The short history of a term: language barrier was coined officially—for the record—in 1933, the year the US government overturned prohibition, the year the chocolate-chip cookie and Monopoly were invented. It was a year between two wars, a year of dust storms and economic depression. The year stood on the edge of a more global economic age, which would emerge with the development of communication technologies—from telegraph to radio, to telephone, television, and internet.
If you are reading this, we hold a language in common. Most of us take language for granted, and why wouldn’t we? We learn it before our brains can hold memory, we dream in it, we small-talk it and meet, yell, weep, and make jokes with it. It is, in many ways, invisible to us. And when it’s written down—unless the handwriting is illegible—we often don’t think twice about it.
As Christians, we believe God authored language, and that he also holds the authority to confuse it. One need not look further than the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 to see an example of how God used language to hinder people from making idols of their work. But language is also a tool of discipleship and ministry. Unlike more visible spiritual gifts, we forget the inherent power of logos to transform and change the world around us.
The short history of a partner in ministry: Ramy Hough has attended UPC for over twenty years. Born in Washington, she has spent most of her life here, though she lived for fifteen years in Kentucky. She has three adult sons. She has taught math at Seattle Central Community College and North Seattle Community College. In Kentucky, Ramy met Frank Laubach, a renowned Christian missionary and advocate for literacy, who taught Ramy easy methods to instruct non-English speakers in the language.
I believe God uses seemingly disparate experiences to thread and thrum our life with meaning, and Ramy’s story is further evidence of his hand. Years after she lived in Kentucky and learned methods of teaching English to non-native speakers, Ramy moved into the Exeter House Retirement Community in Seattle. Having heard about the Language Institute at UPC, she decided to get involved. She began tutoring a student from China, then a student from Colombia, and currently she tutors a young man from Ethiopia whose name is Demelash. She has recruited other residents of Exeter House to become tutors as well.
Ramy tells me that Exeter House has quite a few Ethiopians on its staff. Demelash is one of them. He has two jobs—he works full-time at a 7-Eleven as well as part-time at Exeter House as a waiter. He has a family in Ethiopia and sends part of each paycheck back to them. Each week, Demelash and Ramy work together on his English. He can read English but has trouble with the grammar and difficulty speaking it. Currently, they are working on building conversations into whole sentences.
Ramy tells me that each student has confronted different language barriers during their sessions together. For example, the Colombian student who Ramy tutored had difficulty with inflection. Ramy’s student from China needed help with communication for her job as a waitress. They used a picture dictionary.
Ramy comments on the experience this way: she tells me that teaching English means that sometimes both student and teacher are at a loss. In this way, she can feel, for a fleeting moment, the anxiety and loneliness that come from being a stranger in a foreign land.
This is a story about how God loves us.
Frank Laubach considered literacy a fundamental human right. The God we serve is language himself, logos: word made flesh. When we use language, when we teach others to use it well, we are a reflection of God. Ramy’s work reminds us that God gave us language as an instrument to administer confidence, encouragement, love, and justice. And so the barrier which seemed a wall becomes, with practice, just a gate.
The Language Institute at UPC matches volunteer tutors with refugees, immigrants, and other internationals all over the greater Seattle area for help with English, homework with kids, assistance studying for the citizenship exam, and just figuring out navigating life in a new country. You too can tutor with the Language Institute at UPC! Contact Breanne, firstname.lastname@example.org, 206.524.7301 x176 to talk about partnering with an individual, couple, or family in the greater Seattle area who could use a local friend to help them navigate the language of their new home. Training, materials, and encouragement are provided. Blossoming friendships are an added bonus!