This is the text of an article published on Friday 18 May (pre-Pentecost) in the Yorkshire Post:

Does Teresa May speak French? Or German? Or any other foreign European language?

I dont know the answer, but the question is not merely academic. As the UK finds itself at a point in its modern history where we need more than ever to understand and speak with our neighbours, not to be able to do so in their language is problematic.

Every other European leader speaks more than their own language. Recently Emmanuel Macron addressed the US Congress in English, a language in which he comfortably subjects himself to political and media interviews. Angela Merkel speaks English and Russian as well as German. Our senior EU negotiators and administrators all operate in several languages without problem. But, the British?

Well, I ask this question as the UK approaches Brexit and the Christian Church approaches the celebration of Pentecost, and there is a connection between the two.

Pentecost comes fifty days after Easter and marks the intrusion of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the first followers of Jesus. They had been scared to death by the crucifixion of their messiah (messiahs are not supposed to end like this); they had been confused beyond imagination by their experiences of the risen Jesus; and they were terrified that they might be next for the chop at the hands of the Roman occupying forces.

At Pentecost these weak and fragile disciples became empowered to go public with all they had experienced and what they understood it to mean. They left their hidden rooms and went onto the streets to speak about Jesus. And, according to the account of this in the Acts of the Apostles, people on the streets of this cosmopolitan place were able to hear and understand in their own language.

Now, put to one side the actual mechanics of this (this was about what people heard, not the languages that were being spoken). Original witnesses of these events would immediately have thought of the story in Genesis 11 about the Tower of Babel. Here the hubris of people led to the collapse of mutual comprehension as a multiplicity of languages confused the people. No wonder it fell apart. Pentecost sees intelligibility and mutual comprehension restored.

And this is the point. Pentecost is seen as good, Babel as bad. When people look purely after their own interests, their own internal conversations and their own isolated concerns, the confusion that follows an inability to communicate becomes serious. This is why it is so important for those committed to any religion or none to learn each others’ ‘languages’ … in order to understand clearly before thinking to speak. Christians who differ must measure their language and their conduct against this Pentecostal demand.

After all, it cannot be a coincidence that we have one mouth, but two ears.

To bring this back to some of the challenges facing us as Brexit approaches, the language problem says more than we might think.

We live on an island. We dont have borders to cross where cultures are so different and languages are so diverse that language learning becomes a practical necessity for basic living. We still easily speak of going to Europewhen we are actually firmly part of it (not the same as belonging to the EU institutions, of course). So, with statistics for foreign language learning at school and universities in rapid decline, and with the UK being unable to supply adequate professional linguists for work in business, politics and institutions, it is not too dramatic to claim that the UK faces a crisis.

I once met some English businessmen in a hotel in Germany where they were doing trade deals. They laughed about my language concerns and said they didnt need to know any German as the Germans all speak great English and the negotiations are always done in English. Then one of the Germans said: But, you dont know what we are saying behind your back and that is where the dealing gets done.

Yet, look within many of our UK communities and we see young children moving easily between two or three languages. Many of our minority communities operate clearly in English, but speak a different language at home and a different one still with friends where language facilitates communication and social belonging. If young Asian children can do this, why are the Brits so reluctant to make the effort?

It is common to use the language of conflict resolution, social cohesion, diplomacy, national security, and so on, without ever making reference to language. Yet, language knowledge is essential to all these areas of life. And the advantage always lies with the multilingual partners, not the monolinguals.

Furthermore, as I have mentioned many times, Helmut Schmidt (former Chancellor of Germany) wrote a book in which he offered his advice to Germans thinking of entering politics. He warned that they should not contemplate this unless they spoke at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. Why? Because, he says, you can only understand your own culture if you look at it through the lens of another culture and for that you need to know language.

I agree with him, but on a wider level than the political. Failure to understand (let alone speak) a foreign language leaves us impoverished culturally, weakened economically, shallow intellectually, and vulnerable politically.

On Sunday, as we celebrate Pentecost and the challenge to Babel, I will be reflecting more widely on language and communication. Not only about how we do politics, but also how we enable others to hear good news in ways they can understand.

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This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Loving your neighbour as yourself is harder than it sounds. But, I would argue, it is also much more interesting than it seems. For example, it assumes that we might need to get to know our neighbour, and, at least, try to look through their eyes.

If travel does broaden the mind, then holidays such as this weekend when many Brits are enjoying a break abroad, surely open up the opportunity to look, listen and learn differently. And this is where we hit the problem: language.

Almost all Brits abroad will expect the natives to understand and speak English. And, to our embarrassment, they probably will. And they will pride themselves on their polyglottal skills.

Language learning in Britain continues to decline. According to statistics reported in newspapers last week, the numbers studying languages at school and university are falling fast. Some voices claim that this really doesn’t matter – that we can pick up a bit of German or Spanish later in life … if and when we need it.

Except that a language is not a commodity that can be simply picked off the shelf when convenient or expedient. To learn a language is more than to wield a tool; rather, it is to inhabit the world that language shapes.

At the age of 91 the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt wrote that we can’t understand our own culture unless we look at it through the eyes of another culture … and to do this we need to know language. In fact, he suggested learning two. For most Europeans this isn’t a problem; they constantly cross borders and entertain foreigners. Communication matters beyond mere functionality.

Not so here. It seems to me that political language in the UK has been coloured by the assumption that anything has value only in so far as it fulfils an economic end. Accordingly, we too easily regard language learning as a waste of time unless it leads to high-earning job in the future. But, I remember a German businessman in a hotel explaining to a monoglot British counterpart that although their negotiations were done in English the English couldn’t understand what was being said behind their backs – and that this put the Brits at a disadvantage. No response.

And this is why it is vital that children and young people learn other languages – at least in order to open their minds to different ways of seeing, thinking and interpreting the world. If loving your neighbour assumes knowing your neighbour, then learning the odd language opens up a world of wonders.

And let it be said at times of international insecurity, stress and fear: there is never a more important time to listen through the ears and look through the eyes of my neighbour – if only to see ourselves as we are seen.

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

In the middle of last week I got back from a ten-day visit to Tanzania. Not only are my feet still moving to the rhythms of the music and the energy of the dancing – in schools as well as churches – but I have come home looking differently at what had previously been familiar.

My experience reminded me of the late German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who wrote a book several years ago in which he kindly offered his advice to anyone thinking of standing for election to the German Bundestag: don't even think about it unless you speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. Why? Well, because, he says, you can't understand your own culture unless you look through the lens of another culture – and to do that you have to know something of (or, better, 'inhabit') the language. After all, language goes deep and some things can't be translated; they have to be intuited.

Well, I don't speak Swahili, but this is partly what was going on for me in Tanzania: not everyone sees the world as I do. For example, how are we to understand the significance of the first meeting in a thousand years between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow last week? Seen through an English lens, it might look merely odd. Seen through the eyes of a people whose religious memory goes deeper into centuries of division, and it will resonate more profoundly.

Or, politically, where the resurgence of Putin's Russia appears threatening in the West, but has a different complexion when seen by Russians whose recent history of collapse has been crying out for re-empowerment. Tensions over Syria, for example, have to be seen through Russian eyes, not just our own, if we are to see more clearly what is going on there.

None of this is new. Listening to Tanzanians describing their experience of life and loss, I could not help but look through their eyes at my own. And this exposes the limitations of my own imagination and understanding of the world – even my world. My mind was being changed.

This is what is referred to in the Bible as 'repentance' – the freedom to change one's mind – or, to put it more visually, to re-grind the lens behind the eyes that shapes the way we see God, the world and us.

It is no surprise, then, that for Christians this period of Lent is intended partly to clear away the stuff that stops us repenting. It creates the space in which we can once again, in humility, submit our perceptions, our convictions and our prejudices to the searching eye of love and justice and mercy and generosity. Or, for Christians like me, to have the courage not just to give up chocolate for a few weeks, but to dare to look and see differently that with which we had become comfortable or familiar.

 

Another giant has died. Former West German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt died today at the age of 96.

I got interested in Schmidt when I was studying German politics at university. Back in 2009 I posted on his latest book Ausser Dienst and then added references frequently.

Acres will be written and spoken about him, so I will just point to a selection of observations I have made here, here, here and here.

 

A day off (apart from a meeting from 10am to 2pm regarding the process for appointing a new Dean of Bradford, followed by a trip to the best physiotherapist in the world ever…) and a moment to note the arty highlights of the last couple of weeks amid all the work stuff.

German friends sent me the new CD by a band called Silbermond. For English ears German rock is an acquired taste. Apart from Herbert Grönemeyer, who I once saw perform in Linz, Austria, not much gets me listening frequently. In a week I have listened to Silbermond's Himmel Auf a dozen times. A great female lead vocal is backed by a tight band and some effective guitar work. And the lyrics (which I have just read through) are sensitive, searching, sometimes poignant expressions of longing for depth in a superficial world. Try 'Wofür', for example. I love it.

I caught Kristina Train on the telly and loved her voice. Her new album is called Dark Black and deserves a wide hearing. Much of it seems to me to be stripped back in order to allow her voice to fill the space. Again, there is a poignant beauty to songs which are deceptively simple. And it brightens up after the opening track cheerfully declares: “Dark black is the colour of my life since you've been gone.” Lovely stuff.

Swiss friends staying with us recently left us a French DVD of a 2010 film called Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs). It is all about a group of friends who, when another friend is badly hurt in a road accident, discover how shallow their relationships actually are. What appears to be strong only conceals the realities each one is afraid to reveal, thereby putting a question mark over the reality of love, trust and friendship. It is funny, sad, entertaining… and features the excellent Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Inception) and Jean Dujardin (The Artist).

Books? Still reading Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies alongside Verstehen Sie das, Herr Schmidt? – a book of informal interviews with former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Loving both.

The great thing about spending a week in Southwestern Virginia before the annual Council is that we got to meet a shed load of people and arrived at the Council already knowing many new friends. It also means that people trust me enough not to be perturbed when they come across something that surprises them.

Someone who heard me preach last Sunday morning at St Peter, Altavista, subsequently took a look at this blog. Down at the bottom were attachments – usually just the pictures I had embedded in the post. However, this one also seemed to have two (and I quote) “compromising pictures” attached. I have no idea what this means or where they came from. Furthermore, I can’t see them – but, clearly, others have. Funny old world… and now I am curious.

Anyway, the day began with a meeting with clergy and spouses from the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. Four of us formed a panel: a retired bishop from Tanzania, exiled Bishop Andudu from Kadugli in Sudan, Angela Ifill who works with the office of the Presiding Bishop in New York City, and me. We each introduced ourselves, said a bit about our ministry, then were open to question.

Most of the questions focused on the situation in Sudan and Andudu was excellent. However, towards the end of the session someone asked about tribalism in Sudan and which elements of the conflict there have to do with race or religion. This led into a fascinating conversation about ‘tribalism’, during which I rehearsed the perceptive Helmut Schmidt encouragement to German politicians: don’t go into politics unless you speak at least two foreign languages to a competent level. Why not? Because in order to understand your own culture you need to look through the lens of another culture… and to do that you need to know something of that other culture’s language.

And how was that relevant to questions of tribalism in Sudan? Well, simply because, as I pointed out, tribalism is a human phenomenon and not an African one. A week in the USA (and Virginia in particular) makes it blindingly obvious to an outsider that even Americans are tribal. Mention the ‘recent unpleasantness’ (the Civil War to you and me) and you quickly see who is in which ‘tribe’. Loyal identification with one’s state also tells its own story. I also added that, as a good Brit, I know all about tribalism in the UK, in England and in any institution. (Although it was both undiplomatic and unnecessary for someone to ask if Liverpool fan’s attitude to Manchester United was another example…)

The point (which was followed up by a number of people afterwards) was that we easily identify the weaknesses, factionalisms and myopic loyalties of others whilst being unaware of our own. Something reminds me here of what someone once said about ‘planks and motes’…

But, being enabled to look at oneself through the lens of another is a complete gift and privilege. Being here in Roanoke offers not only an experience of another culture and another church, but also compels me to look though the eyes of interlocutors here at myself and my own culture. It isn’t always comfortable.

As Bishop Gerrard from Tanzania put it: “We don’t necessarily agree with each other on a host of issues, but we are friends… and that is why we are here.” That is maturity. We recognise our tribalisms, but our unity (as Christians and as human beings) transcends the identified and owned differences and prejudices.

And if this post is accompanied by ‘compromising pictures’, it has nothing to do with me.

 

The Meissen Commission finished its five-year work period on Monday and our report will now be completed and published in due course. The new Commission will begin work in the new year, completing its work in 2016 – leading into Germany’s Reformation Year, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.


In a podcast recorded at the German Embassy last Thursday evening I referred to the deplorable state of language teaching and learning in England. This was picked up by several newspapers and has gained some wider comment.

In fact, I wasn’t criticising teachers. Language teaching in our schools is heroic. But, many teachers feel they are fighting a losing battle against cultural and political forces that are rooted in an island mentality. We might understand the emphasis on science and technology in schools, but the relegation of language learning to a not-very-enthusiastically-encouraged poor option says much about the British understanding of identity, communication and business.

First, language learning is essential to a good and broad education. Simply to be able to read or listen in one’s own language is severely limiting to potential. As Helmut Schmidt wrote in his marvellous book Ausser Dienst, no politician should think of entering the Bundestag (Parliament) unless they speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. Why? Because, says Schmidt, you can’t understand your own culture unless you have looked at it through the eyes of another culture. And, to do that, you have to know something of the other language.

I said this to Ken Livingstone in a television studio last year and he laughed and said that we wouldn’t have any politicians in the UK. I thought that spoke volumes.

Second, we are disadvantaged in the business world with which we seem in this country to be obsessed. As I said in the podcast, business isn’t all done in English over the table; the real stuff goes on behind your back and if you can’t understand what they’re saying privately, you’re stuffed. It is appalling that we produce so few professional linguists, but – more seriously – we don’t produce ordinary business people who can cope with a foreign language.

Third, we Brits seem to find language learning too hard. Yet, we have Asian kids in our schools who move easily and unselfconsciously between two, three or four languages.

Fourth, we have a political class that is narrowly focused on an economic prejudice that concentrates on technique and technology as if they could stand independently of wider linguistic, communication or cultural factors. Language learning is being presented as less important than other studies, ignoring the importance not only of ‘knowing stuff’, but also ‘being able to communicate it’.

This isn’t special pleading by a one-time linguist. It stands for itself as an important cultural deficit in England. And, not only are we depriving our own children and young people of a vital dimension of human living, but also we are shrinking the cohort of potential language teachers for future generations.

It is serious and needs some intelligent attention.

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Location:Bradford