The Great Banquet of Languages
By David Habecker '93
David Habecker ’93
My love affair with foreign languages began with my study of French in the eighth grade. I had been fascinated by words and language since my early childhood, and I was absolutely bowled over by the realization that the delights of my native language were just the beginning. I had discovered that for all the richness and beauty of the English language and literature, English was just one dish among many in the sumptuous banquet of the world’s languages and literatures waiting to be savored.
Having been drawn in by French, I proceeded to take advantage of every opportunity I could to study other foreign languages.
I added Spanish in high school, and then, during my four years at Seattle Pacific University, I had the privilege of studying Russian with Professor Frank Leddusire and German with Professor Michael Ziemann. In fact, I chose to attend SPU in part because it was virtually the only Christian university in the United States to offer Russian as a major.
As a doctoral student in Russian history at the University of Maryland, I was writing a dissertation on Chinese, Korean, and Japanese immigrants in the Far Eastern port of Vladivostok and decided that if I was serious about understanding Russia’s involvement on the Pacific Rim I ought to know not just Russian, but an East Asian language as well. So I ended up studying Mandarin for three years, by far my favorite of which was spent as a student in Beijing and Manchuria, living with Chinese roommates and immersing myself in everything from classical Chinese poetry to contemporary short stories and films. Several years later, during a two-year tour at the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi, I had the opportunity to experience the opposite end of the linguistic spectrum by studying Georgian — a small and relatively obscure “boutique language” with its own unique alphabet.
It is certainly true that, on a purely practical level, a knowledge of foreign languages has the potential to open many doors. The federal government is a generous promoter of foreign-language learning these days, and my year in China would not have been possible without a government fellowship that paid all my expenses. That fellowship in turn led directly to a job working as a diplomat with the U.S. State Department after I graduated.
And yet, at the end of the day, I honestly view such practical benefits as secondary to the way my life has been immeasurably enriched by my study of foreign languages, allowing me to engage other global cultures in a way that simply would not have been possible if I had spoken only English. When you don’t speak the local language, you fail to grasp something fundamental about the lives of those around you, as such recent films as Lost in Translation and Babel suggest. During one of my years living in Moscow, I fondly remember many late nights sitting around the kitchen table with Russian friends talking, laughing, drinking copious amounts of tea, and just enjoying each other’s company in a relaxed and uninhibited way that would have been impossible if I had needed constant interpretation.
Knowing multiple languages has also allowed me to serve as a bridge between cultures in wonderfully surprising ways. I will never forget the time when I was traveling by train across the Gobi Desert and found myself sharing a compartment with a Russian-speaking Mongolian and a Chinese businessman. Since neither knew the other’s language, I was soon delighted to find myself translating back and forth between Russian and Chinese so the two could have a conversation.
Studying the languages of other cultures has meant nothing less than learning to see the world through a new set of eyes and gain a fresh perspective on life. Let me offer just one small example. Frederick Buechner writes, “If you have even as much as a nodding acquaintance with a foreign language, try reading the Bible in that. … Some of it you may hear in such a new way that it is as if you had never heard it before. ‘Blessed are the meek’ is the way the English version goes, whereas in French it comes out ‘Heureux sont les débonnaires’ (Happy are the debonair). The debonair of all things! Doors fly open. Bells ring out.”
Buechner is right — I never cease to be amazed at the insights and, above all, freshness I gain by reading the Bible in one or another of the foreign languages that I have studied. I still find it delightfully evocative that the Russian Jesus speaks of the “Tsardom of Heaven,“ that the Chinese gospel of John boldly proclaims that “the Tao became flesh,” and that in the Latin version of Isaiah 34 the land of Edom is haunted by unicorns and dragons. For that matter, I can only imagine the wealth of insights I’m missing out on by not being able to read the Bible in the original languages — maybe someday I’ll have the opportunity to study ancient Hebrew and Greek.
So many dishes in the great banquet of languages, and so little time.
David Habecker speaks Russian, Mandarin Chinese, German, French, Spanish, and a bit of Georgian. He and his wife, Shelly, currently live in Silver Spring, Maryland.
–Photo by James Kegley
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