Language Learning and Justice

by Julia Kraut

As we guide our students to make sense of the world and find their places in it, we prepare them to be just—to be wise arbiters of what is good, not only for themselves, but also for their country, as wise citizens. Justice is a hot topic these days. In a spirit of engaged learning and teaching, I’d like to explore the connection between justice and learning a new language.

First, a quick working definition of “justice.” I’ve explained it to my five-year-old as “when people’s circumstances match their choices” or, as Justinian laid out in his Institutes, “giving people their due.” A person who chooses to steal goes to jail; a person who chooses to do right by their neighbor is protected. But what about those already-done wrongs that the justice system can punish but not repair? There’s justice-as-punishment, but also justice-as-restoration. In the first instance, the “bad guy” gets his just desserts; in the second, as our Narnian friends might say, “all will be right.” The first aspect of justice, a juridical process for punishment, is a tool for the second aspect of justice—a renewal and restoration that brings the world back to its intended state.

It is that second aspect of justice we pray for when we say, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” In their fabulous video series on faith in modern life, For the Life of the World, the Acton Institute compellingly articulates the mechanism of justice on the nuts-and-bolts level: When we build relationships with those around us, we are listening to them and knowing them, and are better able to advocate for them to receive or retain their due. Relationship—love—makes us more just.

And it is that second kind of justice we advance when we love our neighbors and serve them. Writer/philosophy professor Dr. David O’Hara has said that “Learning a language is an act of love.” I want to argue that it is also an act of restorative justice.

To start with, once a person has learned a second language, he or she can use that language as a tool to know others and to better do right by them. After years of learning French, my husband, Joshua, was recently able to volunteer with a nonprofit legal group and translate for a man who had to flee his own country. This man’s pro-democracy work meant members of the political opposition were trying to kill him and his young family. Josh’s work helped our friend move more effectively through the asylee system (and in the process, this stranger has turned into our friend). As a family that has learned French together, we were able to invite him over for meals, help him set up Skype to let friends back home know he was safe, and eventually find a job, a language school, and an apartment. We were able to use the foreign language we had learned to participate in the restoration of a tiny corner of our world. For the first day of classes this semester, Josh wore a shirt given to him as a gift by this friend. He pointed it out to his students, explained the backstory, and told them, “This is why I learn languages.”

This experience of using our learned language abilities to help someone in need was deeply meaningful to us as a family. We were able to help our friend, but at the same time, we learned more about the needs of others and developed a specific compassion for people in his circumstances. I described it to someone recently by saying, “It’s like the houses of our hearts grew an extra room.” Learning another language, culture, and people does this—and that new room is often a place where justice is incubated.

That part of using a second language, though, is often the fruits of years of study (in our case, it certainly was). Our students don’t have to wait that long. Learning a foreign language can be an act of restoring the world, starting with the very first vocabulary word.

When my family moved to France, I knew my beginner language-learner status would make communicating difficult. What I didn’t expect (but found) was that sometimes people saw my communication difficulties and assumed they were cognitive difficulties. I not infrequently found myself talked down to and, in one particularly horrifying instance, disregarded in a question of my own medical treatment. But I also interacted with many, many people who saw through my horrific article-noun agreement and saw me. Most of them had studied a foreign language. That experience had deepened their compassion.

In the past, I’ve argued for learning a language because of the friendships it enables, but this past year, I realized that something deeper is happening than simply making a new friend. This realization came because I did happen to make a new friend thanks to knowing Spanish. As much as I loved speaking Spanish with her, my ability to express myself definitely took a hit. For her, on the other hand, it was a chance to be heard and valued. She was a non-native English speaker, so her days were burdened with all the communication difficulties I experienced in France. In our friendship, I took on the “static” of having to think more about which words I chose and how I used them, and she was able to communicate without it. It was my turf, my home country, my native language as the default. But when I sacrificed the position of power that put me in, I took the role of listener and learner and amplified the voice, if only for the space of our conversations, of someone at a disadvantage.

This sacrifice of agency inherent in beginning language study is congruent to another kind of sacrifice. The Apostle Paul urges followers of Jesus:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing . . . being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8, NIV)

As we take the first steps on the path to learning a new language, we’re assuming a posture of humility, making ourselves communicatively “nothing.” In our early interactions with native (or more advanced) speakers of the language we’re learning, this humility translates into an abdication. We not only give up the power of communicating with all our native prowess, but also give the upper hand in the conversation to our interlocutor. This “giving up” of power in the case of the native English speaker is even more pronounced given that English is the global lingua franca. Handing over the conversational reins is incredibly powerful when we find ourselves communicating with those often excluded from having a voice in our society.

So, language teachers: thanks. In your class, you’re teaching grammar and vocabulary, but you’re also guiding students toward love and justice. You’re helping them build new rooms in their hearts, and you’re working to restore the corner of the world in which you find yourself. Mucho ánimo and bonne courage.
Author’s note: My thinking about justice is heavily influenced by Timothy Keller, writer and minister at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. You can read more about his views on justice here: and here: For a more academic definition of justice, the Acton Institute has a helpful article:

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