If we’re honest, most missionaries aren’t excited about language learning. We come to the field to win the lost and plant churches. We don’t move halfway around the world to conjugate verbs or diagram sentences.
For many missionaries, language learning can seem like a wet blanket on their evangelistic zeal. Some have even argued it isn’t necessary. English is now a global language. Instead of investing hours, weeks, months, and years to acquire a local language, missionaries can find some local English speakers, invest in them, and hope they reach their own people.
It sounds tempting, doesn’t it? And of course, there are places in the world where this can work. But I believe that language learning, while incredibly difficult and often deflating, is the normal means God uses for missionaries to love others and reach them with the gospel.
I once gave a talk in my host country to a group of young people. As I spoke, a national interpreted my words in the local language to make sure I was understood. I would speak. Then he would speak. This went on for the better part of an hour. While I appreciated his efforts, it was extremely humiliating because I was already attempting to speak in their language!
I had spent hours preparing my talk. Alongside a language helper, I labored over every word, making sure I got the meaning right, remaining faithful to Scripture, and making it as engaging as I could. There I was, speaking in their language, pouring out my heart, and I still needed an interpreter!
During language learning, your ego takes a beating. Missionaries are forced to die to themselves daily—in almost every conversation. I live in an Asian country, and I’ve been here five years. Yet I’m still in the throes of language learning. My inner thoughts during conversations go something 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 I say Jesus is more than a prophet? I just studied this yesterday!
During language learning, your ego takes a beating.
The journey to learning a language isn’t just about discipline to review vocab and practice sentence structure. It’s about humbling myself, choosing daily to risk humiliation by attempting to speak.
Labor of Love
Yet for all its excruciating moments, language learning is one practical way for missionaries to love the people we’re seeking to reach. If we’re willing to spend hours in a classroom and hours practicing in the community, it shows them we care. They see our patient efforts, and it communicates something even when our words fail.
As we grow in our language ability, it eventually allows us to share the best news in the world in someone’s heart language. In many countries and contexts, it’s possible to find English speakers who will understand us. If we spend our energies investing in them, they can reach some. But apart from mastery of the local language, there’s simply no shortcut for us to share the gospel with a majority of the people in a way that reaches their hearts—not to mention disciple them deeply.
You can’t understand a culture apart from its language, including its idioms, proverbs, and parables.
When you start learning another language, you realize you’re learning more than a language. You’re learning a culture. Ask any anthropologist, and he or she will explain you can’t understand a culture apart from its language, including its idioms, proverbs, and parables. Missionaries who want to honor God by teaching the Word faithfully will also want to honor the local people by learning their language and culture.
From my experience, here are some practical suggestions to help missionaries stay the course in the difficult but rewarding task of language learning.
1. Manage your expectations.
Having unrealistic expectations is the quickest way to burnout. I’m in year five, and it’s downright embarrassing to need to repeat “Say again?” for the billionth time. My comprehension still falls woefully short of where I thought it would be at this point.
My previous experience on the mission field was as a single man with nothing but time. Now, I’m married with three kids, wondering why language mastery is so slow. I’ve realized I need to readjust my expectations while still carving out time for study.
2. Remember your identity and purpose.
In this process, I’ve had to learn that I’m not the sum of my language ability. It’s so easy to compare myself to others and measure my progress by theirs. I know one worker with a PhD who was quickly outpaced in language acquisition by his less-educated coworker. This wasn’t easy for him. But the Lord has distributed gifts according to his wisdom and for his purposes.
As we study language, missionaries must remember the One who created us with our abilities and capacities. We must remember that the One who gave his life for us knows our weaknesses and shortcomings. We must remember the One who dwells in us to empower us. And we must remember why we pursue language learning—for the glory of God and the joy of all peoples.
3. Know its value.
More than a half century ago, my host country literally went to war over language. They loved their language enough to take up arms against those forcing them to speak a different one. If they shed blood for the language they love, imagine how they feel when they see a bumbling foreigner laboring to speak it? Often, upon hearing the simplest phrase, they’ll simply say, “Thank you!” Their impulse is gratitude.
One of the simplest ways to love people is to learn their language. While it requires almost daily death to self, when we’re finally able to share the gospel fluidly, using language, references, and analogies that people understand, it’s all worth it. What we once dreaded becomes the means through which the gospel is preached and the dead are raised.