This summer while teaching through Genesis with the Jochebed’s Hope staff on Nias, one of the preachers on the island asked a question that I (Hutton) didn’t expect: “the Bible says that, before the Tower of Babel, all the people on earth spoke one language (Genesis 11:1). What language was that?” I responded quickly: “Indonesian,” and everybody laughed. Sadly, we never came to a conclusive answer. But the moment sticks out in my memory as one that calmed my nerves as I labored to teach in a foreign language, and especially as a moment that brought the class together.
Language continued to be significant throughout our time on the island. The kids in the children’s home and dormitories all take English classes in school, and many of them strive to become especially proficient in hopes of finding a job that requires it someday; a small handful aspire to go to college in English-speaking countries. So we’d spend afternoons and evening sitting on the porch, them coaching me in Indonesian – just as we did on my first trip in 2019 – while also asking questions about English idioms; differences between British and American pronunciation; and distinctions between homophones like “plane” and “plain,” distinguished from “plan” and “playing” – many of which can have more than one meaning.
If that wasn’t exciting enough, things got really fun when I tracked down a dictionary for the local island language, a difficult and poorly documented language that made my Indonesian skills look like child’s play. The handful of words and phrases I learned in that language got more than a few laughs when I had the opportunity to speak to an advanced English class at the local high school.
There are plenty more stories I could tell. Language differences were the source of both joy and frustration every day of the trip, and they’re especially fascinating to my English-major, linguistically inclined self. But the best part is recognizing what these experiences point to. The first book of the Bible, as I covered in class on Nias, talks about a time in the past when God scattered and divided people by giving them different languages; but the last book of the Bible talks about a time in the future when God will draw those people back together, and their diverse languages will no longer be a source of division, but will become a sign of His glory:
“…A GREAT MULTITUDE THAT NO ONE COULD NUMBER, FROM EVERY NATION, FROM ALL TRIBES AND PEOPLES AND LANGUAGES, STANDING BEFORE THE THRONE AND BEFORE THE LAMB…” (REVELATION 7:9)
As we worship and serve alongside our friends in Nias, I’m constantly reminded of the people that God is creating to worship him forever – a people from every nation and every language. And, as it always ought to be, I find that my fellowship with God’s people always points me back to the God who brought us together.