Central China is no place to travel if you do not know the language. Nonetheless with more courage than common sense I headed to Shandong Province with my trusty Chinese dictionary and a very limited working knowledge of the language. The plan was to join some friends in the town of Liaocheng, the Water City, and meet with a number of pastors there. Originally a simple point-to-point excursion, I missed my train. No worries. I found a cheap flight to Jinan and would find my way from there to Liaocheng. I had been in Beijing where there are lots of English speakers. Pinyin Chinese (which is a phonetic form using the English alphabet) is written on signs everywhere in Beijing, so I figured it would be easy to catch a train or bus.

LiaochengBut when I arrived in Jinan I was incapable of communicating. There was no Pinyin – only Chinese characters. I hadn’t bothered to write down the characters for Liaocheng. I don’t pronounce letters well in Chinese and I didn’t even know the tones that went with the name of the city. In other words, I couldn’t read my destination name on any of the busses and was unable to ask anyone how to get where I was going.

I wanted to call a Chinese friend for language assistance, but I neglected to charge my phone and it was out of juice. At a point of frustration in the noisy bus station I yelled at the top of my lungs, “does anyone here speak English?” The entire bus station went quiet… for a few seconds… and then the chatter resumed. No one stepped forward to help the Meiguoren (American). I would have appreciated the Pentecostal gift of tongues at that point… or perhaps the gift of ears in those who understood the Galilean fishermen.

Liaocheng 2I went outside and saw a lone “L” shape by one of the busses. I am sure it had nothing to do with Liaocheng, but trusting that God had given me a sign, I purchased a ticket. It was surely Divine intervention because an hour and a half later I was dropped off at the bus/train station in Liaocheng – at the very time the train that I had missed was arriving. Adam, who was waiting for my arrival at the train station, greeted me at the arranged time of my arrival. He had no idea of the adventure I had in getting there.

Language is the door into relationships. Charlemagne said, “to learn another language is to acquire another soul.” I am humbled by the number of Chinese who have learned the English language and are able to interact with me. It takes the pressure off of me to learn Chinese, but I want to return the honor. I want to cross the same bridge they have crossed in order to interact with people like me.

On my first visit to Beijing I was with a group of Americans who were being led about the city by a wonderful young Chinese woman whose English was superb. In her openness and vulnerability, she shared her nation with us. She was a Christian. On Sunday we headed off to a church, the Beijing International Christian Fellowship. I was surprised when we were required to show our passports for entry. Chinese nationals were not allowed to worship at the church. Annie, our Christian guide, had to wait outside. The service inside was nice – familiar and Western. I understand why it might be a respite, a Rome-away-from-Rome for expats who are living in Beijing. But I could not get my mind off of our sister waiting outside unable to worship with us. I left the service part way through so I could go outside and wait with her. I have never returned to BICF.

A year later a friend of mine, a pastor at Haidian Beijing Christian Church, began an English service. He did so in order to provide a place for American university professors to bring Chinese students who are studying English. He knew it would open up a new field for the good news – and it has! The message is in English and worship is in both English and Chinese. I finally have a place to stand alongside friends in China and enjoy worship together.

I love languages. I only speak one fluently. English is easy of course… so easy I learned it as a child. But I try to learn greetings in other languages. I also try to learn simple phrases that enable me to interact at some level, however rudimentary. I am spending a lot of time learning how to communicate in Chinese. I have a friend there who is helping me with my pronunciations. She says I am not too bad, but she is very kind. Learning the Chinese language, however poorly , has brought me closer to these amazing friends. Unity. That is a gift that God has given His people. It crosses every boundary – even language. With words of praise in our mouths, whether English or Chinese, there is something otherworldly about standing side-by-side with other believers who worship in other tongues. God sees it and is pleased.

About marknicklas

Mark Nicklas is a husband, father, son and follower of Jesus Christ. He is a pastor at Beaverton Foursquare Church and an adjunct professor at Multnomah University, where he earned his doctorate in Cultural Engagement. Like Jacob wrestled with God at Jabbok, this site is a place for talking about the identity of the church with respect to the cultures we live in. You are invited to share the journey.
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7 Responses to Language

  1. Anonymous says:

    All the languages had evolved over the last serveral millennium. They truly reflect local culture and philosophy. They take commitment to master. New languages can truly open a new world to your mind. I often find no equivalent words or idea in either English or vice versa in Chinese. However, what amazes me is that Bible can truly to be spoken in any languages. That is the power of Pentecostal.

  2. jmckend says:

    Mark, what a profound statement, “Language is the door into relationships. Charlemagne said, “to learn another language is to acquire another soul.” Tragically, one that I never truly experience as, like you, I only know one language. I have taken several, including french, spanish, greek and some hebrew, I don’t remember much. Your point is well taken. The babel story came to my remembrance; especially the line from Genesis: “let us go down and confuse their language so they won’t be able to understand each other.” I realize the context of your writing and my point may not be clear; I agree with you. I am wondering if that is why it is so important that the Church strives for unity; because there has been a break in our human relations and in Christ, we can attain it once again? God, has tasked us with the very thing you present in this blog, we are on mission to unify. I love the fact that the language barrier was bridged by your open heart. This speaks volumes to your character. I am not certain I would have pressed on.

    • marknicklas says:

      Yes, I think so, John. The church has a language of its own that is spiritual. In fact, it is our common culture in Christ that bonds us before we even attempt to cross the cultural bridges that would otherwise divide us. Wanting to commune with other saints is a God-given desire I think we all share. And the vernacular is one such bridge.

  3. jpolensky says:

    Thank you Mark for bringing back memories. I have never been to the BICF for the very reason you mentioned. The person we worked with, who is like a daughter to us because she is a sister to my daughter, is a Chinese national so could only go to Haidian. It is incredible when you worship with people of a different culture because we do see a glimpse of what it will be in eternity. My daughter will probably be working in China and I know we will visit her, so I have been wrestling with learning Chinese. Your blog has confirmed I should as well as learn more words in Tagalog as I minister in the Philippines. When nationals hear their language, see a person trying, I believe it takes down any barriers that would hinder unity. Thanks again.

    • marknicklas says:

      I find that there are a few helpful phrases that are important. Certainly the ones about getting around and exchanging names, but also ones that you would say to a person you just met in your own language. Learn the translation as a starting point. Learn how someone might answer, as well. I am always surprised at how much can be communicated with a few phrases. That is not an excuse for not pressing further, but rather a starting point.
      On another note, Jim, I have been unable to access your blog. Though I would like to comment, it is a private and I cannot gain the access required. Is there a trick I need to learn?

  4. pastorchapp says:

    Mark, thank you for sharing your experience in China and your thoughts on language. I think we sometimes take our language for granted and underestimate its potential. And situations such as what you experienced really have a way of bringing the power of language back home to us. I strongly believe that having conversations about difficult subjects is the way to work through any difficult, complex and troubling situation. I am constantly reminded of what happened at the tower of Babel when God confused their language. He said that if they worked together, (there’s that unity thing), they could accomplish anything they put their minds to. That has always stuck with me. Language is powerful and, with the working of the Holy Spirit, the church in unity can accomplish some great things in this world.

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