Teaching Japanese Christianly

how to pray the japanese way by Jesslee Cuizon - Flickr

A friend wrote me in my capacity as a member of the Bible Integration Team at BJU Press:

Honestly, I struggle … as I teach Japanese. I do talk about how learning languages and other cultures is important from Christian perspective etc. at the beginning of the school year and have them memorize 2-3 verses from Japanese Bible; but I have a hard time integrating the Bible from day to day teaching the language (as I talk about different conjugation rules on different parts of speech). I think it’s much easier to do that in science, math, literature, and even art and music. But how should I integrate the Bible everyday in a modern language class? I took French and German [in the Christian college attended], but I don’t remember any examples of Bible integration on daily basis. How can I make each of my Japanese class period distinctly Christian?

I weighed in:

The first temptation may be to focus on Christianizing all the example sentences, but using only examples from witnessing can keep you from teaching needed skills (not to mention that it’s hokey, even trivializing of evangelism). Example sentences can surely often be Christian, and Bible memory ought to play a role I’m sure. But modern language (along with math, grammar, and writing) is what we at BJU Press sometimes call a “tool discipline.” The big question becomes not, “How do you understand this tool?” (although that question has its place in philosophy and linguistics) but “What are you using this tool to do?” The goal is to situate the instruction so that it’s always pointing toward those goals.

To help us ascertain whether or not we’re doing this kind of Bible integration, we at BJU Press use a rubric of three levels, each of which has a sub-level:

Level 0: No Bible Integration

Level 0 is not integrating at all; you pray before class and you go to chapel afterwards, and you keep the classroom rules by appeal to Christian principles, but that’s basically it.

Level 1: Referencing the Bible

1a Bible Analogies: this level is usually bad, usually stretched, usually hokey. Like this: “Kids, Japanese adverbs describe how the action of verb is being done, just like the Bible describes how we obey God.” It doesn’t have to be hokey, but I can’t think of a non-hokey way to use level 1a in Japanese instruction right now…

1b Bible Examples: the Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about foreign language learning; about the most you’ll get here (going off the top of my head) is a recognition of passages like Acts 2 and Acts 22:2—illustrations of the power of one’s heart language. People listened to Paul when they heard he was speaking in Hebrew/Aramaic. And the Great Commission definitely implies the need for language learning/translating. The Christian religion is perhaps uniquely transnational (Islam is, too, but the Qur’an is not; Judaism is not; Hinduism is not; etc.).

Level 2: Applying the Discipline Christianly

2a Serving with the discipline: The examples I gave in level 1b lead naturally into 2a—the way we serve with the discipline is by giving someone a significant gift: the ability to understand you easily in their own language. Of course evangelism becomes possible in a big way when you do this, and that serves your neighbor. But it also serves your neighbor to learn his language for other purposes—business, diplomacy, education, etc. This is really fruitful; I would regularly attempt to display to students through your example sentences and scenarios how Japanese might be useful for Christian purposes. If business doesn’t sound like a Christian purpose to them, it’s probably because they see it in a two-story-viewish way (a la Francis Schaeffer)—they don’t recognize the importance of the so-called secular vocations. But diplomacy, helping solve international conflicts or improve trade relations, may be more obviously a Christian endeavor. Jesus told us to be peacemakers, among the other good works He told us to do. Education, too, would be a rich source for examples. You can show the students how Japanese might be useful in teaching—whether teaching Japanese kids or teaching kids in some other Asian nation who are currently clamoring to learn it. All of these are ways of serving my neighbor by knowing Japanese. And using example scenarios drawn from level 2a both answers and forestalls the common objection: “Why do I have to learn this?” You know better than I how useful Japanese is, and you know better than your students the Christian purposes to which it can be put. 

2b Worshiping with the discipline: I love language, and it’s not hard for me to regularly stop to marvel at the creativity of God in creating different kinds of languages (and creating His image-bearers, who in turn create writing systems). Learning another language is always illuminating, too, for your own language. And this, too, points to the creativity of God. This gets kind of metaphysical/theological, but how does a language hold together when, strictly speaking, there’s no law of gravity forcing people to follow its rules? Usage determines meaning, but who determines usage? Following Poythress, I’d say it’s God. Another reason to worship because of Japanese.

Level 3: Rebuilding with the Bible

3a Evaluating the Discipline: Japanese is fallen like everything in this world; there will need to be times when we say so. But it’s a little hard to say where Japanese is fallen—especially for a non-speaker like me. So I would tend to adjust level 3a to talk more about Japanese pedagogy. What are the purposes for which it’s taught? Are they God-honoring and neighbor-loving purposes, or just money purposes? And then, though your students probably won’t be aware of what you’re doing, you may also evaluate pedagogical practices themselves: do they work? do they fit Christian purposes for language-learning? do they assume something untrue about our students as human beings? do they miss opportunities to teach linguistic principles important for biblical hermeneutics (like usage determining meaning)?

3b Rebuilding the Discipline: At this level we take our evaluation in level 3a and try to push the discipline back in the right direction. Without knowing Japanese I can still say with some confidence (and I’ve blogged about this) that the fundamental reason most people learn it is money. People feel they can get a leg up if they know the language of an economic powerhouse like Japan. That’s not wholly bad, but it is certainly insufficient for Christian students and teachers. How does Japanese learning change when all the students and teachers are engaged in it for level 2a and 2b reasons? I’m not an expert, so I can’t say. Here I’ll ask Amos, an expert in Spanish pedagogy, to weigh in.

Then I asked a friend with a PhD in Spanish to weigh in:

Three big aspects jump out to me:

  1. Language as a part of creation: It’s structure and ability to adapt mirrors God’s character and wisdom in creation as it does in the sciences. Structure exists in language because God is orderly. Variation exists in language because God does not create static beings. They are intricate and have changing needs. In order to communicate, God has designed language to change over time, thus resulting in the creation of new dialects, languages, etc.
  2. Language as a key to culture: Here you can get into a lot Mark described. It is not just presenting culture so the students can “oo” and “ah” and become “enlightened”  and “accepting”  of other people. Rather, it is an opportunity to learn to evaluate all cultural beliefs and practices in the light of God’s Word and teach the students that there are no “superior” cultures—only fallen people that have different beliefs and practices that need to be inspected through the corrective lens of the Word.
  3. Language as a tool: Mark commented largely on this one as well: why are they studying the language? Motivation for a Christian must be based in glorifying God.

I would also recommend the book that Bible Integration and Worldview passed on to me The Gift of the Stranger. It is a study on the biblical basis for Foreign Language Education. I agree with the authors’ applications and overall message. I don’t necessarily think Scripture is quite as dogmatic about the topic as they seem to think. Their entire analysis relies heavily on metaphorical reading of Scripture. It’s not wrong, but metaphor lends itself to a great deal of subjectivity. It is a fascinating and thought-provoking read.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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