When Paul talks about making himself “a Jew to the Jews” and “weak to the weak” (1 Cor. 9:20, 22), he is talking about the need to adapt the message to fit the audience. The message itself does not need to be adapted; what changes is the mode or the instrument that delivers the message.
This reality is applied to language. I live in a Portuguese-speaking country. We have a very rich language, full of influences and innovations and constantly changing. There are many dialects spoken here, among them the standard dialect, or, as it is best known, the learned language. The fact is that this dialect—the standard—was chosen as the standard for social and economic reasons. That doesn’t mean it does not have prestige; on the contrary, it is the dialect spoken by the educated and higher social class. But it is really nothing more than a dialect in our language, just like any other language. The standard language is considered the best only for social and economic matters. Linguistically, there is nothing that makes it better than any other dialect. All our dialects are very rich and present their own equally rich grammar.
I clarify this situation to show that we often have preconceived ideas about people who speak “wrongly,” i.e., those who speak a different dialect than the standard, and we must be attentive to that. People usually feel diminished when confronted by someone who speaks in a refined and formal manner; they may think that they do not know how to speak and, unconsciously, create barriers to that speaker. How sad when such a speaker’s message does not reach the listener because the language creates a barrier that keeps the message from reaching the audience’s heart.
Paul said we need to become “weak to the weak,” and in this case, I understand that we need to be simple to the simple. It is easy to simplify our language when we speak to people who have no access to the standard language. When I was doing field research and collecting speech data from different people, I always tried (before meeting the person being interviewed) to learn a little bit more about their interests, identifying with their social environment and the way they spoke. I tried to adapt myself to them and tried not to present myself as being superior to them. This breaks about 80 percent of the natural barriers that exist when we talk to someone we don’t know. In the same way, when taking God’s message to a home or a rural community, we need to become familiar with the community and try to minimize as much as possible the differences that may create barriers. Try to speak like them, in simple and informal way. Speak the language of the people you want to reach, and they will understand your message.
The reverse is also true. When talking to a highly educated audience, the speaker needs to be attentive to language. This group will expect to hear the standard dialect, and any incorrect pronunciations may call more attention to the speaker’s ineptness than to the message itself.
So, we need to speak everyone’s language if we want our message to reach them. All possible methods should be employed, so that, as Paul said, “I might . . . save some.” Of course, it is the Holy Spirit who reaches the heart, but it is important to be careful not to obstruct His work. Language is just one instrument for spreading the Gospel, but it should be an efficient and adaptable instrument, sharpened for the Lord’s work. And if needed, speakers should ask God for the gift of tongues (Acts 2:4), so that, like the apostles, they are understood wherever they go.
Danívia Mattozo Wolff, a doctor of linguistics, writes from Belo Horizonte, Brazil.