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Wouldn’t it make more sense for English-speaking students to study Chinese or Arabic instead of French, German, or Italian, those modern European languages whose standing as curricular mainstays has outlived the case to be made for preferring them? So asks John McWhorter in his blog at the New Republic . “Our sense of which foreign languages are key to a serious education cannot be founded on what made sense for characters in Henry James novels,” he writes.

Joe Carter’s link to that article back in December generated some heated comments at First Thoughts. A foreign language “helps one understand one’s own past,” one reader wrote. “If you are concerned about practical matters,” wrote another, “intensive instruction courses in Chinese or Japanese or Korean . . . would be in order.” In this battle, the modern European languages stand on one side of a bright line separating the “intellectual hobbyists,” as one commenter called them, from those who value global competence, which demands knowledge of major non-Western languages. On the same side as the Henry James school but on the far side of it are Latin, ancient Greek, and biblical Hebrew”classical languages that, being sacred and “dead,” are a harder sell even than French or Italian, at least to those whose allegiance to the secular and the present entails a disregard of the sacred and the past.

Underlying much of the disagreement about the value of learning these languages as opposed to those languages is the difference between calculative thinking and meditative thinking. In the tone of some of the comments you could hear the tension between those who want to savoir things”to acquire knowledge broadly, knowledge in the sense of information”and those who want to connaître them, to know them deeply, or intimately, in the sense in which we know our spouse or siblings or closest friends, the people we love.

Languages enable us to commune as well as communicate with each other. The primary purpose of Hebrew school, for example, is not to equip kids with just another modern language so that when they grow up they can do business in Israel, where Hebrew was deliberately revived in the first place and cultivated as a living language again because it was deemed crucial to Jewish identity. Reading, writing, and speaking Hebrew puts you in touch with the living past, with the inspired words of Moses, David, and the Prophets. It’s also a mark, like circumcision, that signifies your membership in your extended family, Jacob’s descendants, the approximately fifteen million Jews in the world today. It’s sacred. It’s why many Jews pray in Hebrew even if they don’t understand Hebrew and have to juggle when reading aloud from the siddur, keeping one eye on the words they’re sounding out and the other eye on the facing-page translation.

Many Catholics who attend the traditional Latin Mass operate in similar fashion, although, for those who have made the effort to learn the language, their comprehension of it intensifies the religious experience. When the priest at the altar turns to face the people and, holding up the consecrated host, the body of Christ, says, “Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi,” if you are immersed in the language of the Church you recognize the allusion to Pilate in Gabbatha, where, presenting Jesus to the crowd in Jerusalem, he says, as it’s translated in the Vulgate, “Ecce homo.” What the priest says in the English Mass, “Behold the Lamb of God,” has the same literal meaning as “Ecce Agnus Dei,” but the associations it leads you to make are less vivid. Robert Frost defined poetry as “what gets lost in translation.” The same might be said of sacred language. A succinct appreciation of its peculiar power is offered, for example, by Aidan Nichols in Looking at the Liturgy: A Critical View of Its Contemporary Form .

Some Catholic exorcists observe that, while fervent prayer aligned with Christ is effective in any language, it tends to be more so in Latin, although they’re not sure why. They’re only reporting their findings from the field. Their evidence is empirical, not doctrinal. For Jewish mystics, Hebrew in all of its dimensions, visual and aural and semantic, is pure oxygen, the air that we breathe and that gives us life. Learning a sacred language is a statement, an affirmation of religious identity, which is the public face of religious experience. The language itself is a temple, a place where religious experience is sought and found. The power inherent in all natural languages is magnified when the language is also sacred.

Granted, the reasons for Jews to study Hebrew or for Catholics to study Latin should not necessarily inform public policy about which foreign languages should be taught in public schools. But neither should public policy about which foreign languages should be taught in public schools dictate the decisions that we as observant Jews or Christians make about which languages we invest our time and energy in learning. At the moment, Chinese and Arabic are hot. They promise social and professional dividends. Biblical Hebrew, Latin, and ancient Greek will do little to help us swim in the new global economy. What they’re good for is helping us run with the communion of saints, who span the millennia.

They’re good for helping us understand the Bible, the Word of God, which for Christians is a person, who asks us to connaître him. This involves spending time with him, pondering the Word, contemplating it, mulling it over, chewing on it even. For an Orthodox Jew, the object of meditation is Torah, and the notion of meditating on it in translation would be almost inconceivable. You want the prize itself, not someone’s prosaic description of it.

By contrast, most Christians who meditate on scripture don’t consult it in the original languages. The argument is sometimes made that the gospel, which is to be preached to all the nations, is by its nature always a translation. For an image of this idea, see the account of Pentecost in Acts, where by the power of the Holy Spirit each member of the international audience assembled in Jerusalem hears the apostles in his own native tongue. Christian faith does not depend on a reading knowledge of Koine Greek.

Still, just as all things lawful are not expedient, not all things optional are bootless. Let’s concede that the fine points you miss by meditating on scripture in mere translation are only a few pixels that drop out of the picture. The subject and the general shape of things are still clear enough. What you’re missing is the meaning of the expression in the subject’s eyes. You can identify their color, however, and the other physical features of his that can be measured and recorded on a driver’s license. You can savoir his identity. That counts for a lot. But you don’t connaître him.

We’re busy, and reading a summary of the exchange between Jesus and Mary is more efficient than sitting down and joining them in their leisurely, rambling conversation. It’s an observation in the spirit of what Martha might have calculated as she worked so hard taking care of business in the kitchen. Jesus was as available to her as he was to Mary. It was Martha who chose to make herself less available to him than she might have. The sorrow is not that she thereby brought down condemnation on herself. She didn’t. Jesus wasn’t angry at her. He was disappointed. “Martha, Martha,” he says.

For Christians, the most familiar locus classicus for the value of reading the New Testament in Greek comes toward the end of the Gospel according to John, just before the part where Peter points to John and asks Jesus, in effect, “So what great things do you have in store for him ?” Peter sounds envious. Why Jesus’ rapport with John was so much greater is suggested by the passage leading up to this hint of a rivalry between Peter, the disciple whom Jesus appointed to the position of highest authority, and John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” or, as we might say, counted as his closest friend, perhaps because John appreciated certain qualities of his mind that were lost on the others.

Jesus had asked Peter three times whether Peter loved him. The first two times, Peter replied, “Of course, Lord, you know I love you.” The third time, he replied with the same answer but now added a note of slight indignation that Jesus was repeating himself. Most translators don’t even try to convey the distinction between the two words for the two different kinds of love that are in play here.

Now consider the whole exchange again in light of what in the Greek defies easy translation into English. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you agapas me?” Peter replies, “Lord, you know I phil? you.” Jesus tries again and gets the same result. So what does he do? He decides to be tactful. Conceding to Peter’s vocabulary, he now asks him, “Do you phileis me?” John writes that Peter was upset that Jesus was asking him “Do you phileis me?” yet a third time. The suggestion is that Peter was deaf to the difference between the two words, that he wasn’t sensitive to the subtle but significant distinction”and that Jesus, whose tongue was famously sharp and his wit quick, out of kindness deferred to his friend’s blunter intellect, as a father when talking to his child will sometimes adopt the child’s language.

Nicholas Frankovich is a writer and editor in Cleveland.


John McWorter, Which Languages Should Liberal Arts Be About in 2010?

Joe Carter, Do We Romanticize the Importance of Romance Languages?

Aidan Nichols, Looking at the Liturgy: A Critical View of Its Contemporary Form

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