Social challenge: The gifts and tasks of learning a language

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By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

What is language? Is there an ultimate language that could transform our world into a better place? I have listened to many speeches on social media from passionate individuals who invite, inspire, and challenge people around the world to make a difference.

Despite the great words, there are still people who are suffering from hunger, war, poverty, violence, discrimination, injustice and other social ills. This thought came to mind during a moment of exhaustion and exasperation during my Spanish-language studies.

When I came to Spain for my two-year cross-cultural training program, I was filled with inspiration, hope and excitement for living in a foreign land as a religious missionary.

Similar to my move to the United States years ago, I have carried with me an open mind and a willing heart. I looked forward to learning a new language and culture. However, I started feeling exasperated after a few months of language studies. I have difficulty learning the verbs and their conjugated forms and tenses. I also struggle with the proper use of masculine or feminine articles and determining whether a noun is singular or plural.

Despite the support of my community, the language barrier made me feel isolated. I even began to lose enthusiasm for attending daily Mass. I felt as though I was only physically present. I did not like reading the missalette and being unable to understand the text. I was stressed and disconnected from the spirit of the Eucharistic celebration. This experience led me to question my vocation as a religious missionary.

Several times, I asked myself, “Why am I learning another language?” I thought it would be fun and exciting, but I have come to realize the enormous difficulties and challenges entailed in learning a new language. I questioned God, “Why is learning Spanish so difficult?” When I become frustrated with all the mistakes I make while practicing Spanish, I go to our chapel and vent all my complaints and frustration in prayer.

It is worth waiting for God’s response. As time passes, I see God’s marvelous way of enlightening my mind, purifying my heart and directing my will toward my language study. I learned profound lessons.

Language gives us the power to free those who are oppressed in our society. I have met several migrants who have had difficulty conversing in Spanish because they did not have the means to learn the language in a formal school. Most of them are self-taught through their daily interactions in their jobs, and some of their employers take advantage of their limitations.

Language is dynamic and transformative. One of my difficulties with Spanish is knowing the right context to use certain verbs. An English verb can have multiple translations in Spanish, and each translation has a different meaning. Thus, it is important to know the right word, understand its right context, and use it appropriately.

I am aware that no words can sufficiently describe the suffering that refugees endure, but I want my mind and heart to be transformed by the words they utter.

I was intrigued to learn that in Spanish, verbs not only describe action, they also express feelings embedded in each word. My eagerness to learn Spanish verbs has led me to a greater desire to deeply understand the words I hear from suffering refugees.

Living in Europe has made me more aware of the refugee crisis. Many refugees were forced to flee their home countries because of persecution, war or violence. Now as they try to start a new life in Europe, they struggle with racial discrimination, religious persecution, political intimidation, harassment and death threats.

My discomfort with communicating in Spain is nothing compared to the hardships that refugees face, especially with their struggles to learn the language. I am aware that no words can sufficiently describe the suffering that refugees endure, but I want my mind and heart to be transformed by the words they utter.

Language is a channel for ethical, doctrinal and spiritual understanding that builds a better society. Learning the Spanish language has made me become more aware of the gap between the language of the elders and the language of the youth. Perhaps, the gap has become so wide that we have neglected each other.

It is hard not to feel sad and dismayed whenever I attend the Holy Mass every Sunday in Spain. The physical grandiosity of the church, with its intricate and marvelous designs, cannot hide the truth that it is an almost empty space.

The church is only full of people on two occasions: when there are groups of tourists and during funeral services. Most of the people who attend Sunday Mass are elderly. Just as I lost my enthusiasm for the Mass because I could not understand the language, maybe many youths nowadays do not understand the significance of words about religion and faith.

It is my hope that through the language we speak, we will be able to carry with us the teaching, moral norms and values embedded in the words. There is an invitation for all of us to revive the language of values that can greatly contribute to the transformation of our community.

What is the ultimate language that could transform our world into a better place? I honestly do not have an answer.

One might suggest that humility, kindness and charity are the language that will transform us. With perseverance, faith and hope, I am one among many people who are searching for that unifying language.

The word that urges me to continue my journey is “us.” Where two or more are gathered, there is the Divine Word that became flesh in our world. Let us transform our society into a better world by living the gifts and tasks of learning a language. And, let us begin with the word “us.”

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