Words lost the power


New immigrants face many challenges. Language for one. It is impossible to start a life without it in another country. I was recruited to come to Canada because I could preach in Japanese. I was too dumb to realize that in Canada the working language was English otherwise. To learn English as a primary language of work was hard, because learning a language is not just a matter of correct grammar, pronunciation, and sufficient vocabulary. Language is a product of culture, history, society and many other factors. You must understand those determinants to know the language. It can be disastrous to use the language you hear on the street.

A same word can mean different things. For example, “trespass” in the familiar Christian prayer is translated into “sin” in Japanese. But the original Greek and Hebrew word is “debt.” We don’t pray “forgive us our debt” because if debt is bad and must be forgiven, our economy will collapse. Investments, stocks and bonds, credit cards, mortgages are all debts, borrowed money, in different names. Debts are forgiven if you are too big to fail. So we call it “trespass.” But a socialist says that to equate trespass with sin is a capitalist’s spin. How can a new immigrant learn so much complexity and subtlety of culture and society in a short time?

Another problem: Word of mouth used to be as good as the speaker. “I give you my word,” was like a notarized affidavit. But now, do you trust the word of all politicians? How did word become like shifting sand? I wonder if, in the age of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” art, music, and stories are more reliable means of communication. My language teacher, Ntate Tente, commented after my first sermon in Sesotho, a Bantu language, “You may be a good preacher. But I didn’t understand what you tried to say. We are story tellers. Tell us stories like Jesus did.” To make a point with life stories? I wonder how many politicians can survive if their livess are their words.

When you see an immigrant, listen to the story, not the imperfect English. If a person speaks in broken English, he/she must be bilingual. You must give compliments. With three acquired languages, I am no longer perfect in any of them including my mother tongue. So I tell stories.

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