If you’ve been following Jesus Film Project® for some time, you’ve probably heard us use the term “heart language.” It’s a critical part of our vision and mission. Translating the story of Jesus into heart languages is about bringing the gospel to everyone.
At its most basic level, someone’s “heart language” is often the first language someone speaks at home. It’s the language that comes to represent their cultural and geographic identity. The language they dream in.
When your world speaks your heart language
It can be challenging for people who speak a single language to fully grasp the concept of heart language. In the United States, 78 percent of the population speaks only English. More than anything else, this is a function of geography. Most Americans can travel hundreds of miles from their hometown and wind up in a location that primarily speaks their language—and 68 percent of Americans live in or near the city where they grew up.
Even when traveling abroad, Americans often find themselves in areas where English is spoken as a second (or third) language by a number of the locals.
When the world around you speaks your primary language, it’s hard to really understand what it’s like to live in a world where you’re juggling more than one language. Or the isolation of being unable to communicate with the people around you.
If English is your only language, consider the things you might take for granted. The language you heard spoken at school was the same one you used around the dinner table. You don’t have to translate your thoughts into a different tongue, struggle to communicate challenging concepts in a different language, and you don’t have to wrestle through the process of parsing the words of the people around you.
Since English is the most spoken language in the world, most media that native English speakers consume has been written and produced with them in mind. And even when a film or book is produced in another language, making it available to English-speaking audiences is a priority.
It’s a blessing when the world around you speaks your heart language, but it can make it challenging to understand the experiences of people in multilingual environments.
Language shapes identity and culture
In cultures where most people share a common language, it can be a struggle to comprehend how a language helps shape one’s personal and cultural identity. For instance, native English speakers in the United States might not grasp the ways their language shapes them.
But as a transplant to another culture or a native to a land with a diverse number of languages, language becomes a big issue impacting how people understand their background and their place in the world.
The language one grows up speaking with family helps construct that person’s identity. In a nation like India, where there are 121 languages, and many, many more regional dialects, a person’s heart language establishes geographical and family ties. And that’s the case even though many people in India speak two, three or more languages.
When we think of culture, we think of things like food, clothing and holiday celebrations, but it’s language that ties all of those elements together. It’s the means that people use to communicate their values, beliefs and customs. Heart language is influential and meaningful in ways that we seldom recognize.
The complexity of heart language
The heart-language concept can get a little more complex when considering the multi-generational experience. For many families migrating to different communities or countries, heart languages can cut across generational lines.
Imagine a Ukrainian family with small children moving to the United States. The children would pick up English quickly. And even though they spoke Ukrainian at home, everywhere else in the children’s world would be English dependent. In fact, the parents would likely lean on their children to help translate doctor advice, banking information and other complicated material.
The parents might end up being more fluent in English, but Ukrainian will always remain their heart language. And even though Ukrainian is the language the children grow up speaking at home, their heart language will likely end up being English. It’s the language they learn in, communicate with all their peers in, and conceptualize new information in.
So while we often think about “heart language” as the language that someone grew up speaking at home, identifying someone’s heart language can be a little more complex than that.
The importance of heart language in ministry
When it comes to learning about Jesus, people are confronted with information that touches their intellect and impacts their hearts. This narrative challenges their worldview and opens them up to see their world in an entirely new way. It’s so much easier to connect with people in these ways when you’re speaking their heart language.
This makes more sense for a lot of English speakers when you think about Bible translations. In 1978, Zondervan published the New International Version of the Bible. For a lot of people raised on the King James Version, this was a big deal. Technically, they’re both English translations. But the NIV represented a step forward in presenting Scripture in a format that better resembled the vernacular they were used to using in everyday life. Now imagine if your first exposure to Christianity came in the language that you were most comfortable with.
The importance of heart language can be seen when we consider the effects of colonialism on the African continent. Due to years of colonial rule, various parts of Africa are Francophone (like Benin, Burkina-Faso, Cape Verde, Madagascar, Mali and Senegal), Anglophone (like Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Tunisia), and Lusophone (like Anglola, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe). Even though French, English or Portuguese might be the “official” languages of these areas and locals might be fairly proficient in them, these people are speaking their own regional languages and dialects amongst themselves.
If you really want the gospel to connect with people, it makes sense to share it in the language that they default to with the people closest to them. On top of that, one cannot overlook the potentially negative impact of presenting Jesus in a language that someone may negatively associate with being conquered or suppressed.
As Nelson Mandela communicated it, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
When the gospel is presented in someone’s heart language, it communicates essential things above and beyond the information you want them to receive. It lets them know that you “see” them and value their culture, that you value their identity. This actually makes them more receptive to the truth you want to share with them.
Sharing JESUS in the world’s heart language
Film is a powerful tool for bringing stories and truth to light, especially in cultures that are less reliant upon the written word. When people have an opportunity to see Jesus’ story and hear Him speak in their heart language, it overcomes their defenses, which helps explain why we’ve seen more than 600 million people communicate a decision to follow Jesus after viewing one of our films.
Last year, we announced that the JESUS film had officially been translated into 2,000 languages. This is a huge accomplishment, especially when you consider that the film was listed by Guinness World Records in 2012 as the most translated film in history when it was available in 817 languages.
We keep working to overcome language barriers with the JESUS film because we think everyone everywhere should have the opportunity to hear Jesus’ message in their own heart language. And the work doesn’t stop with the 2,000th language.
Our partnership with countless individuals and organizations helps complete this work of allowing people to hear Jesus in their heart languages. These partnerships extend Jesus Film Project’s reach, and enable us to reach remote people groups who might otherwise never hear the good news.
This whole process is possible because of people around the world who share our commitment to fulfilling the Great Commission supporting the work of Jesus Film Project through prayer and financial gifts!
Together, we can help make it possible for people to hear about the love of Jesus in the language closest to their hearts.