Majoring in lingustics

By | January 22, 2009

Recently a brother wrote to me about the quandry he faces when he hears that young people are considering majoring in linguistics. He worries “that a degree like this will not be useful in their practical life.” He has graciously allowed me to post my reply to him.

Hi, [name withheld to protect the innocent].
Yes, I understand the quandary. I have been guided over the years on this matter not merely by my own personal experience but by something Brother Lee shared with the elders and co-workers in Taipei on or around Monday, 9 March 1986. I had travelled with him to Taipei to begin serving on the Chinese NT Recovery Version, and at the earliest opportunity after arriving, he met with the responsible ones. He told the brothers to pray that the Lord would raise up young people in Taiwan who were trained in languages and linguistics. He said that his admonition was in response to the general tendency of young people in Taiwan to study math and the physical sciences, and he felt that there was a dearth of young people properly trained in languages and linguistics to serve the Lord. Certainly he was addressing a particular need there in Taiwan, but to me it laid bare the general need for young people with this kind of training everywhere. I had defended my linguistics doctoral dissertation just a few weeks earlier, and so naturally I was quite pleased with the fellowship. But my being in the right place at the right time was definitely not something of my own device. More on that later.
I suppose that that your quandary really raises two questions: 1) Is a degree in languages or linguistics really widely practical for the Lord’s service? And 2) is a degree in languages or linguistics really practical for anything at all? But in either case, I think the question may be moot. I do not think that anyone can deliberately plan out an education that will assuredly result in a place in the Lord’s service. We know that this is not how the Lord operates. He leads us, if we let Him, but rarely does He let us know more about the path ahead than what our short sight can actually see. I believe that we human beings are very poor predictors of our own futures, and He does not expect us or even allow us to know where we will be in His service in the future. Further, even for entering into the practical workplace, I do not think that one’s course of study is completely determinative. Certainly, some people major in business, work in business, and die in business, but many, many people major in political science and die in business. What practical value, then, is their degree in political science? A great deal, I would say, though not precisely in political science. Rather, as we know, what one takes from a BA program is not just the knowledge of the field but also the skills of the university and the aptitude for learning. I would also expect that a degree in languages or linguistics has about the same practical value as many other degrees. I do not deny that some degrees open more and better doors than others, and perhaps a degree in languages and linguistics falls somewhere on the lower end of that scale. But not all study to open more and better job doors. Some study because they love the material of a particular field, and that, I feel, has great benefit and will propel them to a pursuit of excellence that will open more and better doors.
So, when I hear that young people are studying languages or linguistics, I am glad to hear it. First, it answers the prayer of Brother Lee and the responsible ones in Taiwan. And second, I am almost certain that they are studying this because they like it, and I believe that that will motivate them to do well and draw from the university as much training as they can. I do not feel that they handicap themselves for a practical job as long as they do well in their programs, and I do not feel that what they study will be useless in their practical service if they end up serving the Lord full-time. Thus, I never discourage anyone from studying of languages or linguistics if he or she genuinely loves these fields.
In my own practice, when I am in a general environment like the [full-time] training, I unabashedly encourage young people to study linguistics. I tell them that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and that “all things came into being through Him [the Word].” Thus, long before there was anything for physicists, chemists, biologists, sociologists, psychologists, and humanists to study, there was something for linguists to study. We linguists attend to the very first, and indeed the only eternal, subject matter, and it is good if everyone would study linguistics. I know–it is shameless, but for a general exhortation I do have the backing of Scripture and the fellowship of Brother Lee. However, when I am fellowshipping with individual saints one on one, I never encourage anyone to study languages or linguistics–or anything else, for that matter. But I do encourage them to do what I did, which indeed got me in the right place at the right time, that is, to pray often, to pray earnestly, and to pray desperately that the Lord would lead and guide them according to His intention for their place in His body and that His peace would arbitrate in their hearts so that they would know how He wants them to study. I encourage them to learn to live by the peace within and not to go against that peace. I share my many practical experiences of going through my education, deciding on this course and not on that one, on this degree plan and not on that one, and on this university and not on that one, based solely on the peace or the unrest inwardly. I could never have engineered my place in the Lord’s service through my own devices, and I never tried to. Mercy, I never even had enough wit (or folly) to think that I should! I was just scared that I would educate myself out of the Lord’s blessing, and I was working with Him constantly to make sure I didn’t. He had His plans for what I was studying, but He never told me what they were. I had only the peace from Him, and no more–no explanations and no visions for the road ahead. In fact, in a few instances, I concocted explanations for His peace that were so far afield of the truth that I chuckle now when I consider them. I could sense peace but could not make sense of the peace. And, Brother, I also always tell them what you told me in early 1978, “Just consecrate yourself to the Lord, and He will take care of everything else, even the working out of your consecration.”
Those are my thoughts on this. I appreciate the opportunity to write this down. Would you mind if I posted an edited part of your email below and my response here on one of my blogs? I would, of course, protect your identity in the matter and refer to you in a anonymous way.
Much grace to you,

5 thoughts on “Majoring in lingustics

  1. Miguel Solorio

    I am glad that I found this blog post, I am currently struggling to decide if I should continue with my studies to become a Speech and Language Pathologist.  Thank you for the encourgement to just consecrate myself to the Lord and allow Him to take care of everything else.  

  2. Andy Crow

    This is helpful fellowship in the specific category that is under consideration by my son. He is talented in learning languages but only now finishing a two year college; he has been considering mixing language with business for practical reasons, when it appears his real interest and ability is in the languages. Thanks

  3. paula king

    Once [a sister] and i went to a convention for curriculum writers of Christian children's materials. (we went as vendors, but also did a workshop on how to teach through singing.) one of the convention events was a study of learning styles. i was one of 200+ who attended that seminar. after talking about learning styles (everything from kinetic to artistic, etc, including music!), the director asked everyone to go stand under the big signs around the room to indicate his/her favorite medium for receiving information. (drumroll here) … I (the musician) was THE ONLY PERSON (in a group of writers!) who said that my favorite medium was the written word. she was aghast, dumbfounded, almost hysterical; declaring, almost shouting, "aren't we the people of the WORD?!?!?!" it still haunts me! sigh. we live in a video culture…. i found again this week that wonderful verse in Hosea 14:2 – take WORDS with you, and return to Jehovah.    

  4. simone netjes

    Hello brother Kerry,


    Just an encouraging note.  Our children speak by default 2 languages.  One is English and the other is Dutch.  We are so grateful that our children were raised in an English speaking country (USA) yet are able to speak their mother's tonque Dutch,  just because we were smart enough to keep speaking and reading books in Dutch. I am from Holland and finished the FTTA in 1991.  From there I went to Russia with the second wave of Full timers.  In 1995 I married an American brother which brought us back to the USA, Spokane WA.  We got 2 children and raised them both speaking Dutch and English.  Now,  when we visit family and the saints in Holland,  they can very well relate to all.  In fact, my son Luke, would love to study on the university in Delft.  Recently, brother Henk gave us a tour around the campus and left us with a great impression how awesome it would be if our son indeed could study there.  The Lord knows well!  Well, dear reader.  I'm so glad that learning languages is still considered cool!.

    Much love in Him,  Simone Netjes.


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