Many people cite job prospects, heritage, academic success or lifelong learning as reasons when deciding to learn another language, but is it worthwhile to learn a language for your religion? That is of course a very personal question, but one we will explore here.
While much is written about the declining numbers of religious people, religion is still central in the lives of millions of people around the world. In addition, religion greatly affects the cultures and worldviews of believers and nonbelievers alike.
A number of languages are closely associated with religion. Take Arabic and Islam, Hebrew and Judaism, as well as Sanskrit and Hinduism as examples.
It is often said that language is a window to a new world. Learning a language gives people a greater understanding of the cultures and thoughts that stand behind that language. But what if the language is dead? For example, Latin has historically been very close to the heart of Catholicism, but masses are no longer held in that language and worshipers today are encouraged to practice the religion in their own languages. So what benefit is gained from the study of Latin? Is it really necessary to get closer to the Catholic God?
A Muslim friend told me he studied classical Arabic out of a sense of religious duty, but that through practice (I imagine with the same diligence that I have seen Buddhists take to meditation), it brought him closer to his religion. Classical Arabic is probably not going to help him on his next vacation, but he feels better able to appreciate the Qur’an, and that brings him peace.
Another friend likes to remain blissfully ignorant of the foreign words he chants. He assigns them a secret spiritual meaning as he says them aloud but he finds his faith in spiritual feelings and vernacular teachings, not word for word. When he reads translations of their chants and prayers, he finds them to be simplistic and lacking in the seriousness and spiritual depth he finds from the sounds of the foreign tongue and religious services in his own language. He prefers not to learn the native language of his religion.
What about you? Do you feel the need to learn or know a language for your religion?