Learning Language and Culture

Posted on: 
June 6, 2024

It is a helpless feeling to look into an indigenous person’s face and realize you have no way of communicating. The team enters as learners in the community because of their inability to communicate. Culture and Language Acquisition (CLA) is their first task.

Learning the Language

Usually the team has already learned a national language to navigate the country, but learning an indigenous language is very different. Gone are the translation apps, dictionaries, and textbooks. The process is slower now as the team listens to the language and tries to decipher what sounds are being used behind the wall of noise. Soon key phrases are learned, such as, “What is this?” and “What are you doing?”

The team’s language ability builds until they can analyze stories and discourses to discover nuances of the language. Through hours of hard work, the team emerges from silence to “baby babble” and still later to competent speech.

An indigenous helper, often bilingual, is essential in the process of Culture and Language Acquisition. This person explains what was happening and what was being said in situations the team faced. He provides a safe outlet for the team to try out their speaking abilities. But he does not necessarily function as a teacher. Depending on his education, he may not be able to explain the grammatical features of the language.

Learning the Culture

Learning the indigenous culture is linked with language learning. As team members interact in the community, they will observe many strange sights that they do not understand.

The team will document their observations and then ask questions about them. For example, our team has wondered, “Do snakes have spiritual significance in the minds of the people?” The only way to answer a question like this is to listen to their stories, watch their actions, and ask creative questions. Slowly the confusing parts of the culture become more plain.

Building Relationships

Culture and language acquisition takes a significant amount of time during the first two to four years a team is with the people group. During this time, valuable relationships are built that can often bear fruit in God’s kingdom. The team’s language helper today could be a future Bible translator or church leader.

Every relationship cultivated in these years will provide opportunity to share the gospel. Every nuance of culture and language that is learned will allow the team to share the gospel effectively.

— DS writes from northern Mexico

  • “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