Mennonite Church Canada logo
News » Releases » Language learning: A metaphor for how the church should be

Language learning: A metaphor for how the church should be First person: Mark Wiehler


Mark and Vanessa Wiehler are Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in Seoul, South Korea, where they teach English at Connexus, a ministry of the Korea Anabaptist Center.

View or download full sized image.


November 30, 2007
- Mark Wiehler

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:17)

SEOUL. South Korea — I have been teaching English in Seoul now for two months, and I have come to the conclusion that I don't know English.  Sure I can talk about what I did today, what I will do this weekend, and at least sometimes I can accurately convey my emotions to friends or family, but I really don't think I know English. 

In the last two months there have been numerous times when students have asked me “Why is that sentence like that.”  I look at the sentence on the board, ponder respectively for a few moments, and find myself at a loss of words and having to say, “It just sounds better that way” or “its more natural this way.”

Its not easy. Try explaining (in a simplified way) the difference between “I worked,” “I had worked,” “I was working,” “I had been working,” and “I have been working.”  I know the difference instinctively but it’s hard to explain the grammatical rules surrounding it, especially to English learners who don't have a lot of experience.  Even if I could teach perfect grammar, I still have to teach emphasis and intonation, something that I don't think can be taught through explanation but rather through participation and imitation. 

So while language learned from a textbook is accurate it can still sound unnatural.  A student who writes, “I prepared hastily for my exams,” may be correct but I think, “I crammed for my exams,” sounds more natural (although arguably “prepared hastily” may sound natural in Britain). 

Most of the students say they study with native speakers because they want to sound like a “natural” speaker.  Essentially they are looking for the subtleties of language and these become some of the most important parts of our class.  Sarcasm is one example of this.  There are no rules for sarcasm (as far as I know) and it can only be taught through examples, through experience and participation.    

Grammatical rules of how we should talk indeed help in language learning, but I see participation and experience with others as the true learning experience.  Experiencing the language, discovering its subtleties and building relationships are how we learn language.  Children learn from example; they are not taught to talk through endless lists of rules explaining prepositions, verb forms and time clauses, but rather through observation and imitation.

I think that language learning could be an informative analogy for how the Church should be.  The world is not going to learn what the Church is through long, grammatical descriptions. We can define the Church as Christ's body, but does that have any meaning outside of the Church where the language of competition, selfishness and war dominate?  People are not going to experience the love of Christ through grammatical understandings of what it means to be a Christian, where such descriptions can dangerously become exclusive and damaging.  Rather experiencing Christ's gift is about participation in the Church through community, liturgy and relationships.  Essentially as Christians we must experience Church to learn about it, just as we must participate in language to become fluent. 

Maybe in a few months I will have mastered grammatical English and discover that I am completely wrong.  Perhaps language can be taught strictly through books and grammatical explanations.  But I still can’t help but think of how children are such efficient language learners, not through studying grammar, but simply through observation and imitation.

If we can enter the Church as children and learn through participation, then we can truly begin to understand what it means to be a part of the Body of Christ.