What Linguistics Taught Me About Loving My Neighbor

It was a warm spring afternoon as I walked through campus on the way to my afternoon lecture: Linguistics 101. At the time I was on the fast track to becoming a marine biologist. But my love for language led me to enroll in the course just for fun. (Spoiler: I later changed my major to linguistics and never looked back!) In this introductory course we covered all of the basic areas of linguistics. I quickly realized that while I love linguistics as a whole, it’s sociolinguistics that really captures my interest. So it really caught my attention when the professor began explaining how language plays into how much we trust others. She explained that when someone hears a person speaking in the same language and accent there is an automatic sense of trust that is formed. The opposite is also true: hearing someone speak with a different accent or in a different regional dialect causes a reaction of distrust or skepticism. We are naturally wired to give more benefit of a doubt to those who sound like we do. It subconsciously tells us they are safe, trustworthy, and one of us. They’re on our side.

The media knows this, which is why news anchors and reporters will go through the work of learning to speak with a ‘neutral’ accent. Or perhaps you’ll notice that certain networks utilize regional accents based on where a majority of their viewers are from. They may even go so far as to use vocabulary specific to the educational level or socioeconomic status of their viewers. Missionaries use this knowledge too. When I moved to Mexico I arrived with a certain accent and vocabulary that made it obvious I had never learned ‘Mexican’ Spanish. To make others feel comfortable and myself more accepted I quickly began using local words and idioms. I even slowly changed my accent to sound more like a Oaxacan than say someone from Northern Mexico. And if you’re wondering, the two sound vastly different. Language can tell us a lot about a person. Or it can tell a person a lot about us.

But…what has all this got to do with the gospel and loving my neighbor? I am so glad you asked.

First, let’s talk about us. What this teaches us about our own nature is that we are inherently more likely to trust those who speak like we do. This is a safety mechanism that tells us we can trust certain people who seem less likely to do us harm. Likewise, we have an innate bias against those who speak differently. If you have trouble believing this about yourself, take a moment to think about the times you have used the terms ‘us’ or ‘them’. I can almost guarantee you that you didn’t think about how you were using the terms. Your subconscious separated you from someone else using certain characteristics that you never consciously took into consideration. Just like you probably didn’t think much about the first sentence of this paragraph where I established an ‘us’ (referring to those who will read this post) and subsequently a ‘them’ (those who will not read this post). I am identifying myself with a certain group who I have something in common with, while distancing myself from those who do not share this same commonality. All through the use of subtle language.

Now, let’s talk about them. ‘They’ could be defined in any number of terms. Blog-post-readers vs. Non-blog-post-readers. English speakers vs. Spanish speakers. Bilingual vs. Monolingual. South vs. North. Jews vs. Gentiles. You get the point.

Now for the good stuff… *drumroll please*

If language can be such a powerful, subconscious divider, imagine how much more other factors can cause us to create divisions between us and those who may speak, act, look, or think differently than we do. As believers, we have a responsibility to consciously work against these subconscious divisions we set up in our minds. A key theme of Paul’s letters to the New Testament churches is unity. It’s to prevent letting differences in thinking, culture, and beliefs get in the way of a body unified for Christ. I think this is in part why so many of Jesus’ teachings focus on loving our neighbor. It’s why Paul had to write to the Corinthians explaining that this us vs them mentality was unacceptable in the body of Christ. It’s why he was so encouraged by the Thessalonians when they actually grew in their love for one another rather than falling into selfishness and discord. Despite the fact that their church was made up of a diverse group of people. It’s why we have the entire chapter of Philippians 2.

So if you’re thinking ‘No way! Not me! I love all people equally!’ I challenge you to dig into the New Testament and pray that the Lord would reveal to you where you can love you neighbor more. Look at your interactions with those who may be different from you or hold differing opinions and ask yourself, am I abounding in love? Am I empathizing with this person the same why I would with myself? Because the reality is we can all grow in this area of edifying one another and giving witness to the love of God.. Every single one of us. From lay person, to pastor, to missionary. May we learn to let love abound more and more. Regardless of the tension and turmoil characteristic of the world around us. Let it not characterize those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ.

Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more…

1 Thessalonians 4:9-10

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Matthew 22:36-39

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

Acts 10:34-35

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