Reflections on a genuinely interesting question

I was asked a really interesting question yesterday. A question I had never been asked before. It was a fair question that I hadn’t ever really considered before.

As regular readers will know, our church is in a primarily South Asian area of Oldham. I was talking to somebody about this. They first asked me (this isn’t particularly interesting) how many Urdu speakers we have in our church. The answer is none. The interesting follow up was, how many people in your church are learning Urdu? The answer is also none and was quickly followed up with, why not?


I was a bit flummoxed to be honest. Mainly because I hadn’t specifically thought about it. Our community is predominantly Pakistani so Urdu is an operating language, but Mirpuri and Pahari are also common. But there are also significant numbers of Bangladeshis about who speak Bengali and/or Sylheti. We don’t have any such people coming to the church. Within the church itself, we have significant numbers of Farsi-speakers. But we also see Dari speaking Afghans and Sorani speaking Kurds coming into church with frequency too.

In the first instance, the question that springs from the original question is why preference learning Urdu? Given the makeup of our community, knowing which language to preference and why would be difficult. Evangelistically, Urdu might seem sensible. But then many prefer to operate in Mirpuri day to day. It is difficult to know which would be the more valuable in seeking to reach Pakistanis evangelistically. What is more, being able to speak Urdu might be helpful on one level, but the Bangladeshis we are also trying to reach may wonder why we are learning Urdu rather than Bengali. Given that local relations between the two are not always amicable, it might be read as a preferencing of one people group over the other.

All that is before we ask the question whether we ought to learn Urdu of Bengali for the sake of evangelistically reaching out or whether we would be better served learning Farsi or Dari for the sake of those who are coming in. Despite the various forms of outreach and means of sharing the gospel with Pakistani and Bangladeshi folk locally – which we are deeply committed to as a church and believe among whom the Lord will have his people – the reality is that we have not seen a single one coming regularly to church meetings that are non-evangelistic or meeting a felt-need. By contrast, we frequently and regularly have Iranian, Afghan and Kurdish people in our church meetings many of whom are believers who need to be discipled. Ought we to focus our linguistic skills on our evangelistic effort or our discipling efforts; on those who are not yet in the church or those who are (whether believers or not)?

These considerations also don’t take account of the fact that the majority of British Muslims in the area (for that is what they are) actually speak English any way. Whilst a number of the first generation folk are still speaking Urdu, Mirpuri, Bengali or Sylheti, third generation South Asians have not only got parents who have been through the English school system, but have themselves never lived anywhere else nor operated in any other language than English. That isn’t to say the language skills of themselves would not be useful or serve a section of our community, but it is to say an increasing number operate perfectly well in English and, indeed, are native English speakers themselves.

Of course, those considerations all assume a level of ability at any rate. The main reason I have never learnt Urdu (or any other of the aforementioned languages) is because I am abjectly terrible at language learning. I have never been good at it and I find it extremely difficult. My brother is the linguist in our family and I suspect he would have a good go should he live Oldham. But he doesn’t and I didn’t inherit the same abilities. Whilst I don’t want to imply everyone else in our church is the same as me, I suspect most do not feel particularly able either. We aren’t replete with people who feel they have any aptitude for such learning. There are some who have shown such aptitude, but they have poured their energies into other languages that they previously learnt for gospel endeavours for which those languages were more evidently relevant at the time. It seems a tall order to expect them to master further languages when most of us barely have command of our own native tongue.

I don’t doubt that having someone who could speak Urdu would be some help to us. It certainly wouldn’t hurt. But given all of that, I am yet to be convinced it is vital in the grand scheme of things. Most of us (at least, speaking for myself at any rate), I sense, don’t have the ability. Those that do may not feel it is the best use of their time to learn a language that may not open any new evangelistic doors and certainly has minimal discipleship value at the moment. It seems a better use of time – and more helpful to those who are long-term resident here – to help those we meet to speak English than it does for us to go to the trouble of learning Urdu for the increasingly few who might have no other means by which to communicate.