Language of the Heart

Language of the Heart

April 24, 2018 2 Comments

By Alison Y.L. Stephens, 劉語心

“What’s your Chinese name?” my colleague Elaine, a science teacher, asked me as we wrapped up our day and made small talk in the faculty bathroom.

“語心,” I replied.

“What an unusual name!” she exclaimed, a reaction that I had been accustomed to ever since I was a little girl.

Unusual, beautiful, poetic . . . these descriptors, from the mouths of aunties and uncles, had filled me with pride when I was younger—and also a measure of confusion.

I was born in Canada, separated from the deep muscle of my parents’ language, Cantonese. Though my parents took care to teach my brother and I how to listen and speak in our home language, I was left with only a delicate fascia of understanding.

When asked to explain 語心 (pronounced yu sum) to my friends at school, I would break it down: “Well, yu means ‘language,’ and sum means ‘heart.’”

“So ‘language of the heart’?” they clarified (a little less impressed with my name than they were with those of my other friends, who might be “blessing pearl” or “treasure baby”).

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Language of the heart” didn’t resonate with my young Anglo listeners as it did with the older Cantonese generation. None of my second-grade friends paused to roll the name over on their tongues, or nod and meditate on its meaning. Instead, they asked, “Does it mean you’re good at languages?”

As I grew older, the web of my linguistic understanding about my name grew a little thicker and wider. I learned that 語心 (a name my mother had taken care to coin) had to do with understanding the hearts of others—compassion. I also learned that 語心 could be the words that bubble up from the core of our being—poetry. These resonances became emblems worn under my shirt, constantly present though hidden from view as I studied and worked with my given English name through a literature degree that eventually led me to a teaching position at a Christian secondary school in Hong Kong.

So when Elaine, my colleague at that school, asked about my name, I wasn’t surprised by her reaction until she added, “Your parents must be strong believers.”

Actually, they were not. In fact, my decision to become a Christian as a teenager had caused some friction in my family. A major reason for my parents’ consternation was the fact that faith had suddenly become central to my decisions and habits, not just an accessory to put on or take off. Though we had settled into mutual understanding by my early-twenties, the centrality of my beliefs meant that I still felt oriented differently, as though in another orbit.

I told Elaine that my parents were not Christians and asked why she thought so.

“It’s just a strong name,” she replied. “It’s like a paraphrase of that verse.” She recited a sentence from Jeremiah in melodic and dignified Chinese, in that syntax and register that I find difficult to follow, but she immediately followed it with a translation: “I will write my words on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

I teared up there, in a muggy tiled school bathroom at the end of a long teaching day. I finally heard my name— —not just as separate words, and not even as poetry, but as a kind of poesis, a bringing-forth. Through a magical juxtaposition of scripture, heart, history, and language, I saw that this name (that had been lovingly assigned to me when I was just a tiny baby) had also been bringing-forth something much bigger.

It had always been calling me Home.


Our language, at its highest and best, connects us to one another and, I think, to God as well. To put it another way, perhaps our desire to connect with one another, to move towards one another, makes us like the Creator:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with [πρς] God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

I recently learned that the preposition we often hear in this verse, “with [πρς],” also means “near” and “towards.” It’s an incredible revelation to think of the Word not just being God, but also towards God, leaning towards the Creator, aching towards union.

What would it mean for our own language to be constantly moving towards God? For our words to also ache towards union with the Creator? It’s a question that I seem to only wonder about in my better moments; even now, I see too clearly all the blocky, ugly thoughts and words of the last 24 hours alone.

But, at the core, we are inscribed by some bigger Language, and we know that even our everyday language calls things into being. It opens up new possibilities that weren’t there before—to build up community, to create a revelation, to offer up gratitude, to reimagine the self.


Alison Y.L. Stephens (劉語心) is a writing teacher who currently migrates between Boston and Western Colorado. She gets a lot of pleasure from making—cooking, crafting, growing, building—and dreams of scaling up from urban gardening to sustainable homesteading. She traces her every day practices on Instagram (@thisisedible).

On to The Power of a Well-timed Word 


 Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

2 Responses

Alison Stephens
Alison Stephens

May 12, 2018

Yajara, thanks for your beautiful comment about finding a home in another language! It reminds me of how all prayer feels like an act of translation.


April 24, 2018

This is beautiful!
It reminded me in a way of a coversation I had with my mother the other day about prayer. I used to have difficulty praying because I couldn’t feel it. I was raised praying in Spanish, and all the prayers felt like they came from my teeth, not my being. It’s not that I wasn’t listening to what I was saying, but at some point I was just making the sounds and saying what everyone else said. When I started learning French, I have always tried to use it in any way I can so that I don’t forget it, because I really like the language. A few years ago I looked up prayers in French, and I’ve started praying. It felt different. Which is odd because it is a language more foreign to me that even English. Then I wrote a couple prayers in French, and it felt even more…authentic, for lack of a better word. It’s as if I have finally found the “right” language to be with God.

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up. We don't allow comments that are disrespectful or personally attack our blog writers.

Also in The Waking

The Naming
The Naming

November 07, 2022 1 Comment

Did any of the first beasts resist their names? Did Adam grow weary of his endless task?

Read More

On the Endangered List
On the Endangered List

November 04, 2022 1 Comment

Still, she remembers cradling that tiger of a beetle in their sunny, grassy backyard as the sounds of her parents arguing drove through the kitchen windows. She never saw such an insect again.

Read More


September 26, 2022

His idea is for the train to go into the hills and slow in the woods, and for the boy who’s been lost in the woods to see it, board it, and for the train to go full steam ahead back to town to reunite the boy with his lonely and shaken father.

Read More