Reflections on Foreign Language Preaching

It has been an interesting weekend of preaching for me.  For the first time in almost four years, I preached in Italian.  Actually, three times in two churches.  (Background: I spent my first five years in Italy and have visited many times while growing up, my Italian is quite poor, limited vocabulary and by no means fluent … but just about able to preach in Italian which is probably better for listeners than using translation.) So I have been reflecting on the experience and what it shows me in reference to first language preaching:

Being aware of possible confusion prompts greater focus on the main thought. Since I know my Italian is severely limited, I know that I can easily miscommunicate at any moment.  This forces me to stay more focused on the main thought that threads through the message.  On reflection, the reality is that I can easily miscommunicate at any moment, even in English.  It’s not just my use of the language, but so many other factors than distract listeners for a moment and cause a loss of understanding.  Preaching in Italian has only served to reinforce the value of the central idea in preaching.  Preach one thing.

Transitions really do matter a lot. It is so easy to lose people in the curves of a message, in the move from one section of the message to the next.  Again, preaching in a weak second language made that sensation obvious to me, but perhaps I would be helped to remember that in every message.  Transition super clearly.

Listeners are really gracious. In recent years I’ve taught people who have been required to preach in class, but not in their first language.  I’ve always told them that although it is so much harder to preach in a second language, there is also an advantage.  Listeners feel for the preacher in such a situation and try to understand, they put in more effort.  As the recipient of such gracious listening again I am reminded how true that is.  I suppose the same principle would apply to first-time nervousness, to preaching when ill or injured, etc.  As long as the limitation is not overbearing, listeners are gracious (at least in the Italian culture and in my preaching classes!)

Respect to those who consistently preach in a second language. Sure, I know that some missionaries get to the stage of thinking and preaching fluently in a second language as if it were their mother-tongue . . . but it takes massive effort to get to that stage, many never do, but press on anyway.  Respect.

More thoughts may come to mind.  This weekend I have another three Italian messages to give.  (If I come to mind and you want to pray for me, that would be appreciated!)

3 thoughts on “Reflections on Foreign Language Preaching

  1. I’ve had a number of opportunities over the years to preach in Sudan, where my messages were translated into Arabic (by excellent translators, which helps!). But I did find it confining. One has to be much more concrete and less subtle — to make sure your point gets through. Humor is more difficult, and usually best left out, except in the most general sense. And word plays and similar subtleties are almost impossible.

  2. I’ve preached through translation as well on various occasions. It is very limiting. I describe it as having almost all my tools taken away and then trying to preach (things like subtlety, humour, timing, pause, energy, momentum, etc. – pretty much anything that doesn’t work through a translator, even a good one, or when having to stop continually, an “interrupter” as some call them!) It takes work to do more than simply communicate information, which should not be the extent of our goal in preaching!

  3. I just wanted to say that I can relate to this blog. I preach in the Xhosa language. The language of the Xhosa people in South Africa. It is a clicking language and it is tough. I have been told whatever language you are learning is the most difficult, but nonetheless Xhosa is not easy, at least for me. I think the one subject/main idea is definately the way to go. Anyways this was an interesting read.

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