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Separated by a Common Language

I had been in England for only a few days. I made any number of gaffes during my first day at work. The worst, perhaps, was when I asked my employer if, because it was so cold in the office, it would be okay if I wore pants to work.

“I’m sure it’s none of our business,” he deadpanned.

You see, “pants” in England are “panties.”

Later in the day, the prim and proper middle-aged woman who shared my office turned to a colleague and asked, “Simon, have you got an extra rubber?”

I didn’t dare show the horror on my face. I asked, my back still turned, if they could kindly tell me what a rubber was. An eraser. (Whew!)

I was the occasion of plenty more comedy for my English friends. It took at least another year of full immersion before I became functionally literate in my own language again. Two peoples separated by a common language, as Oscar Wilde quipped.

Today we face an analogous but altogether more serious problem: Americans are now one people separated by a common language. We are losing the ability to communicate about the most important things—things like freedom, love, marriage, and human rights—because words mean radically different things to different groups of people. Is it possible to have a meaningful conversation with someone who believes that love means sexual license? That there can be “marriage” between people of the same sex? That freedom includes the fundamental human right to kill a child in the womb?

Sometimes it seems that, were it even possible, getting the message across is hardly worth the time. We throw up our hands in despair. This might be called the Parisian approach. Let me explain.

Armed with elementary Latin, intermediate Spanish, and a European phrase book, I made my intrepid way across the channel to Paris. Having memorized a dozen French phrases, I braved my way into museums, shops, and restaurants, saying, s’il vous plaît, merci, où est, and je voudrais. The nearly universal response to my (admittedly poor) attempts was “puhh.” For those who have been on the receiving end, “puhh” requires no translation, but suffice it to say that it is accomplished by pursing the lips, blowing out a puff of air, and shrugging the shoulders derisively. It is the French version of rolling the eyes. Clearly I was too stupid for French.

From Paris, I made my way to Rome, now completely abashed. I decided my best defense was muteness. I didn’t even try to speak Italian. But Italians won’t take non capisco for an answer. Everyone I met acted as if communicating with me was of the utmost importance. If repeating the phrase slowly, rephrasing it, and adding hand gestures did not suffice, the Italians would mime it out until I said, ah, si, capisco. Then the ritual was repeated. That’s the Italian approach.

When communicating with the secular world, we need to be more Italian. Gregory Beabout notes in his article on page 6 that “many people seem unable to hear the Gospel in their own language.” We need to learn their language and teach them ours. In the words of St. Paul, “How will they believe in him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?”

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