by Dr. Nick Carrington
Ever since Jesus commanded His followers to make disciples of all nations, Christians have traversed the globe, seeking to fulfill the Great Commission despite numerous challenges. In Cedarville’s English, literature, and modern languages (ELML) department, faculty work hard to prepare students to overcome two of the biggest hurdles: language and cultural barriers.
The goal is to make a difference now and for eternity. “In Revelation, there are people from every tribe, tongue, and nation around the throne,” said Cristi Vallejos, Assistant Professor of Spanish. “Understanding languages and cultures allows us to have a part in that. We want to be working toward that end.”
When sin came into the world, both our relationship to God and relationship to other people broke, including the way we communicate and understand each other. At the time of Babel, God confused the people’s language and dispersed them all over the earth, exercising both mercy and judgment. Now, Christians have the hard task of breaking down barriers to share the Gospel in every language, and language study plays a significant role in that effort.
ELML has Bachelor of Arts degrees in both Spanish and linguistics but also offers minors and classes in French, German, Arabic, and several other languages. Because a foreign language is a general education requirement, many students take these courses whether they major in the department or not, and they are learning more than just languages: Each class immerses students in a people’s literature and culture.
Through these studies, graduates better connect with people who come from different backgrounds but have the same spiritual need — a Savior. “Our Lord Jesus through His Word answers the questions every culture or individual is asking, and we want to hear those questions well,” said Dr. Merideth Pitts, Assistant Professor of Linguistics. “As His ambassadors, we seek to carry His Word with love and clarity across linguistic and cultural barriers.”
Overcoming Language Barriers
There are at least 1,800 known languages without a translated copy of the Bible. The Wycliffe Global Alliance estimates that 129 million people have no portion of Scripture translated in their native tongue. For Campbell Lino ’27, a linguistics major, that is unacceptable. “People need the Gospel in their heart language," she said. “Faith comes by hearing, and if you don’t have the Word in your language, how can you grow in your faith?”
This fall, Lino started her studies with the long-term goal of translating Scripture for an unreached people group. But in her heart, God has been cultivating a desire to serve other cultures for many years. In kindergarten, she tested well enough to qualify for a Spanish immersion program at her otherwise English-speaking school, an opportunity her parents found valuable. So from first through fifth grade, her schooling was entirely in Spanish and by seventh grade, she felt called to be a missionary. Her dream home is a mud hut among people who need the Gospel but lack access to it. “God’s given me a passion and a gift for languages, and I want to use that,” she explained.
She came to Cedarville to learn about language from a biblical worldview and take advantage of the University’s connections, connections she hopes will make her a translator sooner rather
Pitts says that translation jobs are expected to grow by more than 20% over the next eight years. This gives ELML graduates an opportunity to address the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of people with various backgrounds. “Linguists who focus on Bible translation help carry the message of the Scriptures accurately into a new linguistic community, not only through direct translation work, but also through a variety of support roles including literacy education,” she explained.
Linguistic majors often pair their program with one of the other languages taught in the department and, after graduating, will use that skillset to teach people English or another language. They help people adjust to new languages and cultures, aiding vulnerable individuals during an often-overwhelming transition.
But language study isn’t just for majors in the department; in a world where work is more global, understanding multiple languages is important for all Christians. “In whatever career you’re in, it’s more and more likely you will interact with people who speak other languages,” said Vallejos. “You can connect with people on a different level when you’ve taken the time to learn their language.” Knowing multiple languages helps Christians develop friendships where they can share their faith and better serve those friends.
Vallejos’ own interest in languages blossomed when she was only 5 or 6 years old. Her home church had a migrant ministry where the congregation would provide everyday supplies for local immigrants. There was always a translator during these interactions, but even at a young age, Vallejos wanted to communicate with migrants on her own. Now she sees how important languages are to the global church. “It glorifies God to be praised in all kinds of languages instead of just one,” she said.
Overcoming Other Obstacles
For Christians who translate or work in dangerous countries or remote villages, the challenges can be daunting. Dr. Waller, Assistant Professor of French and Linguistics, has seen it all. “Our people were under threat all the time,” he said. Sometimes, husbands would be detained or kicked out of the country, leaving their families behind. The challenges due to persecution can be daunting.
Open Doors International estimates that 5,898 Christians were killed for their faith in 2022 and over 360 million were persecuted heavily for following Christ. Those numbers were significant increases over the previous year. Waller thinks these numbers can give believers in the U.S. some perspective. “There are challenges in America being a Christian, but Christians elsewhere are imprisoned or tortured and sometimes lose their lives,” he explained.
That perspective allowed Waller to shift his mindset, something he believes American Christians need to do when they go overseas. Instead of thinking of themselves as leaders, he encourages a humble heart, one dedicated to learning and working alongside the global church instead of guiding it as a superior.
Even when the threat of imprisonment or deportation died down, Waller’s challenges did not go away. “I had a stomach bug for 20 years,” he said. “If you go to the field, you will get sick. It’s just a matter of what sickness you get.” The weakness that comes from prolonged illness caused Waller and his team to rely on the Lord every day. “I’d be begging the Lord, if you want me to keep doing this, I need help.”
But Waller has no regrets and hopes to pour out a passion for translation to his students, regardless of how difficult their circumstances get. He emphasizes how his team continued their work despite the challenges until the Word was fully translated. Now that translation is branching out into different dialects, and the excitement in his voice is palpable. “People are coming to faith and being discipled in it. What a great privilege to be a part of that work,” he shared.
Following God’s Call
Lino’s love of languages is best described as a love for God and for people. She longs to reach the lost and fears that too many Christians forego a core skill—language learning—in proclaiming Christ to the nations. “Everybody should try to learn multiple languages because there are going to be people that you can’t reach if you speak only one language,” she explained.
Her heart makes her an excellent fit in the ELML department at Cedarville. “We recognize that for us to believe the Gospel, we needed someone to explain it to us in a language we understand,” Vallejos said. Language and culture study is one way of doing that for others.
With so many people who have no copy of Scripture or only portions available, there is plenty of work to do, but ELML graduates are also excelling in other important ways. One recent graduate of the linguistics program serves as a cross-cultural ambassador with the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright Program in Spain. Another teaches Haitian speakers English, serving students who are newcomers to the United States. Others are in graduate programs as teaching assistants, teaching and serving international students in an intensive English program. These graduates serve others by helping them overcome language and cultural barriers, giving these individuals a better chance to succeed in life. The relationships ELML graduates form in these roles will allow them to share their faith more easily.
Ultimately, it is our hope that people from every tribe, tongue, and nation will praise our God. The harvest is abundant, and our English, literature, and modern languages department is raising up harvesters to have an eternal impact for the Kingdom.