Several months ago I was sitting in my office with my language helper doing another language session. In this session we were exploring some of the animistic aspects of the local culture. As the session progressed, I began asking more questions about the local animistic parts of the culture. Specifically, I asked, “Does the culture in the surrounding villages here have any stories of spirits copulating with humans?” My language helper quickly responded, “Oh yes, absolutely.” He then proceeded to tell me about the four village members who are still living who are said to be descended from a spirit-human relationship as well as the term in the local language that refers to someone descended from such a relationship.
As we think about language learning and culture, why would it be important for cross-cultural workers to know the linguistic and cultural information noted above? Why should individuals, teams, and organizations invest significant amounts of time, energy, and money in such an endeavor? This essay argues for significant investment in language learning in overseas contexts by appealing to our call as Christians to living lives of excellence as well as seeing language learning as a necessary part of incarnational ministry.
Language learning and the Christian call to excellence
From the early Church throughout the Medieval Ages, virtue was an important concept. The Christian virtues was part of what guided the Christian towards God. The practice of these virtues was thought to lead to societal balance and harmony. But more than that, it was the mastery of these virtues in daily life that was important. An occasional day of prudence, temperance, and fortitude was not enough. Mastery was their goal. Mastery, or excellence, as it will be refered to in this essay, is doing whatever God calls us to do with passion and skill – to the best of our ability. Note the combination of both passion and skill. It is not always enough to have a good heart. Good intentions must be combined with the acquired skills necessary to do well what God is calling us to do. We might have a huge heart for the people, but if we don’t understand the deeper linguistic and cultural aspects of their lives, we cannot minister to them with excellence. Excellence means refusing to take shortcuts. It means allocating time, energy, and resources to not just accomplish a task but to do it to the best of our ability. Some might protest by claiming that we can be involved in church planting and Bible translation to a certain degree without much effort in language learning. That is likely true. But as Christians who care deeply about living with intentionality, we must not just ask how the task can be done, but if it can be done with excellence in a way that has a long-term impact.
In his book No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions, Matt Rhodes speaks of the missionary vocation as similar to any vocation in that it requires the acquisition of professional skills. Rhodes asks the question, “Is it possible that working too quickly [as missionaries] makes us ineffective?” He continues by stating thus: “In the intense pressure they feel to complete the Great Commission, missionaries often bypass the slow unflashy work of acquiring professional skills like theological education and language fluency” (38). Whether you’re remodeling a house, practicing medicine, or ministering in a cross-cultural context, you must have the proper skills and experience to do the job with excellence. There simply are no shortcuts to mastery.
Language learning is hard, exhausting, and sometimes lonely work, and the language learner is offered multiple shortcuts to evade the slow plodding work of language study. Ministering cross-culturally with excellence demands that we avoid the tempting shortcut of not learning the language, or even of just learning enough to “get by with.” I find this temptation to take short-cuts to be ever present in my experience living cross-culturally and needing to learn two more languages.
So why learn language? We learn language because we follow Jesus, and part of the make-up, the DNA, the very fabric of life in Christ is doing what God calls us to do with excellence – with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Language learning and incarnational ministry
Language learning not only facilitates excellence, it also is another step in realizing the goal of incarnational ministry. In some Christian circles, incarnational ministry has become somewhat of a catch-phrase, a cliché. Since most cliches are frequently used but poorly understood, it is necessary to clarify how the term is used in this essay. Incarnational ministry refers to living among and identifying with the people in ways that follow Christ’s example of selfless love and humility.Ministering to others on their level
With language we communicate both our glory and our gore. As we learn language, we get a better understanding of both the beauty and brokenness of the people we are ministering to in a much deeper way than if we adopt a casual approach to language learning. Jesus was saddened but not scandalized by the messyness of human fallenness, and neither should we.
Besides enabling us to enter the fallenness of the people to whom we are ministering, learning language helps us to identify with the linguistic context of those people. Language is such an integral and intimate part of our humanity. Speakers of minority languages often have insecurities relating to their languages. In the language group we are working with, community members go out of their way to show us that they are quite proficient in the national language. They are keenly aware of their lack of education and experience in the global world. At the same time, their love for their mother tongue is hard to suppress, even around someone they perceive as a wealthy, cultured foreigner. As we work hard to learn the local language and use it increasingly frequently, our hope is that this will eventually break down their defenses and we will increasingly look, or at least sound, like them.
In our situation, we live in a minority language group which feels the pull to switch to the national language as their primary language of communication. Fluency in and regular use of the national language communicate an identity of education, nationalistic ideals, and a global mindset. Use of the local language communicates an identity of shared community, family, and intimacy. For us to learn their local language is a way to enter into parts of their lives that those outside their tribe rarely take part in. For us to be willing to learn both the national language and their local language communicates a desire to identify with these people in all their complexity and it demonstrates the humility to enter into their small, insignificant community, and speak their small, insignificant language.Ministering to others in humility
Learning a second or third language as an adult is a rather humbling experience. We are unceremoniously stripped of our façade of competence and independence while simultaneously being forced to allow our worldview to be challenged. In our adopted culture, we are nobody and we know nothing. Even more than determination and grit, language and culture learning takes humility. It might be tempting to simply avoid the hardwork and humility needed in learning the local language by simply ministering among the people through the national language. However, that would not only limit our future ministry opportunities, but it would also rob us of an opportunity to live among the people in humility. Furthermore, as language learning deepens our understanding of the ragged edges of our adopted culture, we are given the opportunity both to temporarally suspend judgment as well as to allow this worldview to challenge our own.
Why do we bother learning language? Beyond simply helping us to accomplish a task – whether evangelism or Bible translation – expending significant time, energy, and resources in language learning is a reflection of the Christian commitment to excellence in every area of life as well as a demonstration of Christ-like humility through identifying linguistically with the local people.—MN, an All-Nations field member