This article has been sitting in my “guilt file” for a while. Last fall, Dan Edelstein wrote in Inside Higher Ed about the decline of foreign language requirements, leading off with this anecdote about a famous multilinguist:
When the young François-Marie Arouet was a student at the Jesuit collège Louis-le-Grand in 18th-century Paris, he spent many of his classroom hours studying Latin, along with a little ancient Greek. Had he ventured over to the nearby Collège Royal, today the Collège de France, he could have also taken lessons in Hebrew, Arabic, or Syriac. During a subsequent two-year stay in England, Arouet made it a priority to learn English; he would later pick up Italian. Upon his return, he published the Letters Concerning the English Nation (subsequently renamed the Lettres philosophiques), a founding text of the French Enlightenment, which established its author’s reputation as the philosophe called Voltaire.
Of course, Voltaire is hardly the only great thinker with a command of multiple languages. A quick survey of important Christian writers in English of the 20th century reads like a mini-MLA convention:
- C. S. Lewis – Medievalist who studied Latin and Greek as a boy and wrote criticism on French and Italian literature
- J. R. R. Tolkien – Philologist who translated works of Old and Middle English and Anglo-Saxon, learned Latin, French, and German as a boy, and, if his Wikipedia entry is to be believer, knew at least 21 other languages, not counting those he invented
- Dorothy Sayers – Translated works of Italian and French
- T. S. Eliot – Learned Latin, Greek, French and German in grade school, and later studied Sanskrit at Harvard, of all things
These writers have lots in common, but is there something important to be gained — by Christians, not just in general — from the study of languages? Is there something beyond the many other benefits of learning other languages that awaits Christians who make the effort? And, conversely, is there something that American Christians are in danger of losing because of our country’s infamous lack of language training?