “white culture” out of “harmony with the teachings of the Church”:

Hmmmm, ok “white culture” is out, fine. That would also mean that every other “culture” in the church is out as well. No more special “language” wards in North America that only do one thing, separate the saints based on culture.

I don’t know how widespread such sentiments are and if they are limited to semi-anonymous social media interactions, but a BCC reader is concerned that the current political climate in the US might encourage members bring their politics to Sunday school (it certainly has even way over here, so the worry seems reasonable enough) and embolden the sharing of views that one previously refrained from expressing in polite company:

In light of what has happened since Friday, however, all I see when I read this talk is how someone might twist the words and the message to promote a “preserve the white culture” mindset.  Suddenly I am terrified to teach this talk for fears that such claims would be mentioned or interpreted during the lesson.

Might your readers have any advice on (1) how to address such an ideology should it ever arise in a class and (2) how to politely and without disrupting the Spirit make it clear that this talk (or any other) is not about preserving or protecting an “earthly” (a word Elder Cordón uses) culture?

What do you say?
Update: A related article was published yesterday in the NYT: Spanish Thrives in the U.S. Despite an English-Only Drive

Comments

  1. Elizabeth says:

    It has been my experience that the lesson rarely goes political unless the teacher takes it there (at least in our ward.) As long as you stay firmly on topic there should not be a problem. Also, as a side note, our son and his wife attended a Spanish branch for many years, in Utah. They all spoke the Spanish language, but there were many cultures, Mexican, Columbian, Venezuelan, Guatemalan, etc. I always wanted to attend on of their potlucks as our son said they were a veritable international smorgasbord. Finally, see Michael Austin’s BCC OP “White is not a Culture.” Good luck!

  2. This is an interesting angle. I think there are plenty of examples of topics that are ostensibly gospel-related but quickly pivot to political. To name a few:
    – self-reliance (and there is currently a big push for this with the church’s new curriculum).
    – religious freedom
    – anything related to gender or the Proclamation or motherhood or priesthood

    The problem with these is that to some, these are a dog whistle for conservative political views that are in vogue among the religious right. Self-reliance can mean anti-socialism or libertarianism to some. Religious freedom can mean anti-LGBT rights or open the wounds of a religious persecution complex to some. And gender stuff immediately creates a rift between those who see gender roles as rigid pronouncements not to be trifled with, and those for whom those norms don’t fit (as well as those who aren’t married, those who believe in equality, those who believe in more fluidity and accommodation).

    Basically, the problem is that people see religion through their political lens, not the reverse, and it’s true of pretty much everyone. There’s a real rise of nationalism right now, not just in the US, and these nationalist attitudes are in our congregations, barely contained.

  3. Paul Ritchey says:

    It seems to me that one can avoid pitfalls here by putting some analytic pressure on an assumption that must be made if a class member is to leap the void in Elder Cordon’s metaphor (to use a metaphor of my own).

    Namely, for an “ideology” to emerge in class that advocates for “preserving or protecting an ‘earthly'” culture or language in the same sense that we advocate for preservation (i.e., the superiority) of the gospel culture, the advocate needs to assume that the culture in question is so valuable that it is neccessarily superior in value to other cultures. After all, a parallel assumption is a premise in Elder Cordon’s argument – the “gospel language” is superior to all others, is necessary for value, is sine qua non in the human experience, etc. – because to assume otherwise leaves us merely with a preference-based judgment about the gospel, which is not the (implicit) conclusion of Elder Cordon’s argument. I’ll call this “superiority assumption” just that. It’s the assumption that many of us – including the middle-aged and older German objectors mentioned above – make about our own, and sometimes about others’, cultures. When applied to earthly cultures, the superiority assumption is questionable at best, and seems out of step with both argumentation and revelation on the subject.

    The “ideology” fails, then, because to leave out the flawed parallel superiority assumption in making the analogy back to earthly languages, as the advocate might, is merely to produce a fallacious, if appealing, disanalogy. The re-analogy (that is, leaping back over into preserving and protecting earthy cultures) only works if it contains the superiority assumption. Otherwise, the conclusion of Elder Cordon’s argument – that we ought to preserve the gospel culture as superior to competitors – results from a fundamentally different argument, and is thus not an analogy at all: the advocate has merely hijacked class discussion to foist upon the class his own opinion on a topic related only by coincidence (which would be unfortunate, but, unfortunately, not a surprise).

    Practically, you fight the disanalogy by pointing out that, unlike with respect to the gospel, neither Elder Cordon nor God has a preference as between one earthly culture and another.

    Apologies for the length – I hadn’t time to make it shorter.

  4. Basically, the problem is that people see religion through their political lens, not the reverse, and it’s true of pretty much everyone.

    I think this pretty well sums it up.

  5. Thank you Paul for that insightful comment.

  6. This may be Paul Ritchey’s thoughtful comment warmed over. That won’t stop me, but by way of credit.

    I would actively use the political lens. [Setting aside Michael Austin’s “no such thing” for this purpose] I would point out that I understand “white culture” to be a political movement promoting the idea that a Euro/(white) American WASP-y culture is (a) best, i.e., better than all others, and (b) requires dominance, i.e., “white” people in charge and in the majority. Then the Church’s declaration that “white culture” is not in harmony with the teachings of the Church can be understood not as a take-down of white people or Euro/white-American culture, but as a disavowal of the “best” and “dominance” themes.

    By contrast, the Church does teach that the Church’s teachings-message-gospel are best and will ultimately prevail. And worthy of our diligence and effort to preserve and promote. Per Elder Cordón, “powerful teaching is extremely important to preserve the gospel in our families, and it requires diligence and effort.”

    My personal view of the one and only doctrine would keep me out of the teacher’s seat for this lesson, but I believe the overall intent is to say no to any earthly language, but yes to the Church’s language.

    Note that I would use the “not in harmony” declaration both for pedagogical purposes and because I believe it to be an important message worth promoting and repeating.

  7. I have no desire to see minority languages being spoken in a different country. Would it be so bad if everyone in the world spoke the same language?

  8. Really good post, Peter. Still thinking this over.

  9. Would it be so bad if everyone in the world spoke the same language?

    Well, lingua francas are a thing, but language is always more than a communication tool, so in my view it’s as likely as a project to be realised as a one world government.

  10. Each language has a richness of its own. It would be very bad if the English language were to overtake, and diminish all of the other languages in this interesting world. I only know English and German. I know enough that German is extremely expressive, particularly as a written language, well beyond English. It would be such a loss to the world to loose all of that.

    So, the religious languages. It would be a huge loss to loose the language of, say Hinduism or Buddhism, as well as the nuances of Christian dialects.

    So Mormonism is to religion and White Supremacy is to culture. Those of us who have it know it is superior. ;)

  11. as – not and

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