C.S. Lewis’ Bilingualism

csl bilingualHow many extremely intelligent and well educated people do you know . . . who can actually communicate with those of us possessing normal human intelligence?

That talent is a rarity.

And it is precisely what makes C.S. Lewis such an unusual man. He was brilliant. Yet he could communicate with the common person—even the child—just as easily as he conversed with his fellow university dons.

Lewis, of course, could comprehend a number of languages, so he was more than merely “bilingual.” But that is not exactly the sense in which I am using the word today. I mean it in the sense of my opening paragraphs. It is the ability to communicate (even with the same “language”) to distinctly different groups who would normally not be able to readily understand one another.

In an interview that appeared in Christianity Today, Detroit pastor Christopher Brooks was asked about the challenges of urban ministry.

How have you included both righteousness and justice in your setting?

I think about C.S. Lewis, who had the challenge of building the bridge between the culture of Oxford and Cambridge and the culture of the church. These cultures were worlds apart by his time, but he was bilingual, in a sense: able to speak the language of Oxford to the church and the language of the church to the intellectuals and naturalists.

One of the titles for ancient Roman priests that was adopted by their Christian successors is “pontifex.” It means “bridge-maker.” The Pontifex Maximus was, of course, referred to the greatest of these offices.

In light of Brooks’ words about Lewis as building bridges between elite academia and Christianity, I have added that dimension to my view of him. C.S. Lewis, Pontifex Maximus. (I doubt it would make him happy, so I’ll keep it under wraps . . . and probably never mention it again.) But I am genuinely happy about his skill in building these bridges of understanding.

Before signing off, a special treat. If you call someone who speaks two languages “bilingual,” and someone who speaks three “trilingual,” what do you call someone who only speaks one language? Why, an American, of course.

That joke would not be as funny if it were not so sadly true. While the rest of the world almost assumes that people know at least two languages, most Americans stumble their way through the study of a second language for two or three years and never develop a comfort level with it. But that’s a story for another day.

25 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis’ Bilingualism

  1. There is something very wrong in the way we teach language, I think.

    But anyway, I think that what is missing from most people who cannot bridge that gap is willingness, or putting it another way, humility. Lewis was willing to make an effort to bridge those gaps, and humble enough to consider it important even if it did not “make him look good.” Sure, he may have had a gift for communication, but it is more important, I think, that he worked at it. :)

    1. You’re on to something. Aptitude doesn’t mean anything if no effort is invested. For some, gifted with the innate skill set, it may not be as challenging, but even those who find something difficult can achieve their goals when they really work to pursue them.

  2. I’ve always assumed our lack of language proficiency had to do mostly with the fact that there’s little opportunities to practice it. A German can learn Italian or French, and then within a day’s journey, be in the country! With most Americans, Spanish is the best we can do and that’s only because there are so many Spanish speaking immigrants here. At least this is what I tell myself when I try to pick up learning German (again).

    1. That’s true. Many people who learn languages find that knowledge drains away without an opportunity to exercise it–I think I’ll call that linguistic atrophication.

    2. You are on target. It’s not only having the close proximity to another country/language – Fluency and mastery of a second/third language has to do with what language sounds you hear frequently from birth to 3 years when acquiring verbal language itself. A child who only hears the sounds of one language, will gradually lose the ability to even hear/distinguish sounds of another language….and if you can’t hear the difference between sounds, it’s very hard when older to make that sound. Like the rolling “r” of Spanish when learning that language and for English language learners, some of the consonant sounds are very difficult to produce (Some Chinese speakers have difficulty with “L’s”, “R’s” and “N’s” when learning English)
      Another reason to surround little kids with lots and lots of sounds and language when young. Kids do learn languages much faster than adults (who have forgotten how to hear and distinguish sounds). Songs are an easy way to learn and remember early exposures to languages…every little bit seems to help.

  3. Very interesting viewpoint on bilingualism, that of communicating with different groups. I was blessed to have two Spanish teachers who were native speakers so I learned enough Spanish that I could communicate with the kitchen staff and bus boys when I worked in a Mexican restaurant. My Spanish was rudimentary, but helped along by actually using it. I think that’s the problem for many Americans. We live so far away from any other language group that most of us never get to use any language we learn.

    After I was married we went to French-speaking Africa (and later France). Learning French pushed almost all the Spanish out of my head! If I try to speak Spanish now, chances are it will come out in French. :( But I’m very thankful for the chance to have learned another language as well as I did French. I didn’t study it formally so it’s an effort to read anything more erudite than Agatha Christie because of the irritating French custom of writing books in a special tense that is ONLY used for writing! However, at least I can still read and write letters to my French friends and carry on conversations. The dearest friend I will ever have was French (she’s with the Lord now), and that’s the language we communicated in. I’m so thankful for the chance to have known her and been able to communicate with her.

      1. Spanglish – I like that! But here’s a conundrum: what do you call it when someone (ahem) can totally understand conversation in a second language (as long as it doesn’t get too technical) but is incompletely incapable of twisting her tongue around to speaking it?

      2. That’s a great question… and the circumstance of many a second generation American. My mom’s father immigrated from Norway. He and my grandmother (born to immigrant parents) frequently spoke Norwegian while she was growing up. My mom used to be sad that she could understand the language but never learned to speak it.

  4. We’re one of the few societies that can get away with a single language. Most of the world rubs shoulders with other languages so closely it’s inevitable. Things are changing some here, but it’s never going to match Europe for true diversity. At least we know the most common trade language on earth!
    My dad taught me a lot about speaking the language of the people. He speaks at a college level with our family, so it’s “native” to us, but we hear how differently he speaks to those he helps or shops from. Now, I’m making a writing career of restating what the scientists say into common English. It’s easy for me, but seems to be nigh on impossible for many degreed people.

  5. Where I grew up (looong time ago) it to be said that one was not truly educated if he/she only spoke one language. Many kids I knew had grandparents from various countries that didn’t speak English – so being bilingual was fairly common. My grandmother spoke 3 languages plus knew Latin from school. A German dialect was the main language in parts of TX even then. So I guess multilingualism is a regional thing. How did that concept that you should know more that your home language get lost?
    High schools used to require at least 2 years and so did colleges. Mistake to stop that trying to raise test scores or make time for more important courses. Learning languages is a real exercise for the brain and promotes all sorts of beneficial learning not only in the language acquisition part.
    Lewis was rare. He could use language at various levels depending on the audience – so many can’t.
    Even in “foreign languages”, a speaker may be conversationally bilingual, but not bilingual with academic language (used for instruction/teaching concepts or skills) or business language. Schools have started discovering this. Being verbal in street /daily/family & friends language doesn’t pass as a being true bilingual speaker.
    Language, communication, and words are so inexact and depend so much speaker and listener’s perception of what is being said, it’s a wonder any of us can get ideas across

    1. Times change. I think the way that English has come to dominate not only international commerce, but also nearly all other fields (including the once “French” field of diplomacy)… has allowed too many Americans to think they don’t “need” to study foreign languages. And, for most of us, learning other languages is hard work. I know I’ve sweated plenty studying the four languages I have worked with (and never mastered).

      1. In this context, I think of the linguistic flexibility of three of the four Gospel writers and, but for Luke and the unknown writer of Hebrews, they were all native Aramaic speakers but they knew the lingua franca of the time enough to write in Greek so the Good News would spread all the more quickly. Yet the degree and quality of their mastery of Greek was quite idiosyncratic. Necessity drove them to adapt. But some loved the mere study of it well enough to be quite proficient rhetorically, as I understand Paul was.

        And then there is the case of Simone Weil. She would only recite the Lord’s Prayer in its original Koine Greek because it made her slow down and think of the words she was uttering rather than mechanically (and mindlessly) repeating them in her native French. A conscious discipline of reverence aided and abetted by an unfamiliar and ancient language: quite an inspiring use of language.

      2. Interesting idea about praying the Lord’s Prayer in koine (or even better, in Aramaic!). When I’m leading worship I always distinguish between “saying” the prayer and “praying” it.

  6. One of the things I learned early is that we don’t really understand anything if we can’t teach it to children (at least anything that is not of the order of quantum physics!). We certainly do not understand faith if we can’t impart it to our children. It occurs to me that this may be why there is such a disconnect between faith and most of life for many adults, and also why we see so many children walk away from the faith. You are right that part of Lewis’s brilliance was this ability to explain the faith to children or the person on the street, not just the Oxbridge academic!

  7. It’s one of my great regrets, as an American, that I did not develop an interest in the French language back when I was studying it in high school. I have since forgotten much of it, and now that I’ve found an interest in actually becoming something approaching fluent in it, it will be much more difficult to learn.

    It’s an interesting point that “bilingualism” refers to more than what’s technically a language – that is, not just French and Spanish, but Theologian and Layperson.

  8. Pingback: Peculiarities of the German Language « Mere Inkling Press

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