A popular missionary mentality suggests that missionaries should learn a language in order to sometime later have a ministry. The language learning period can then be viewed as nothing but a bothersome speed bump impeding the road to a fruitful ministry.
Well-known missionary anthropologist Charles Kraft offers a different perspective:
“If we do no more than engage in the process of language learning, we will have communicated more of the essentials of the gospel than if we devote ourselves to any other task.”1
I was startled by these words, and in particular these three phrases grabbed my attention: do no more, more of, and any other.
Notice that Kraft is not saying what we would expect him to say, to just learn the language well enough to be able to communicate the gospel so you can then get on with your real ministry calling. Instead, he’s bolding and underlining the language learning process itself.
So let’s dive into how that process can communicate the gospel.
1. By prioritizing relationships during language learning, you communicate the gospel.
During the language learning phase it’s way too easy (at least for some of us) to sit at our desk and study. Homework calls, the intricacies of grammar engulf us, flashcards monopolize us. But through seeking relationships with real live people, we honor them with the simple gift of presence.
Yes, with limited language under your belt it’s hard sometimes to just hang out. I started language school in Costa Rica with just a smattering of Spanish.
With fear and trembling I joined a ladies’ ceramics class that was offered by the church we attended. I felt like one of the blobs of clay since I couldn’t contribute to the conversation or join in their small talk.
But at one point our host mother, who was also in the class, told me how the ladies were unbelievably amazed that a gringa would actually come to their class. I hang onto that tacky flower thing I made in order to remind myself to intentionally reach out despite our inadequacy.
Maybe you’re hesitant to reach out because you’ll be moving to a different location for your ministry. You may have a mentality that says: “Why bother making friends? I won’t ever see these people again.”
But Amy didn’t think so.
I coached Amy during her language school. After she moved to a different island to begin her ministry assignment, I interviewed her on my language learning podcast. I asked her this question: “During language school were you tempted to have a transient mindset and just not invest in relationships?”
She answered: “Yes, I was tempted since I knew that it was going to be temporary. But even if I did want to kind of check out, the Father definitely directed me to certain relationships that I was then able to invest in. I’m really, really glad I did since I saw how life-giving and sustaining they were. Having that support has been huge–to know people that truly care about me and want to help.”
Even though she couldn’t keep up with everybody after moving, Amy found herself needing to rely on some of those long-distance friendships for help and support while she navigated her new surroundings.
“They still care about me, and I still care about them. It’s definitely mutual. They know me, and I know them. We continue to learn from each other. I think it’s one of the most beautiful things about integrating into a different culture.”
2. By practicing active ‘noticing’ in language learning, you communicate the gospel.
When you peck your way out of your selfish shell of me-myself-and-I, you begin to notice who and what is around you. Not only do you look intently through your windshield, but you also constantly check your rearview and side view mirrors. Do you see the guy on the corner selling roses? How about the well-dressed couple in their nice car? The older gentlemen in the street procession? An over-eager child? Bus sleepers, slumped teenagers, vigilant police, over-zealous venders?
In a blog post Hannah Mae Foust calls Jesus ‘The Ultimate Noticer.’ Don’t you love that title?
Make a list of the people Jesus noticed. Think about how he changed the stories of sick and sinner, proud and priest, friend and enemy, old and young, hidden and public.
Foust says Jesus didn’t merely notice. “Noticers respond to what they see, with compassion and care, by doing whatever it takes to help meet needs and create more beauty, joy, and peace in the world. [And by doing so] noticers inspire.”
3. By having a learner posture in language learning, you communicate the gospel.
A humble learner surrenders schooling, experience, and status, leaving their know-it-all superiority at the altar. I had to shred my graduate degree in linguistics to learn from the man hawking tamales how to simply count out coins. And then there was the ouch of not-so-gentle correction when I horribly mispronounced a word or botched a simple conjugation.
Yep, learning instead of knowing can be a hard pill to swallow, but in the end it can prove effective in breaking down the pride that masks the gospel message.
4. By slowing down and being patient in language learning, you communicate the gospel.
Your language assistant doesn’t get your instructions. The language school dismisses classes unexpectedly. Again. You still can’t trill your r’s or hear tone differences. Aargh.
Western notions of efficiency can hamstring language learning. But frustration and finger-drumming impatience feed on that kind of fast-tracking mindset. You buy into the billboard message of an accident law firm that promises ‘as much as possible and as fast as possible.’ You see uncooperative people and unforeseen circumstances as obstacles impeding your success. You start to think the language is stupid and so are some of its speakers, as well.
All of this bleeds onto the people around you and communicates the arrogance that my time and my goals are what is most important. Although he was certainly determined and had the end goal clearly in sight, Jesus was great at flexing, at taking deep breaths.
I recently saw a little plaque that says: “Sometimes your journey will take you off your path. It’s all part of the same trip. Life is full of exquisite diversions.”
Do you agree?
And let me say that if you’re looking for short cuts, alas, there are no short cuts in language learning. Short cuts actually lead to dead ends like ‘I can rely on interpreters if I need to’ or ‘they’ll understand I’m a foreigner so a few mistakes won’t matter’ or ‘my vocab needs improving but I can get by.’
Progress in language learning can definitely be slow, but I’ve come to believe that slow and steady with patience will certainly win the race.
5. By showing deference and respect in language learning, you communicate the gospel.
Okay, time for true confessions here.
In language school, I had a super bad attitude about my grammar teacher in particular. What made it worse was that everybody else loved the man. They declared that Don Marcos (name changed) was hands-down their favorite teacher.
I mean, really? The lessons were super tedious. He would painstakingly write out on the blackboard these horribly long verb conjugations that were already in the book.
But this was the all-time worst: after an exam, he would weave up and down the rows of desks and assign all twenty-five of us, one by one, a test question to answer aloud.
So boring and so bad, this ridiculous style of teaching was such a cheesy way to get grading done, in my not-so-humble opinion.
And I’m red-faced embarrassed to admit that I would plop my head down on the desk and check out until my turn came around. This very childish response was undoubtedly a blatant show of disrespect not only for him but for the language school itself.
At the end of the semester, he told me to my face that I had the worst attitude of any global worker he had ever taught. And I deserved it. Please, God, forgive me.
Even when facing what we would label as incompetency, prideful attitudes during language learning proclaim a loud-and-clear negative message that can easily carry over into your ministry assignment.
Another powerful way to show deference is by choosing someone who’s been marginalized by social status, lack of education, disability, or age as your friend or even language helper. You, with the power of a foreigner, acknowledge those without power and so increase their sense of self-respect and self-worth. Awesome.
6. And finally, by seeking to understand the culture instead of being yourself understood, you communicate the gospel.
Let’s go back to Amy for a good example. Now in her ministry assignment in a new location, she suddenly faced a conflict with a national co-worker. I paraphrase here what she told me:
“When she gave me the silent treatment for going on two weeks, I knew I had offended her but was clueless as to when and why.
“We finally had a chance to talk, and I assumed/hoped that she would try to understand my viewpoint just like I would try to understand hers.
“Her solution was not to try to get to the bottom of things and see where communication had gone awry, but instead she believed that we should just go on as normal as if nothing had happened.
“This was hard.
“I had to accept that this was the modus operandi for handling conflict in her culture even though it felt to me like we were just sweeping everything under the rug.
“Eventually I came to realize that this was her way of showing respect for our relationship.”
If we practice language learning in these ways, I believe we will become the salt and light of the gospel. After all, isn’t the real challenge for all of us to follow Christ’s example in Philippians 2?
1As quoted by E. Thomas Brewster and Elizabeth S. Brewster in International Bulletin of Mission Research
After 20+ years of living in Latin America and working in three indigenous languages plus Spanish with SIL International, Mary Lynn Kindberg is currently a language acquisition consultant, instructor, and coach. She is also the host of the LanguageOnPurpose podcast. Her two adult children are gratefully bilingual. Contact Mary Lynn at email@example.com.