As I mentioned in our Summer 2022 newsletter/blog, we have reduced the publication of our regular updates from monthly to quarterly. With our summer instalment being our most recent, we are now publishing our Autumn 2022 newsletter/blog.  I also mentioned in the Summer newsletter that I would not necessarily be writing a Sprachspielen editorial for each of our quarterly newsletters.

However, I am happy to resume these editorials with this Autumn 2022 quarterly newsletter. I would like to pick up the chase of a topic that I last addressed in November of 2021.  With the various distractions (different and timely topics) and omissions over the past few months, I’d like to resume our discussion of language, particularly in how it relates to our missionary efforts in the European context, and even more specifically with speakers of indigenous, minority languages in this context. Though there will be some inevitable overlap with some of my previous editorial articles on the issue of language and missions and this overlap is intentional, I hope that with each contribution and discussion of a nuance or issue related to the larger question of language in its missiological context the matter will become clearer and more deeply understood and felt in the minds and hearts of you, the readers.

In the previous instalment on language and is importance to our ministry, I spoke more specifically about what a “heart” language is and why it’s important. We looked at the answer to the question “why do ministry through the heart language?” by looking at the importance of doing so among those whom we are trying to reach with the Gospel. We even looked at some Biblical clues as to why the use of the “heart” language is needful in missions. As we move forward in this quarter’s editorial, we will be continuing to push the importance of this approach but by trying to use an example from within our own languages, i.e., not moving between two different languages, to press the point. After all, I suspect that most of the readers of this article are English speakers (either first language or fluently as a second language), as the article is written in English. By association, I further suspect that most of you speak English as the “majority” language, in other words your language, in this case English, is the majority language where you live. Most readers, if they speak another language besides English at all, do so at a rudimentary level at best and often do not have to use their second language in any significant way. Exceptions exist, of course, but by and large what I’ve described above is generally true. It means that most of us have never had to learn another language to survive and thrive in our contexts, such as exists in areas of indigenous minority languages, where they generally have to be proficient in one language and sometimes more, as a “trade,” “official,” or “majority” language. Accordingly, what was shared in the previous (and first) instalment of this series looking at language might make sense in an abstract or academic way, but it also seems pretty removed from the experience of most of us, which makes it a bit harder to understand at a deeper level, the level that would move us to action and obedience in linguistically-appropriate missions endeavours.

Defining register

Consequently, we will be looking at how we use language differently, depending on our audience, even within English, as a language on its own, apart from a second or third language, which is clearly distinct from our own. We will be looking at “register” in this article to illustrate this point. I realise that “register” may conjure images of a young couple preparing for marriage, who have a “register” at local stores, where family/friends/guests can give to them for the wedding. We may also think that “register” is something we do, when we want to vote in an election. However, in linguistics and socio-linguistics more specifically, “register” has a very different meaning. Here is the definition for “register” as given in the Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics: “Manner of speaking or writing specific to a certain function, that is, characteristic of a certain domain of communication (or of an institution), for example, the language of religious sermons, of parents with their child, or of an employee with his/her supervisor.”

This may at first seem technical and academic, but the fact is that we recognise and adapt our “register” all the time, when communicating. In fact, we would often say that the ability to recognise the register of an audience, and then adapt one’s register to match it would be the mark of an excellent speaker/communicator. Let me give an example of what we’re talking about in a practical scenario (not a true story – but one developed to make this point). Imagine Jill, who is a both a medical doctor and a very well-trained medical researcher. She and her team are working on some medical research, which could be of great significance to the health and wellbeing of elderly people. She is invited to speak about her work by two different groups. One is a Retired Persons’ Social Club and the other is a conference among her peers in this field of medical research, but both groups are English-speaking. Essentially, she will be sharing the same information with each group, perhaps even the exact same points. However, she will not use the same language with both groups, at least not if she is a savvy communicator. By not using the “same language,” I don’t want to imply that she will speak to one group in Swahili and the other in Yiddish. She’ll speak English to both groups, but not the same English with both groups. This difference in the use of the same language is what we’re referring to as “register.” If she wants to be successful in communicating the points that she would like to make, she will try to gauge the register of her audience and match it appropriately. For example, with the first group, she will probably not use long, technical terms from her field, but she will probably try to describe what these words mean or do, or she will introduce a technical term, but define it in clear, simple language. With the first group, she might also not focus too much on the minutiae of the research, e.g., compiling the data, but more on the outcomes and what this research might mean for her audience. However, with the second group, she will use technical language (it would be completely familiar and appropriate to her audience). She will also probably spend more time on the minutiae of the topic, because to researchers, this is often a vital part in understanding the issues at play. In the end, she delivered her talk in English to both groups, but the register that she used matched that of the two, very different audiences that she addressed.

Matching register

Effective communicators are quite good at gauging the register of their audience and matching it. However, matching the register of the audience is not always required to communicate, when using the same language (English, in this case).  Sometimes the audience is quite diverse in terms of the register that individuals in the group might share with a particular demographic (age, ethnicity, etc.) or other designated “tribe.”  For an example familiar to most Christians, ministers delivering a weekly sermon most often than not are speaking to a diverse group in terms of register. The congregation could be multi-ethnic, multi-generational, coming from different professions (farmers, doctors, factory workers, lawyers, teachers, police, etc.), with varying levels of education. Consequently, ministers must somehow hit “the middle” somewhere, using a form of language that is likely to be best understand by the largest number of people in the audience. Fortunately and generally, the congregation is aware of this fact, even though they might not be familiar with concepts such as register from an academic perspective, and they are pretty understanding and attentive, realising that they (the audience) must also make some effort at understanding, i.e., bridging the communication gap. However, if ministers hone their address to match exclusively the register of only one group within the congregation and do so for a prolonged time or even the entirety of their sermons, then everyone else will feel that the minister is not “speaking to” him or her in a meaningful way. No, in contexts like most congregations, which are made up of a wide range of people and registers, hitting the middle is the most effective way for ministers to communicate clearly with the vast majority of those in attendance.

And let’s face it, we all have been in contexts where the speaker did not match the register of his or her audience, and it was fairly awkward and even sometimes “cringeworthy,” if you’ll pardon the colloquial neologism. For example, something that might be familiar to many of us in Church life is when ministers address their congregations in their sermons as if delivering a paper to a panel of Seminary professors on the hermeneutical approach to the use of participles in New Testament Greek. Or youth ministers, who in an attempt to “relate” to the teenagers, use terms and references from the world of “youth-speak,” not realising that they are using the “youth-speak” from a time a decade or two before the birth of those teenagers present, leaving them amused at best and bemused at worst. Conversely, we have probably also heard people, who were able to identify the register of their audience and match it in their address, and we have seen how effective that communicator was in his or her interaction with the audience. I must point out that “effective” really is the key word here.

Effective communication

In order to delve a bit more deeply into this idea of “effectiveness” in communication, I think we actually need to take a step back and return to some more fundamental questions, and again this is a bit of revision in terms of the relationship to previous entries of Sprachspielen.  The first question would be “what is communication?”  A dictionary definition would be “the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium.” In other words, communication is the process where I transfer something that is in my brain to the brains of other people. The primary means by which this transfer of information happens is what we call language. It is not the only means, for example, more overtly aesthetic media such as visual arts or music can also “communicate.” However, the quickest and most precise means of this transfer of information that we call communication is generally language, either spoken or written. However, we return to the question of “effective” communication, in other words and extremely simplistically put, how do we know that this “transfer” of ideas has happened successfully, and what do we mean by “successfully,” when speaking of effectiveness in communication.

Obviously, one criterion for determining the “effectiveness” of the communication is involved with the skill and precision used from a purely linguistic perspective, i.e., did the communicator use the right words and structures that represent the concepts which are the object of the transfer or communication. However and of equal importance in determining the effectiveness of communication through language, we have to take another step back and ask “what is the purpose of the communication?” What do we want the information to do, if anything? I would say that there are at least three possibilities in terms of desired outcomes when using language to communicate information, and at least one of them, if not all three, is in the mind of the communicator, as he or she interacts with a specific audience. I would define these as:

  1. Information (to know)
  2. Inspiration (to feel)
  3. Response (to act).

Information (to know)

This is the most basic form of communication both in terms of the precision of the language used and the desired outcome. In essence, the communicator simply wants people to have a specific piece of information, in other words “to know” something. In this scenario, there is more of an expectation of response from the audience receiving the information, than trying to conjure a response from the audience, because there is generally an element of the expectation of self-interest on the part of the hearers/readers of the message. It requires more trust from the communicator that people will receive the information and act as expected, which is usually in their own self interest, as well as the mutual interest shared with the communicator.  Things like register and similar sociolinguistic and linguistic issues are less important. As the communication will be going out to a wide audience, simple, clear language at a “middle-of-the-road” type of register would be used. Examples of this might include a loudspeaker announcement in an airport like “the Cafe will be closing in 15 minutes,” or “Exits at front of building” (perhaps augmented with some arrows or other visual cues). The communicator simply wants the hearers to know this information, expecting them to act in accordance with the information/instruction, without trying to coerce them to do so.

Inspiration (to feel)

However, sometimes in communication we desire not only that the hearers receive and understand the communication but that it changes their perspectives. In other words the communication both informs and inspires. Furthermore, the communicator wants the audience both to know and feel something, which is tied to the information being communicated primarily through language. This would most likely involve issues of register but also more precise linguistic approaches such as the use of poetic language for example, or the use of personal forms and speaking in the first person, etc. It might also involve more finesse in the use of non-linguistic elements particularly in speaking, such as inflection, body language, the ebb and flow of speech, eye contact, etc. To give an example, Shakespeare could have said “It doesn’t really matter what your name is.” That would be an example of simple information (to know). However, he didn’t say that.  Shakespeare has Juliet saying, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Even with the use of language which seems archaic to us perhaps, there is something about the framing of the information that moves us and excites the imagination. The desire to inspire (cause people to feel) in communication is one of the reasons that we have both poetry and prose.

Response (to act)

Very often when we are communicating ideas, we want our audience to know something, feel something, but then to do something in response.  This often produces in the minds and hearts of the hearers a profound desire for yet another piece of information, most likely communicated through language. Sometimes this secondary information is articulated and sometimes it is assumed or deemed self-explanatory. There is a very good example in the New Testament of this process of moving from an audience knowing something to feeling something to doing something. It is Peter’s famous sermon in Jerusalem found in Acts 2:14-41. In a sense, he’s simply giving information in verses 14 through 36. However, we see that Peter is using issues related to register by speaking from common Scriptures and history and examples, which were very familiar to his hearers. In so doing, he is building a context of moving from transferring simple information to inspiring his hearers through a context common to them all, so that by the time he makes his primary point in verse 36 at the end of this build-up “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah,” the hearers are informed as well as inspired to the point that they are ready to do something in response, which desire they actually articulate in verse 37 “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’”  At this point, Peter gives them the appropriate response to the information and inspiration of the communication in verse 38 “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”

Consequently, when deciding how we want to use language to communicate, we have to look at the issue of effectiveness in terms of what our desired outcomes are. If we return to the example of Jill above, if all she wants is for her audience to know some information, then the use of register is less important. Technically, if that is her only goal, she could just use exactly the same notes for both groups, even though it might send members of the Retired Persons’ Social Club scrambling for a dictionary, and the conference of her colleagues wondering why she’s speaking to them as if they were children. Some things will inevitably get lost in translation due to issues of linguistic precision due to dealing with two very different groups in terms of education, experience, and even register. However, the basic information goal would be accomplished at least to some extent. On the other hand, that information might make no real difference in the lives of the hearers, due to the inability to inform AND inspire, and to inspire to the extent of prompting some form of action. Jill probably wants to inform and inspire, perhaps, even encourage the members of both groups and perhaps spur them on proactive involvement in some way. Accordingly, she will gauge the register of her audience and match the register of her address/presentation to that of her two, very different audiences.

Know, feel and act

Returning to the experience of Church life, for most Christians, we do have intentions and desired outcomes for our communication with others. I would say first that (1) 94.3% of all statistics are made up on the spur of the moment, and (2) 90% of all Christian communication, particularly in ministry and even more specifically in missions, is made with all three communicative goals in mind: information (to know), inspiration (to feel), and response (to act). We want people to know, feel and act, when it comes to the teaching of Scripture in the life of a believer. Accordingly and whether or not we would normally articulate it in these terms, use of register is not only normal, but it would be expected of those in positions of communicating Biblical truth to various audiences with varied registers. It is for this reason that effective youth ministers spend a lot of time trying to be familiar with social and cultural issues related to their youth as well as terms and expressions which are a part of the everyday lives of teenagers (which also seem to change with every new school year). It is also for this reason that if I were asked to speak to a group of people, who have expressed interest in faith but have up to this point never read the Bible or had any background with Church or Christianity, I would probably not ask them if they have been “washed in the blood of the lamb.” First, they wouldn’t understand what that means, and worse, they might actually misunderstand my intentions in saying that (they might think that I were a serial killer or something). No, I would use a register that would not presume any Biblical or Church background or knowledge on the part of my audience.

In the end, if we want to do more than simply convey information in a more forensic sense, we need to have some kind of rapport with our audience that demonstrates some sense of empathy, understanding, and more to the point identification. I dealt with the issue of identification a bit more in my last article in this series. The effective use of register in communication is one fairly easy means of building this sense of identification. Furthermore, identification/rapport/empathy is an essential element in communication, if we really want to move people from knowing something, to feeling something, to doing something. As an example, let’s imagine that Jim is a youth pastor at a Church. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Jim is a very conscientious and effective youth pastor. He spends a great deal of time doing the things I mentioned above like staying up to date with trends, social references and even language, as it is used by his teenagers (their register). This is a primary way that he can identify with his target audience, because he’s 35 – he’s not 16. However, use of register in communication with them gives his audience the confidence that “he understands us.”  It is for this reason that Jim, if asked to speak on Acts 2 to a group of 16-year-olds and a group of 80-year-olds would articulate his teaching in very different ways, even if trying to make exactly the same points in terms of exposition of the text. He makes these changes in register and delivery because Jim desires for both groups that they be informed, inspired, and prompted to action and change.

How understanding register informs missions in minority languages

If you’re still with me – thank you (I’m a little surprised—but again, thank you). However, even if you were not familiar with the term “register” in linguistics and more precisely sociolinguistics before reading this instalment of Sprachspielen, you’re probably thinking after reading all this, “Ok, I get it. I see this use of register within language played out all the time both in Church life and in the day-to-day minutiae of life. What does this have to do with missions among speakers of indigenous minority languages?” I bring up this issue of register for two reasons: (1) it is familiar to most people in ministry, and we are even encouraged (see the examples above) to use a different kind of English to match our specific audience (e.g., teenagers, people with no Bible/Christian background, etc.); but (2) for some reason all of the reasons for being aware of register and responding accordingly go “out the window,” when we speak of minority languages (as in completely different languages). This is particularly true of Church and missions leaders and workers in the European context, who come from majority-language traditions and who themselves tend to be monolingual (trade/majority language only). For example in the Welsh context, within the English-speaking Christian community they would almost without fail say that in order to reach certain demographic segments (again like teenagers or the homeless or seekers, etc.) they must be effective communicators, leading their audience from knowing to feeling to responding, and this requires communicating in a way that is not just understandable from a technical, linguistic perspective but also through identification which is most often accomplished through some attention to register. In other words, using different “Englishes” with different audiences is essential to communication with the three-fold desired outcomes listed above. However, when we talk about the necessity of the use of the Welsh language in reaching Welsh people with the Gospel (and, yes, the issue of register exists in every language, necessitating the use of various “Welshes” in communication —but that’s for another time), many of those same ministry and missions leaders would question the need, playing what they consider to be the trump card in the argument—“they all speak English.” Given the lack of mutual intelligibility between Welsh and English, such a statement is stunning. However, imagine how much more difficult the situation is when the majority and the minority languages in question come from the same linguistic origins and share at least some level of mutual intelligibility, for example Venetian and Italian, or Alsatian and High German, or Latgalian and Latvian. In those linguistic contexts, it’s even easier to reply without giving any prayer or real thought to the issue with the rote “but they all speak ……”

The point, therefore, in speaking about this issue in this way is to accomplish the outcomes that I’ve mentioned repeatedly above. I want you, the reader, to be informed, inspired, and moved to action. Identification was the primary means in this pursuit by talking about something, in this case “register,” which is actually quite familiar to us, even if we were unfamiliar with the technical term, and it’s a part of our daily lives, and especially our activities, when it comes to Church life and ministry, and Christian missions in particular. Perhaps, this might inspire you to look around your own contexts a bit more to see the linguistic/demographic diversity right on your doorstep, so to speak. It might inspire you to learn a language, to make an effort to get to know your linguistic neighbours and to encourage local Churches in trying to reach ethnolinguistic communities through their “heart” languages. Perhaps, you might feel inspired to join us in our ministry among indigenous minority language speakers in Europe, either by volunteering remotely your time, energy and expertise from home, or perhaps moving your lives and family to a minority language group area here in Europe.

Hopefully, this article is simply another way of trying to make the reality of the need for missions among these language groups through their heart languages apparent and accessible for Christians everywhere, who are concerned about and dedicated to the spread of the Good News of Jesus to all the ethnolinguistic people groups of the world.