Grasping the world word by word

The mother tongue is the child’s hand through which the mind learns to grasp the world. This is where the words come from with which God addresses each individual in a very personal way. Here are some reflections on the UNESCO International Mother Language Day, which is observed annually on 21 February.

Whenever my thoughts turn to the topic of mother tongue language there is an image that involuntarily flashes into my head. If the readers of this article have not read the biography of Helen Keller or watched the film The Miracle Worker, I would sincerely recommend it. It is guaranteed to be a most memorable experience if not a life altering encounter.

Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing through illness shortly before turning two years old. She never had the opportunity of developing language. Can anyone imagine what the world must be like not knowing words? She had a teacher who became her life-long companion, Anne Sullivan, who assisted her in communicating with a set of hand signs. And then came the breakthrough.

Language brings order to chaos

It is this moment when Helen was approximately seven years old that I refer to in my opening paragraph. The dramatic, heart- rending and soul-moving realisation that the liquid she is feeling on her hand has a name. It is a word: water! Suddenly there could be order in her life of chaos.

Most of us are very fortunate that we do not have to go through such grave circumstances to learn our mother tongue, and because of this we perhaps sometimes even take it for granted. Do we realise that quite automatically we from an early age learnt to order our world through words? We developed an ever-increasing vocabulary through which we could communicate what we wanted and what we needed.

But this was only the beginning—the fundamentals of mother tongue language—because it is so much more! This language shapes and moulds our personal, social, and cultural identity. It fosters the ability of concept forming and allows for the development of many other skills including critical thinking and literacy skills. Is it not interesting that even when we have learnt a second language, we don’t have to re-learn, for example, critical thinking?

Language helps us discover new worlds

One could write so much about each one of these aspects, but I would like to focus on the literacy skills of mother tongue language and the impact this had on me as far as faith is concerned. From the earliest times I remember with fondness the Bible stories I was told and sometimes also read. Irrespective whether it was my mother, father, or Sunday School teachers I was transported in my imagination to a new world where there were all kinds of interesting characters. Through the words of my mother tongue, they became familiar to me and a deep curiosity and interest in this kind and loving man Jesus was created.

Later, as a young adult, I studied literature and to my surprise I found that elements of the Bible are compulsory reading if we wish to truly understand the writings of many authors. Understanding the nature of different characters, the bases of divergent philosophical arguments, and the quest for meaning in life, are but a few of the topics written about that have the Bible as reference.

From the perspective of literature, I was also always fascinated by the beautiful poetic imagery found in the Bible. This brings to life such beautifully vivid explanations and descriptions. Since the motto for this year is: Christ our future! let me illustrate this with examples on this theme.

In respect of the time of the rapture we read: “And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind” (Revelation 6: 13), and “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God” (1 Thessalonians 4: 16). Just as beautiful it is to read of the marriage of the Lamb (Revelations 19: 6–9) and of the city of God (Revelation 21). What an amazing future awaits us!

Language speaks to the soul

The most telling personal experience of what my mother tongue meant to me in respect of my faith was, however, an incident that occurred when I travelled to a foreign country. There I attended a divine service and felt fairly comfortable during the sermon as I have a basic understanding of the language that was spoken. Then, a Priest was called to serve. Whether it was by design or by chance I don’t know, but he served in my mother tongue.

At that moment the impact on my soul and spirit was such that it almost did not matter what his message was. To hear my mother tongue in which I was introduced to God and His Son Jesus Christ moved my inner being to the point that it brought tears to my eyes. The content of the sermon I have long forgotten, but the feeling I experienced then still gives me gooseflesh even as I write about it now.

May the language of the mother tongue always be valued and greatly celebrated.


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Kennard Kotze
20.02.2021