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Language Barrier

When I was in elementary school, my parents thought I should learn a second language, so they had a tutor come over to our house and teach me Spanish. I thought it was fun and it felt like a game. I don’t remember this education lasting very long, but once I got to high school, the state required I take at least 2 years of a foreign language so I enrolled in Spanish, thinking I would pick back up where I left off.


If you were to quiz me on my knowledge of the Spanish language, it would be pretty evident that very little of that high school education stuck with me. Most of the words and phrases that I still know to this day are from those tutoring sessions when I was much younger. Why is this? I spent way more time in high school trying to learn the language, but it didn’t stick nearly as well.


The common understanding is that children just learn languages better. There is a lot of scientific data to back this up, but, just like most topics, it’s complicated.


First, let’s look at the brain. Young children’s brains are in fact physiologically built to absorb new languages. This is because at that young of an age our brains are still developing. When children are immersed in a language, they are actually building new neural pathways based on what they hear.

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As we get older and our brain develops, it becomes more specialized and fewer NEW pathways are being built, but instead the ones we have and regularly use are being reinforced. This is good because it makes our brains more efficient, but it makes learning new things a lot more difficult. Luckily for adults, we have longer attention spans and literacy in a language already so we are able to sit for long periods of time and study languages, something children are not well equipped to do. So although kids’ brains are built better for learning language, adults have tricks that enable them to do so just fine if they want to.

No matter when you learn a language, it takes a lot of time and effort. As I said, I “studied” this language for over three years and have very little to show for it. This makes me VERY impressed by anyone I meet who is bilingual. I know that was difficult. Although I think two languages is a lot, the saint whose feast day is today, St. Lawrence of Brindisi, spoke at least EIGHT LANGUAGES!!!

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I can’t even wrap my mind around how much time and effort that took. I hope that he learned at least some of those languages as a kid so they were “absorbed”, but when you know eight of them, you know at least a few of them were learned through long hours studying from a book. In addition to a thorough knowledge of his native Italian, he had complete reading and speaking ability in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, German, Bohemian, Spanish, and French. Wow.

To our benefit, St. Lawrence used those amazing skills to study the Bible in its original Greek and Hebrew. Then he used the knowledge he gained to go on to teach others. In fact, at the request of Pope Clement VIII, he spent much time preaching to the Jews in Italy. His Hebrew was so proficient that the rabbis were convinced that he had to have been a Jew who had become a Christian.

What a gift to be able to study the Bible in its original texts! I feel pretty accomplished myself when I know one or two words of Hebrew or Greek and that one “fancy” word helps me to better understand a single passage or two. Think of how much more vibrant your understanding of scripture could be with the knowledge of the ENTIRE original texts!

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In modern times we don’t have to know the original text because we are fortunate that scholars through the years have translated it into our native language. UNfortunately there are SOOO many different translations of the Bible, and it can be difficult to discern which ones are most accurate compared to the original texts versus which ones better capture "the spirit" of the teachings. It’s also important for us as readers to have a text that we UNDERSTAND. It does me no good to read from a Bible that is a word for word perfect translation if I have no idea what it is saying.

So, first of all, do you know where a Bible is in your home? When was the last time you opened it? Well, go get it, look at what translation it is. The translation is probably a collection of 3-4 letters listed on the cover or cover page. Some common options are NASB, RSV, ESV, KJV, and NIV. This last one is seen as less literal in an effort to make it more “readable”.

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It is important to know what translation you have because that could drastically change its meaning and should drastically change how you read it. My oldest Bible with hundreds of notes in it dating back to when I was in high school is an NASB translation. I didn’t really know the differences, so I stuck with this one, but I had a REALLY hard time reading it and getting into it, so as one can imagine, I didn’t read it very often.

More recently I purchased an RSV translation, and I can follow this much easier and it is still a fairly accurate translation. Different translations can serve different purposes in our study of scripture. If you’ve had difficulty reading the Bible in the past, try picking up a different translation. See if that makes a difference.

Reading scripture is an essential part of the Christian lifestyle that we should all be doing, but there are definitely things we can do to help us in this effort. Luckily we don’t have to go through years of training of different languages in order to read it in its Greek and Hebrew, instead we have the luxury of reading accurate translations in our own native language. Thanks to this, now the only thing stopping you is actually picking up the book and reading it! Have a great week and happy reading!