If we’re being honest, most missionaries aren’t enthusiastic about learning languages. We come into the field to win lost churches and plant. We do not travel to the other side of the world to conjugate verbs or schematic sentences.
For many missionaries, learning languages can seem like a wet blanket on their evangelistic zeal. Some even argued that it was not necessary. English is now a global language. Instead of investing hours, weeks, months, and years to acquire a local language, missionaries can find local English speakers, invest in them, and hope they reach their own people.
Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? And of course there are places in the world where it can work. But I believe that learning languages, while incredibly difficult and often deflating, is God’s normal way for missionaries to love others and reach them with the gospel.
Once, I gave a talk in my host country to a group of young people. As I spoke, a local interpreted my words into the local language to make sure I was understood. I would like to talk. Then he would speak. It lasted a good part of an hour. Although I appreciated his efforts, it was extremely humbling because I was already trying to speak in their language!
I had spent hours preparing my presentation. Alongside a language assistant, I worked on every word, making sure I had the right meaning, staying true to scripture, and making it as appealing as possible. I was there, speaking in their language, pouring out my heart, and I still needed an interpreter!
While learning a language, your ego takes a hit. Missionaries are forced to die to themselves daily – in almost every conversation. I live in an Asian country, and I have been there for five years. However, I am still learning languages. My inner thoughts during conversations go like this: I understood the verb at the end, but what about the first half of the sentence? I can’t ask him to repeat himself again. I think he said Jesus is a prophet, but how do you say Jesus is more than a prophet? I just studied this yesterday!
While learning a language, your ego takes a hit.
The journey to language learning isn’t just about the discipline of reviewing vocabulary and practicing sentence structure. It’s about humbling myself, choosing daily to risk humiliation by trying to speak.
labor of love
Yet for all its excruciating moments, learning languages is a practical way for missionaries to love the people we seek to reach. If we are willing to spend hours in a classroom and hours practicing in the community, it shows them that we care. They see our patient efforts, and it communicates something even when our words fail.
As we develop our language skills, it eventually allows us to share the world’s best news in the language of someone’s heart. In many countries and contexts, it is possible to find English speakers who will understand us. If we devote our energies to investing in them, they can reach some of them. But other than mastering the local language, there is simply no shortcut to sharing the gospel with the majority of people in a way that reaches their hearts, let alone form them deeply.
You cannot understand a culture apart from its language, including its idioms, proverbs and parables.
When you start learning another language, you realize that you are learning more than one language. You learn a culture. Ask any anthropologist, and he or she will explain that you cannot understand a culture outside of its language, including its idioms, proverbs, and parables. Missionaries who want to honor God by faithfully teaching the Word will also want to honor the local people by learning their language and culture.
In my experience, here are some practical suggestions to help missionaries stay on course in the difficult but rewarding task of language learning.
1. Manage your expectations.
Having unrealistic expectations is the fastest way to burn out. I’m in fifth grade, and it’s downright embarrassing to have to repeat “Say again?” for the billionth time. My understanding is still woefully short of what I thought it was at this point.
My previous experience in the mission field was that of a single man with nothing but time. Now I’m married with three children, I wonder why language fluency is so slow. I realized that I had to readjust my expectations while still making time to study.
2. Remember your identity and purpose.
In this process, I had to learn that I am not the sum of my linguistic abilities. It’s so easy to compare myself to others and measure my progress by theirs. I know of a worker with a Ph.D. who was quickly overtaken in language acquisition by his less-educated colleague. It was not easy for him. But the Lord distributed gifts according to his wisdom and for his purposes.
As we study the language, missionaries should remember the One who created us with our abilities and abilities. We must remember that He who gave his life for us knows our weaknesses and our faults. We must remember the One who dwells within us to empower us. And we must remember why we pursue language learning – for the glory of God and the joy of all people.
3. Know its value.
More than half a century ago, my host country literally went to war over the language. They loved their language enough to take up arms against those who forced them to speak another. If they’ve shed blood for the language they love, imagine how they feel when they see a clumsy foreigner struggling to speak it? Often, upon hearing the simplest phrase, they will simply say, “Thank you! Their impulse is gratitude.
One of the easiest ways to love people is to learn their language. Although it requires almost daily death to self, when we are finally able to share the gospel in a fluid way, using language, references and analogies that people understand, it is worth it. What we once feared becomes the means by which the gospel is preached and the dead raised.