Crossing the Language Barrier

Posted on: 
December 1, 2020

Anyone planning to move to a place where the language is different from what they are used to has some decisions to make. How is this language barrier going to be handled? Do I need to learn the language, and, if so, how well? How would I go about learning this new language? Is there a school that I can go to, or will I learn it informally from friends and acquaintances?

Language. What would we do without it? Through language we carry out business, build friendships, express affection to our loved ones, and share the Gospel with those who have never heard it. Through language we communicate with the dentist, the storekeeper, the policeman, and the friend that we meet on the street. Life as we know it depends on language. If you were suddenly transplanted into a place where everyone spoke a different language from you, how would you survive?

Survive or Thrive?

Having lived approximately 18 months in a cross-cultural setting, I have seen numerous “survival tactics” implemented by the various expatriates I’ve encountered. On one extreme, there are the people that choose to do the bare minimum. They learn just enough language to buy the food they need and ensure they have shelter over their heads. When they need the dentist, they try to find one that speaks their language or else take a translator with them. When they have an exchange with a police officer, they can only hope they look dumb enough that he gets disgusted and lets them free. As you can imagine, these people that learn the least possible develop very few friendships in their host society. They remain a perpetual outsider.

On the other extreme are the ones that choose to become as fluent as possible in the language of their host culture. They put in years of intentional language learning, focusing not only on understanding well, but also on being understood. With their extensive language abilities, these people feel much more at home in their host society than those language learners who choose the minimum-effort approach. They are able to build larger relationship networks within the host society and are able to go much deeper in their friendships with individuals from the host society. Because they can communicate well, fluent speakers are equipped to thrive in their host society rather than simply surviving.

Why It Matters

It probably will not surprise you to learn that All-Nations members are encouraged to become as fluent as possible in the language of the people they go to live among. There are several reasons this is encouraged.

(1) They are equipped to thrive in their host society. When an All-Nations member moves abroad, they are typically making an indefinite time commitment. Rather than committing to a specific period of time, they go to accomplish a work and don’t plan to leave until the work is finished. This could take ten years, twenty years, or more. This is too long to spend in survival mode with only basic language skills. Anyone who tries this has a high chance of burning out emotionally and/or spiritually. However, with good language abilities, an All-Nations member can form close relationships with the people around them and thrive in their host society.

(2) They are equipped to communicate the Gospel message well. The nature of the work demands that All-Nations members be effective communicators. Literacy work, Bible translation, and Bible teaching are all communication-heavy activities and it would be fool-hardy to think they could be accomplished by individuals with limited vocabularies or bad accents. The deep truths of the Gospel message need to be communicated accurately, and the heavy discussions that accompany translation work require more than just language basics.

(3) They are equipped to understand the worldview and culture of their host society. Vital to relating well in any society is an understanding of how the members of that society think. This comes naturally to us in our home society because we are raised within its culture and indoctrinated by its worldview from the time we are very young. When one moves out of their home society, the culture and worldview of the new society will likely be quite different from what they left. No matter what, it will take time to learn this new culture and worldview, but the process will be dramatically sped up by good language abilities that allow close relationships with individuals from the host society.

This is not to say that culture learning should wait until one can communicate well; language and culture learning can happen simultaneously. However, there are aspects to worldview and culture that cannot be understood by a newcomer until they can be carefully explained by a member of the host society; something that requires good language ability.

How We Do It

So how can you learn language to optimize fluency? Here is how All-Nations members pursue language learning.

Before going to the field, All-Nations members study language learning theory and practice; typically at a college level. These second-language acquisition courses promote two main techniques for steady and thorough language learning: communication-based learning and comprehensible input.

Communication-based learning is language acquisition done in the context of normal life. Rather than memorizing vocabulary lists and grammar rules, the language learner grows in the new language by learning to understand and communicate things about the objects and situations in their immediate vicinity. By doing this, the learner forms mental connections between the words they are learning and their host-society referents, rather than between the words they are learning and their English translations.

Comprehensible input means that, at any given point in the language-learning process, the language learner is being exposed to large amounts of new language that matches their abilities at the time. When a learner is still struggling with how to communicate his needs to the local storekeeper, a discussion on political theory would not be comprehensible input for him. It may become comprehensible input some months or years later, but right now he needs new language that he can digest. This means having one or more “language nurturers” from the host society who are aware of his current language abilities and are willing to patiently teach what is comprehensible.

No method will guarantee fluency in a new language; it takes time and effort on the part of the language learner no matter what. However, employing the right methods does optimize the chances for ultimate language-learning success. And language-learning success paves the way for deep relationships and accurate communication of the Gospel.

Language-Learning Tools for You

Maybe you are preparing to serve cross-culturally, and realize you need to prepare well to learn a new language. There are resources that you can access to gain language learning know-how to help you toward success.

—Leonard H

  • “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Romans 10:17
  • “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witness of these things.” Luke 24:47, 48
  • “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Matthew 28:19
  • “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:3
  • “That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the Gospel.” Ephesians 3:6
  • “That they all may be one; as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us; that the world may believe that You sent Me.” John 17:21
  • “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’?” Mark 11:17
  • “Ask of me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance.” Psalm 2:8
  • “Behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes.” Revelation 7:9
  • “Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified.” 2 Thessalonians 3:1
  • “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16
  • “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105
  • “As cold water to a weary soul, so is good news from a far country.” Proverbs 25:25
  • “More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.” Psalm 19:10
  • “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You.” Psalm 22:27
  • “Truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.” Numbers 14:21
  • “Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples. For the LORD is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods.” Psalm 96:3, 4
  • “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” Habakkuk 2:14
  • “That all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other.” 1 Kings 8:60
  • “For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; in every place incense shall be offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name shall be great among the nations.” Malachi 1:11
  • “All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, and shall glorify Your name.” Psalm 86:9
  • “For as the earth brings forth its bud, as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” Isaiah 61:11
  • "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!" Psalm 46:10
  • "This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." 1 Timothy 2:3, 4
  • "You are worthy. . .; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God." Revelation 5:9, 10