I caused quite the guffaw the other day when I admitted to a group of new friends that I couldn’t quite tell the difference between Polish and Icelandic. As I learned when the laughter died down, this is somewhat akin to admitting that Lady Gaga reminds one of Bach. Afterwards Bill thanked me for making him look like a native in comparison, which reminded me of the time my French Professor wrote on my report card that I brought a “humorous element to the classroom” while also recommending that I withdraw from continuing language studies. Win some, lose some, I guess.
All this goes to say that Icelandic is not the easiest language to just pick up. While it features the usual assortment of accentuations common to other European tongues (é, í, ó, etc…) there are several letters I’d only ever seen in old editions of Beowulf that cranky English professors handed out on the first day of literature class as some weird form of a joke. For example, frequent appearances are made by this strange d- looking letter which appears to have been mortally wounded by an arrow (ð). This quirky fellow is apparently pronounced like a “th”. But then there’s a p whose flag is lowered to half-mast (þ) which is also pronounced like a “th”. Why are there two? I’ve no idea. It’s all Polish to me.
As if the appearance of these befuddling letters weren’t enough, there’s the addition of strange accentuations and combinations of letters to further confuse the linguistically impaired American. Take, for instance, the o, which is joined by some dots having a pow-wow atop its head (ö). I think that sounds like a “u” or something. Someone equated it to a French word for me which made things about as clear as mud. Then there’s this funky “a” and an “e” who simply aren’t leaving room for the Holy Spirit (æ) and as a result, I’ve no clue what sound they’re making.
So while we haven’t been learning much Icelandic in our time here, we have been teaching a little English. Last week, Mollie and I assisted another team of Americans who came over to put on an ESL (English as a Second Language) Camp as a ministry of our church. The camp had been advertised to the local community for quite some time, and since English is a required language for most Icelanders, many local parents jumped at the opportunity for their kids to get free language training. Come opening day, we had over fifteen children to tutor in English language.
Most of the children were aged eight to thirteen and at first meeting were rather quiet and shy. If I had to guess, I would have said that they didn’t know much English at all. If I asked them a question, they looked at me as though I’d inquired as to the chemical make-up of Eyjafjallajökull then whispered something to each other in Icelandic. And since my Icelandic is about as competent as my basket weaving, I was incapable of communicating with them. So for the most part I’d just sit, smile, color a smiley face, and maybe stick out my tongue on the whimsical hope that cross-cultural barriers didn’t translate my goofiness to some sort of rude or lewd gesture. It didn’t seem too. They laughed.
The next day, a few of these shy kids showed up with new friends who were as shy as they’d been just a day previously. But now the shy kids were lively and interactive. They strolled right up to me at the registration table and asked for their nametags in perfect English, then requested I make one for their friend. I was so taken aback that they had to ask a second time, and they even repeated the name slowly. One child took the liberty of spelling it out for me before asking: “Are you learning English too?” As it turns out, many of these kids knew English pretty darn well. All they needed was a little confidence.
There’s something beautiful about being around languages I don’t understand. Last year, my wife and I worshiped with a church in Nicaragua. She knows some Spanish, so she picked up on parts of the worship service. The only Spanish I knew I’d learned while working at Wendy’s in high school (and, let’s just say, it was hardly appropriate for the house of God). So she was able to sing some of the songs while I just clapped along and shouted “Jesús!” whenever I could manage the timing. It was wonderful.
As I type this I’m sitting in a café, listening to a group of students talk in German beside me. Yesterday I talked to someone from Holland who spoke five languages; a girl from Switzerland overheard our conversation and spoke with us as well. Today, we attended a prayer service with other leaders in the city; at the end of it we read along as the group prayed the Lord’s Prayer in Icelandic. Sunday services here sometimes consist of worship songs in Icelandic, and other times one of the congregants leads us with a beautifully thick British accent. One of the members of the congregation here has read the Bible in 7 different languages (and counting!).
The beautiful thing about the kingdom of God is that it transcends language barriers. Every time I get to experience this truth, every time I meet believers from a different culture, every time I hear the Lord’s Prayer in a different tongue or worship with people who speak a different language, I’m humbled by the magnificence of the God we praise. The God we all proclaim, the God we all attempt to magnify, whether it be in Spanish, French, Icelandic, German, English or the Dutch tongue, this God is the real God. He is the only God.
And, as God, He transcends all language. None of our human attempts at communication contain Him; none of us get it right. But we are still trying, and our attempts make something beautiful. Something beautiful indeed.
Every time I worship with a church in another culture, every time I have the honor of teaching Icelandic children my language, I’m reminded of the day when all Christians will be gathered and will worship God together in the heavenly tongue. Oh glorious day! the glimpses of it I see in smiling children, setting suns and hands clapping to the tune of hymns on Sunday mornings.
I’ll tell you one thing: I can’t wait until I get to speak in the heavenly tongue. I can’t wait until I learn that language.
But until then, I guess I’ll try and learn some Icelandic. Or maybe Polish. After all, they’re not that different.