"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
February 6, 2013
Language
by Marian Stoddard

You know how parents spell when they have to say something they don't want the kids to hear but the kids are present?  "Are you going O-U-T?"  My oldest daughter and her husband use it for the dog, "Are you going to take her for a w-a-l-k?" they’d say, because if she heard the word “walk” she was instantly and insistently at the door.

It doesn't work very long; kids figure out how to spell the simple stuff.  Even the dog picked up on w-a-l-k, so now they ask if she has been taken for a “w” yet today, and can get an answer without having a frantic pet.

My parents had an advantage which lasted longer.  When spelling wouldn't work anymore, they had French.  My mother said that the reason she didn't lose the French she studied was that she married my father, good returned French missionary that he was, and then he had business dealings in France and she had to host the occasional visitor.  What it boiled down to was that she had continuing practice.

Every single one of us took French.  I'm sure that other languages were offered at our schools, but I don't even remember which ones.  There was incentive to join the grownups and share the common additional language; to be part of the insiders, to share the jokes.  My kids have studied Spanish, French, German, and Russian, but I and all of my brothers and sisters chose French.  Upon reflection, we also knew we could actually get help with our homework!  In fact, I was part of an experiment to start language study in elementary school, beginning in the fourth grade, an idea everyone acknowledges is much better than beginning in your teens.  They at least start in middle school now, not just high school.  Luckily, the language chosen for us in this program was French, and I was able to continue all the way through high school. I continued in college, the first two years, but sadly, my skills have now rusted away.

There are a lot of good reasons to learn another language besides our native tongue.  The United States is generally woeful on that score. It gives us a better sense of the rest of the world, exposes us to other cultures and patterns, other countries, and hones our communication skills.

But I think there is another, non-scholastic reason to learn another language: it helps us understand how revelation works.

I was never fully fluent, but I had the opportunity to go with my father to Europe when I was a senior in high school.  (I celebrated my 17th birthday by going up the Eiffel Tower; how cool is that?) It was a business trip for him, and I got to go along, for three weeks in Paris with a road trip through Switzerland to Venice, and the last week in London.  The road trip was with a French art dealer and his wife in their car, so French was the language I had to use.  It was a mostly-immersion situation, I could ask my father for help, but unless we were alone in our flat, I had to speak in French, and I didn't manage too badly.  I gained confidence as I went along. I got to the point that I was thinking in French, at least part of the time, rather than thinking in English and thinking how to translate that into the French.  If I had possessed a farther-ranging vocabulary, I would have been fairly well set.

Now maybe my dad is smiling at this and thinking no, I was way less able than I thought, but the important point is that I was starting to think in French.  My brain shifted gears.  There are patterns in any language which don't match up with other languages.  (I am so grateful that English doesn't have genders for common nouns.  You don't have to learn that a table is feminine or a pencil is masculine.) Russian has no articles--no equivalent for 'the, a/an' that are so automatic to us. German has more cases to keep track of, the Romance languages (those derived from Latin) have genders for common nouns, and so forth.

In French, word order is different.  In a sentence, a noun comes first, followed by its adjective.  Thus, in English, we have a 'green bean' and in French the same item sitting on our plate is un (masculine) haricot (bean) vert (green).  This doesn't matter, except that if you are thinking in English, you have to stay aware that the 'green' has to go after the 'bean' or you sound like an illiterate idiot...and you can't call it une haricote verte either, because that would make it feminine.  When you start thinking in the new language, your mind doesn't stop to worry about that any more, it just flows in the right patterns.  Whichever pattern of words we use, we all recognize the vegetable in the dish before us, and can agree as to what it is.

And that's where it struck me that the experience of revelation is a similar thing.  What Joseph Smith called 'pure intelligence' comes into our mind, and we have to let it speak to us according to our own understanding.  Like a language, we can learn to gain clarity without having to strain at every little bit.  We can also understand that it's not necessarily going to come out as the identical expression from someone else, because the Holy Ghost speaks to our mind and heart.  Comprehension can be very exact, but it requires us to learn how to 'translate.' 

Spiritual experience has its own tongue, and our human languages of communication may only approximate its clarity.  Language alone wrestles with the abstract or infinite—think how many arguments there have been about defining “love,” a concept we all agree is real. The experience of the Spirit actually makes those abstracts clearer to us, because it touches us with the Infinite, speaking to memory underneath the veil of mortality. Words are simply not perfect, not fully adequate, to define what we feel and know; but someone who has experienced the same thing--or is sharing the experience with us--will be able to comprehend on a level deeper than words.  To be in a room that fills up with light, because the Spirit is present so purely and lifts every heart there, is a blessing of joy.  It’s unmistakable. Words are powerful, but truth runs even deeper. Perhaps it cannot be perfectly captured.  The more we comprehend the spiritual, though, the more precise our understanding of its words will become.


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About Marian Stoddard

Marian J. Stoddard was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in its Maryland suburbs. Her father grew up in Carson City, Nevada, and her mother in Salt Lake City, so she was always partly a Westerner at heart, and she ended up raising her family in Washington State. Her family took road trips all over the United States and Canada, so there were lots of adventures.

The adventures of music, literature, and art were also valued and pursued. Playing tourist always included the local museums as well as historical sites and places of natural beauty. Discussions at home, around the dinner table or working in the kitchen, could cover politics, philosophy, or poetry, with the perspective of the gospel underlying all. Words and ideas, and testimony and service, were the family currency.

Marian graduated from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, and attended the University of Utah as the recipient of the Ralph Hardy Memorial Scholarship, where she was graduated with honors, receiving a B.A. in English. She also met the love of her life, a law student, three weeks after her arrival; she jokes that she had to marry him because her mother always wanted a tenor in the family. (She sings second soprano.) They were married two years later and have six children and six grandchildren (so far). She treasures her family, her friends, and her opportunities to serve.

Visit Marian at her blog, greaterthansparrows.  You can contact her at bloggermarian@gmail.com. 

Marian and her husband live in Tacoma, Washington. Together they teach those who are preparing to go to the temple for the first time, and she also teaches a Stake Relief Society Institute class.

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