A Pentecost experience with Italian

June 2, 2022
When we celebrate Pentecost, we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit—and Acts tells the miraculous story of people understanding each other even though they speak different languages.

If you’ve spent any time with any other human beings ever, you know that comprehension can be tough even when you DO speak the same language. It’s a challenge even if you are part of the same church—or the same family. Communication is tough. It pays to be humble when we talk with each other, and to work hard to clarify what the other is saying. We’re learning their language.

I’ve been learning this lesson in a new way—I started studying Italian in January. I’ve always wanted to study the language. I’ve sung Italian songs as part of my voice lessons over the years, without learning one thing about grammar. In the course of my recent study, I’ve learned not just grammar and vocabulary, but Italian history and culture, too. While I’m having a great time with it, learning a language is not easy. Conversation and the complexities of grammar are both challenging to understand. It’s fun, but it’s work. 

Learning Italian in my 60s reminds me that Pentecost, and every day of the year, I have the opportunity to connect with people who speak, live, and think differently than I do.
Here are a few things I’ve learned from picking up a language in my 60s, after not studying any language since my 20s.

It is hard (and good) to be a beginner in communication. I’ve been practicing conversation with a teacher online. I can barely carry on a conversation. My teacher says, “Making mistakes is good.” (That’s not how I was raised…) If I don’t try and make mistakes, I can’t learn the language. Period. That’s a good life lesson. You have to make mistakes to learn. And most of us make mistakes in relationships, and in understanding others. “Beginner’s mind” as we relate to others can help us remember we don’t know as much as we think we do about the people we lead—and those we live with. Can we be as compassionate with them when they misunderstand us as we try to be with others?

Learning a new language is exciting. At my age, I know a lot about a lot of topics. I even know a fair amount about language, having studied several earlier in my life. But I don’t know much Italian. It’s thrilling to see at least some of the pieces come together. Meeting someone new and learning about their perspective and experience can also be exciting. As we emerge from the pandemic, finding a way to connect with someone you don’t know, with a different culture and life experience, could be a great learning experience. I had another exciting experience with this last year as part of the “Reckoning with Racism” group offered by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. We learned about the difficult history of race in our state and heard from a variety of voices about their experiences.

Connecting what I don’t know with what I know helps. I got a Kindle Bible in Italian, and I read a few verses a day of familiar passages. (My Kindle has an Italian dictionary, too, so I just have to press on a word to get the definition.) This can be true as we meet new people across languages and cultures, as well. Years ago when I was a pastor we had a speaker from a local Muslim group come share about Islam. I didn’t know much about Islam then, and what he said was fascinating. Yet talking with a mother who came with him about our elementary-age daughters also helped me connect around our common experience with someone of a different faith.

Learning a language means learning how people communicate, and accepting the difference. Why does Italian use a preposition here and not there? Why is there a whole different past tense for the remote past? (Aaargh!) Why? is not the right question—there are technical answers to that, but they don’t matter to me as I learn. Italian is the way it is, and if I’m going to learn it I have to accept that. I hope this practice can help me accept other people, learn the way they communicate, and understand them a little better without trying to change them.

Pentecost, and every day of the year, you have the opportunity to connect with people who speak, live, and think differently than you do. In your house, in your church, in the wider faith community and beyond, you can learn some new languages and practice connecting and understanding a little better.

Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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