Rediscovering your mother tongue

A universal language for all? Forgetting your mother tongue? Is that even possible? Sure it is! Fortunately, there is a common solution to both problems. A reflection on today's International Mother Language Day.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic to travel around the world and speak to all the people you meet in their own mother tongue? Unfortunately, it would take several lifetimes to learn the approximately 7,100 languages spoken all around the globe today, not to mention all the dialects.

Attempts have even been made to introduce the world to artificially constructed “universal languages” such as Esperanto—meaning “one who hopes”—but the idea of teaching all people on earth the same language has proven utterly hopeless.

The one language for all

Nevertheless, there is indeed a language that everyone can understand and articulate, namely the language of love. God is love—and we have been created in His image.

The trouble is, the fall into sin has caused us to forget much of our original “mother tongue”. While some remnants of it may still seem vaguely familiar to us, our knowledge of it is fragmented and incomplete. We have instead come to learn the language of our own sinful nature, which is far more comfortable to us now.

The mother tongue: lost …

When I was an infant, my parents—who were immigrants to Canada from Germany—taught me to speak only German at first. They were very strict about this, and so it was that German became my mother tongue, the language of my home. I even learned to read and write it.

Since we lived in Canada, however, I also had to learn English before I went to school. By the time I had reached grade two, I had all but forgotten German in my English-speaking environment—and had no further desire to use it, since none of my friends understood.

Mind you, I still prayed in German until well into my teens. Mostly, this involved old, familiar patterns of expression, remnants of a childhood long forgotten. But I really had no idea how to formulate sentences of my own anymore. Some native speakers even implied I would never get it right again.

… and found

It was not until I went to university and took some German courses that everything came flooding back. And still I was not confident. I was very uncomfortable speaking German to anyone at first, and it was far outside of my “comfort zone”. Many times, when reaching for a word, all I could come up with was the English term. The only thing for it was to keep on trying.

It has taken me many years of work to relearn my own mother tongue—and even now I know that I will never know every word in its vocabulary, no matter how many years I practise. Indeed, no one can ever know all the words of any tongue. It is a lifelong exercise to learn even a single language.

Learning from the perfect teacher

To help us remember all that we have forgotten due to the fall into sin, God has sent us the perfect teacher: Jesus Christ. His life and example provide us with all the instruction we need. There is even a detailed description of this love in 1 Corinthians 13, where Apostle Paul goes to great lengths to outline what its exercise really entails. And still one could say a great deal more on the subject.

At first glance, such a high standard may seem impossible, and the evil one will even try to tell us we will never get it right. But let us never forget that God’s love has been “poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” We will make mistakes, revert back to our old nature, and feel like giving up, but God will continue to patiently teach us in the divine services, share the nature of Christ with us in Holy Communion, and send us back out into the world to practise.

Just don't give up

It may seem uncomfortable to testify of—and practise—Christ’s love at first, but the more we take courage, step outside of our comfort zone, and make the effort, the easier it will become. And people will respond!

Naturally we will not master this language on our own, even after a whole lifetime of effort. But our dear God will perfect us in grace when He sends His Son. Then we will fit right into the kingdom of heaven.

Not only will we be able to talk to everyone else in the same “mother tongue”, but we will also find it completely natural to converse with our dear God for all eternity.

Let us never stop learning!

Photo: Olivier Le Moal -

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Sam Mueller