In my round-up of interesting articles from around the internet this week, we look at language learning in the UK, thoughts on listening to preaching as a preacher, and ideas about the language of the ‘New Left’.

Language Learning

The Guardian ran an article this week bemoaning the falling standards of language learning in the UK, specifically in regards to French. There is an interesting point in the middle of the article about the relationship between foreign languages and our place in Europe:

And while Britons have become complacently used to the cultural dominance of the Anglophone United States, we’ve recently been caught unaware by how much news is now made in France and Germany, where the great questions of the 21st century are being asked and answered. The refugee crisis emphasises how dependent English monolinguals are for their news on a shrinking minority of people who understand German.

I think that is generally true – German reflection on and coverage of the refugee crisis far outstrips that which is available in the UK news, and there is a sense in which the UK is always running to catch up.

I’m not sure I agree with quite such a heavy emphasis on learning French over-against Spanish or German, for example (or for that matter Italian, Polish or Arabic). Language learning has to have a certain hard-headed pragmatism to it, and some of the reasons given in the article for privileging French seem to be somewhat romantic, to say the least.

That said, I think the place of modern foreign languages in the UK secondary school curriculum does need to be radically overhauled and standards generally increased – how to do that, however, is a different question.

Listening to preaching

Catriona Gorton has some very helpful reflections on listening to preaching as a ‘preachee’, especially after theological training:

Sermons come in all shapes and sizes, preaching styles are as varied and as unique as those who preach.  I may or may not feel ‘moved’ by what I hear; it may or may ‘speak’ to me clearly and loudly; I may find it dull and dreary or difficult to follow.  None of these matters.  Someone has gone to the bother of preparing a ‘meal’ for me to the very best of their ability.  I might have liked more gravy or less rice, or whatever it is, but that’s about me, not about them.

One of the true luxuries of the current situation I am serving in is having a reasonably large and skilled preaching team. That means I frequently get to sit under sermons from gifted colleagues who preach in different styles and with different theological emphases.

I find it also makes me appreciate diverse preaching more – because I’m not in a situation where I am just exposed to one style of preaching (my own, let’s say), it’s much harder to go to lazy definitions of what a ‘good sermon’ looks like, and instead appreciate the diversity of ways in which proclamation can be carried out.

Incidentally, during our baptismal service on Sunday afternoon, we had 4 mini ‘sermonettes’ on the same passage (Matthew 10:32) in different languages: German, Farsi, Spanish and English. Each lasted two minutes and made a similar point, but in different ways. It was a really effective idea I’d love to see repeated again soon!

Mumbo Jumbo and Liberation

Carl Trueman writes over at First Things about the certain trends he sees in the language of what he terms the ‘New Left’. His big point is that a lot of trendy buzzwords and concepts which intended to be liberating are ultimately a gnostic language which tends to obfuscate rather than illuminate.

Of course, the refusal of the New Left to communicate clearly and its love of barbaric neologisms are well-known. The ever-expanding linguistic correctitude demanded by the Social Justice Warriors with reference to the kaleidoscope that is identity politics is merely the most obvious example. Justice jargon forms an ever-growing malignant web of such linguistic complexity that today’s righteously indignant spider is always in danger of becoming tomorrow’s hapless fly.

The article is typically Trueman: boisterous, great fun to read and probably overstates the point slightly. That said, I think there is an important reminder here: political speech from the Left can often descend into Shibboleth’s of orthodoxy where groups get defined more and more narrowly. The effect of this exclusive language is generally anything but liberating in the real world and frequently becomes so self-referential it has no linguistic purchase on real world problems.

It’s interesting to compare this to debates about the church’s voice in the public square: how much should the church bring the unique language and discourse of the gospel into issues of the public good (say immigration or poverty or education)? There has often been the urge for the church to speak in less ‘Christian’ terms and instead neutral adopt language which is easily understood in the public square. I’m not convinced at how well this has always worked (some of the recent marriage debate, for example, relied on conceptions of the societal ‘good’ of traditional marriage which I think were far from universally recognised and so far from convincing).

Still, it’s interesting to see that whilst the church has often made strides towards plain speaking, other groups on the Left have made large movements in the other direction.

Of course, we need to be aware of some of the useful work about linguistic meaning and politics which has been done in the last half century, and the way in which our apparently ‘plain’ language can conceal hidden meaning. That said, it’s hard not to wish for a bit more attention to George Orwell’s Politics of the English Language…