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Inwardly Digest - Autofill & Language Acquisition

Autofill & Language Acquisition

Posted by Dan Weber on

How do you feel about Google automatically filling in the search bar for you?  It’s a convenient feature that gets you there quicker. It’s a tool that facilitates what your aim is. It’s a symptom of a hasty world that’s racing too fast for its own good. It’s a substitute for thinking and being intentional and articulate in your queries. It’s all of the above.

I’ve found something similar happening in my meditating on and memorizing the Psalms. And I have similar feelings about it.

Here’s what happens: I’ll be reciting a Psalm, and I’ll come to a familiar phrase, and then my mouth immediately starts to shape and speak the next words without me having to consciously think of them.

Like the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed, it’s possible to speak the words on autopilot without being aware of what you’re saying.

A critical evaluation might say, “See, this is why any rote memorization is bad. It leads to a hollow recitation, just going through the motions.”  Fair enough. But my first thought was actually much more positive: “This is working!  I’m beginning to think and speak in the language of the Psalms!” I began this project hoping that my faith, my worldview, my prayer life, and my very language would be transformed and conformed to the revelation of God through his Word. And it’s been really neat to catch glimpses of it happening.

We are too young to notice language acquisition of our native tongues. And in the States, we don’t typically attempt to learn another language in earnest until high school, and even it is typically just to tick the box that we tried. But through my immersion in the Psalms, I’m getting conscious and pointed moments of awareness of my new language acquisition. I find myself speaking like a native speaker of the language; ‘the language’ being the biblical language of prayer.

It reminds me a bit of French. I took 6 years of French (middle school and high school). And I was fortunate enough to be able to go over to France with my high school class. I still remember the first time I dreamed in French. All night long I thought and spoke and listened and lived in a dream that was fully immersed in French. No, I didn’t have some supernatural gift of tongues. And honestly, it was probably marked by poor grammar and an even worse accent. But nevertheless, I began thinking in that language. It marked a moment of moving beyond consciously translating from one to the other; instead, that second language was able to function as my immediate language.

Something of the same has been happening in small fits and starts with the Psalms. My mind starts to fill the blanks before I’m aware of it. Stock words, phrases, addresses to God, and specific categories have begun to work their way into my more natural thinking, even beyond a moment of recitation and memorization.

But there’s been a downside, too. These pesky Psalms keep surprising me. You see, sometimes the Psalms will begin with a stock phrase, but rather than continue as expected, they might make an abrupt shift. It’s startling. My brain already “knows” how this phrase is supposed to end, but then it doesn’t!  The Psalm goes somewhere else!  And I find myself a bit off balance. And as frustrating as it is trying to memorize these unexpected phrases, it keeps me on my toes and challenges me to keep engaging.

There is no autopilot or autofill in faith. There is certainly formation. There is certainly language acquisition. And these are gifts of the Spirit as we are shaped as the people of God who think and see and speak and believe according to the Word of God. But there’s no thoughtless cruising. The Psalms keep you off balance enough that you can’t take the next word or phrase for granted. And in those moments where a Psalm takes an unexpected turn, it gives me pause and an occasion to ask, “Why? Why would the Psalm go here instead?  What was I expecting it to say?  Why was I expecting that?  What is it about the writer’s experience and our life of faith that may take us down this path instead of the other?”

So, my brain has been filling in the blanks for me. This ‘autofill’ makes me feel like a native speaker at times. At other times, my assumptions are wrong and I find myself totally out of place again. It makes memorization difficult, but thankfully memorization is just a concrete metric to lead me into intention meditation. And meditation is slow and intentional, and I’m given lots and lots of (of frustrating) moments for that.

Blessed is the man who delights in the instruction of the Lord, and who meditates on it day and night.


As always, you can track my progress here


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