The Bilingual Dilemma

Michael Metzger

Bilingualism has many benefits. But it also presents a dilemma—especially for Christians who, in their bones, feel the church is in exile.

In studying the cognitive effects of bilingualism, researchers have discovered some benefits. For instance, Ellen Bialystok, a professor at York University, says bilinguals “experience two cultural views of the world.”1 This enables them to suspend the beliefs of their mother tongue while sorting out conflicting information from a second culture. Bilingualism “works like a little irritant that requires you to think a little harder.”

But bilinguals face a dilemma. Jamie Holmes calls it “reduced verbal fluency.” Immersed in two cultures, bilinguals have “more tip-of-the-tongue experiences” and “word gaps” than monolinguals who experience only one culture. A bilingual’s vocabulary is smaller than that of a monolingual. Monolinguals are more articulate and often more convincing.

This might explain the two reactions to James Davison Hunter’s provocative book To Change the World. Five years ago, the University of Virginia sociologist wrote that the American church is mainly influential only in the “peripheral areas” of society. In spite of its numerical strength, it’s an outsider, operating in exile outside the commanding heights of culture. A few believers feel this in their bones. Most don’t. Why?

To feel something in your bones is to have a hunch or intuition you can’t shake. Nor can you adequately explain it. Bilinguals feel this exile in their bones because they experience two cultural views of the world. Monolinguals don’t. Monolinguals experience faith, family, work from one culture. They don’t experience conflicting views, producing cognitive dissonance. They don’t experience exile. Yes, monolinguals can write about it—often quite eloquently. But they don’t feel it. They tend to instead explain away exile.

Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist says explaining away conflicting information is characteristic of the left hemisphere. It’s “very convincing because it shaves off everything it finds doesn’t fit with its model and cuts it out.” Those immersed in left hemisphere cultures tend to feel pretty good about their ideas because they dismiss contrarian views.

The left hemisphere also doesn’t collaborate with the right. Those immersed in left hemisphere cultures therefore experience only one culture. They’re monolinguals. They can out-articulate bilinguals because the left hemisphere is verbally superior to the right.

This is the bilingual dilemma for a few Christians in the American church. The church favors the left hemisphere. It makes monolingual believers. They’re not bad believers. But they don’t feel what bilinguals feel. They write about it—but don’t get it.

This is not the end of the world. I’m an exile, a bilingual. Here are a few things I’m slowly learning. If you’re an exile, don’t try to explain what you feel to monolinguals. Like nuptial union, exile is an intense experience. It loses something in the explanation.

Second, take comfort. A few exiles—the sons of Judah—faced the same dilemma in the Babylonian exile. Most Judeans denied the exile or tried to explain it away. One prophet, Hananiah, predicted the nation would return to Jerusalem within two years.

Third, learn the language and literature of today’s Babylon. The sons of Judah felt the exile in their bones. Over the course of three years, they learned the Babylonian language (Dan.10). Bilingual, they connected the Bible with the business of Babylon. The sons of Judah were soon operating inside the commanding heights of culture.

Finally, if you’re an exile, you’re not crazy. In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to Apple. He gave a famous talk describing Apple’s core audience—the creative types who often think they’re crazy:

If I swap exile for Apple user, here’s what I want to say to exiles: You have to be a little different to be an exile. Exiles are the creative spirits in this world. They are the people that are not just out to get a job done, they are out to change the world. And they’re out to change the world using whatever great tools they can get. I hope to make tools for those kinds of people. Because a lot of times church people think they’re crazy. But in that craziness, I see genius, and those are the people I am aiming to make tools for.

I mean that, by the way. If you’re an exile, I seek to serve you. How can I help?

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Jamie Holmes, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing (New York: Crown, 2015), p. 206.


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  1. Interesting prompt,

    Surely multi-lingual is the challenge. Noting OT roots in Hebrew, NT roots in Greek, transmitters language, receivers language and cultures.
    David J. Heselgrave book “Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally” propose to communicate Christ Cross-culturally in “Seven Dimensions of Cross-Cultural Communication.”

    Worldviews—ways of perceiving the world
    Cognitive Processes—ways of thinking
    Linguistic Forms—ways of expressing ideas
    Behavioral Patterns—ways of acting
    Social Structure—ways of interacting
    Media Influence—ways of channeling the message
    Motivational Resources—ways of deciding.

  2. Not sure if it exactly fits, but the statement “it shaves off everything it finds doesn’t fit with its model and cuts it out.” ” reminds me of the story of Thomas Jefferson “cutting” out parts of the Bible that didn’t fit for him.

    In his day there was much in Christian culture that made sense of the world for the left side of the brain.

    But deeper connection with foundational truths required establishing boundaries for the left side of the brain (e.g. “suspend the beliefs of their mother tongue while sorting out conflicting information from a second culture”) so that would-be paradoxes can be believed and acted upon.

  3. No worries, Mike. I also ponder whether we can be in danger of ‘othering’ ‘exiling’ each other if we fail to seek resonance in our duscourse.Accepting the uniqueness of each of us on the journey is also a perspective challenge that can be hard to communicate with genuine contact and connection. Dissonance is easy to find and is often intentionally created.

  4. Thank you, Barnabus. The “Seven Dimensions of Cross-Cultural Communication” are helpful. Your comment reminds me of lunch conversations at a global pharmaceutical where I worked. We would discuss every issue from invading Afghanistan to cultural morality and the media, religion, family, politics, and our social lives. I found myself poorly equipped to communicate the gospel in a relevant way, for example, with my Buddhist, Russian Jewish, Irish and Italian Catholic, and irreligious others who were on the journey of life with me. The seven points elucidate the challenge, and are helpful.

  5. Forgetting possibly, Mike, that your presence can sometimes speak louder than words. Eloquence, without sound prompts other creative channels of commonality.Sojourning together.

  6. There are a few languages it seems that many Christians don’t want to speak, such as the language of Hollywood, of fashion, of venture capital, of business excellence. Cultural languages can make us as relevant as international tongues.

    To take truth and only speak it in one tongue leaves us silent too often.

    Even more, the volume – loudness – of the voice matters as well. As an advertising executive, I know that the one with the loudest megaphone wins more often than not. If we hope to have Christ’s true message of love rule the day, not only do we need to be fluent in pop culture, we also need to speak loudly.

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