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The Plank in the Eye of the English Language

The Plank in the Eye of the English Language

MAY 3, 2021    |    4 MINUTE READ

A Lie

Many of us in the United States might identify with a particular experience in our foreign language classes in middle and high school. We spent most of those days in class groaning like Israelites in the wilderness. We said something like "Spanish is too hard! What were they thinking when they made this language?"

Then out of our ignorance we said, "English is so much easier!"

One woman teaching another woman Swahili.

Dr. Moselle Stark attending an afternoon tutoring session

I was one of those people back in the day, but during the past couple years I have had the experience of learning language with renewed vigor. During that time, I also have spoken with many folks who were trying to learn my native language, English. As we compared notes about our frustrations, I learned a couple of things:

  1. Learning any language (with the exception of Pig Latin) is inherently difficult. When you were a kid learning your mother tongue, you didn’t have the self-awareness to note how difficult the process was. It takes years!
  2. Every language has seemingly ridiculous rules, followed by exceptions to those same ridiculous rules.
  3. English is the CHIEF OF SINNERS when it comes to rules, exceptions, and sources of frustration. Even things which we English speakers think are “simple” have layers of complexity that we have simply overlooked due to overfamiliarity.

Don't believe me? I shall demonstrate.

Think you know the meaning of the verb "Put"? At some point, you had to learn all of its prepositional modifiers, which you never realized are a BEAST:

  • Put off
  • Put on
  • Put out
  • Put together
  • Put up with
  • Put up to
  • Put down
  • Put away
  • Put aside
  • Put back

These prepositions all give the verb "put" a slightly different, contextualized meaning to which most English speakers never give a second thought. Speak with someone learning English, and they will likely mention these prepositional modifiers as one of the nastiest things they need to memorize.

Four children sit on the floor listening to their teacher

Even the kids are learning fun things, like how to count to ten in Swahili.

I recently became frustrated with how Swahili has a "negative" verb tense. It doesn't really have a word that does the same thing as English's "no" or "not." I longed for the simple days of negating things in English. However, beneath the facade of simplicity lies many a booby trap.

Future Tense:

  • I will do it --> I'll do it. The normal contraction use of apostrophe.
  • I will not do it --> I'll not do it. It works but sounds exceedingly snarky.
  • I will not do it --> I won't do it. Wait, did we move the contraction over from "I will" to "will not" and now all is copacetic? What's up with that?

Past tense:

  • I did it. Of course, that works.
  • I didn't do it. That is the right negative, but now we have 2 “do”s. Do do? Let's turn it around and see how do do looks in the positive.
  • I did do it. Well, now it sounds like you are being defensive. This only makes sense if someone is refuting another's claim that, in fact, they did NOT do something.

People walking on the road past a sign for Tenwek hopsital.

The main drive entering Tenwek Hospital grounds

And then there are plurals. I was shocked to see how much of Swahili grammar branches off the need to know the singular and plural forms of nouns. Then I learned that there are about six different ways to pluralize a noun. And if you want to sound remotely intelligent, then you need to straight up memorize them.

As I tried to study these nouns and categorize them in their proper plural form, a feeling akin to righteous indignation arose. But then again, I realized the lack of rhyme or reason to pluralizing English nouns:

  • The plural of person is people.
  • The plural of child is… cheeple? No. Children.
  • The plural of mouse is mice.
  • The plural of house is… hice? No. Houses.
  • The plural of leaf is leaves.
  • The plural of tooth is… teethes? No. Teeth.

People along the road at Tenwek

You will regularly hear three languages at Tenwek: English, Swahili, and Kipsigis

Eye Logs

Jesus famously said in his sermon on the mount, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3 ESV).

We, as native speakers of American English, are often quick to throw stones at other languages and cultures we do not understand. While much of this exercise is poking fun at languages, the “righteous indignation” that I mentioned earlier was half-joke/half-truth. I have certainly made the mistake of placing moral importance on trivial differences and inconveniences between different cultures and language, when all the while, I can be blind to the sheer magnitude of the differences and inconveniences that I force others to accommodate/reckon with.

We pray for humility as we continue to learn the language and culture of the people around us. Thankfully, humility often comes with the ability to laugh at ourselves. We have done a lot of that recently, and we look forward to sharing with more folks in that laughter.

Two women sitting at a table, one studying notes and one pouring a drink.

Mid-morning chai breaks are an important way to embrace Kenyan culture.


PRAY: Are you or someone you know learning a new language or culture? Pray for perseverance and that God will reveal Himself in the process like He did to the Starks. Pray also that the learning process will be fun in spite of the challenges it presents.

GO: If you’re interested in finding your part in the story of redemption God’s writing all around the world, we have lots of opportunities. See where God might be calling you!

Missionary Bio: Kevin and Moselle Stark began serving in Kenya with their three sons in 2020. Kevin is involved in community ministry, while Moselle is an OB/GYN at Tenwek Hospital. Check out their blog to get updates on their ministry.

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