August 06, 2004

The acid test of foreign language command

One of the pleasures of National Public Radio this week was hearing Rob Gifford's multi-part story about crossing China by road. At one point he stopped by a tiny Christian church where a small congregation was singing hymns and waiting for its itinerant preacher to show up and preach the sermon. Since the preacher hadn't shown up, and Gifford was there, and he is a westerner, and all westerners are Christians, they told him he should preach the sermon. He was embarrassed, and told them he was totally unequipped to do any such thing, but they insisted. So he took a bible in one hand and his tape recorder in the other, stood at the litle pulpit, a preached a short sermon in Mandarin Chinese. I'd be interested to know how good it sounded to someone who knows the language (it is archived here, and there's a photo gallery of the little church). My impression of the phonetics was that it was pretty damn good. But as Dr Johnson once remarked, unkindly comparing women preaching with dogs walking on their hind legs, one's surprise is not at so much at how well it is done but at the fact that it is done at all. Could you preach an impromptu sermon in a foreign language without preparation? I wish I could. For any religion, in any foreign language.

Thanks to Geoff Nunberg for an attribution correction. I am no good on remembering who said what in periods earlier than about 1970.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 6, 2004 02:13 PM