Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Learning The Lingo

Bob, Bill, Betty, Bart, Bee, Ben, Brody and Brad have something in common. None of them are fluent in the language of The Location. A couple of them can carry on the most basic of conversations, but most of them can only say a greeting, thanks, brief introduction and “how much?” for shopping. Is this a coincidence?

In my view, the most important thing about being a missionary is loving people as Jesus loved them. The second is learning the language. It is critically important. It doesn’t matter how good your translator is or how well your disciples speak English—if you don’t speak their language well you don’t truly understand them, their problems and their perspective. You just don’t.

I have found that most cross-cultural “understanding” is more projection that true understanding. We listen to someone explain the difference between our own culture and theirs and then we take this “understanding” (which we didn’t get from our own experience) and we project it onto the people. Often, the things we’ve heard are incomplete or simply incorrect. But these “understandings” persist and are abundant. The only way to get past the clutter of misunderstanding is to learn the language for ourselves—to the point where we can truly see things from the nationals' perspective.

In my time in The Location nothing has been so rewarding as learning the language. It has opened the door to this entire country and people. It is exciting to know that wherever I go within The Location I can find people that I can talk and listen to. And the things I’ve learned from listening to people here have changed many of my initial opinions and understandings. I can’t imagine living here for an extended period of time without knowing the language. I don’t know how so many people do it.

Learning the language isn’t important just so that we can share our message. It is important so that we can listen to the thoughts and perspectives of The People. When we listen, we learn. When we learn, we begin to understand. When we understand, we can begin to come close to the heart of The People. Then we learn how to begin communicating effectively—what they really need to hear in order for them to understand who God is.

You would be surprised how many missionaries don’t ever learn to speak the local language fluently. I was surprised when I first came. I would say it is a majority. Virtually all of them can say enough to fool a non-speaker from their home country that they know how to speak the language. But most of them depend on translators or English-speaking friends and staff. These “crutches” actually are hindrances to learning the language. I have had interns from the US come to The Location for 4-6 months and in that time learn to speak more of the language than a large percentage of full-timers who have been here for years.

Two enemies of language learning are (1) very limited contact with the nationals (or spending too much time with other expatriates and in public places that cater to the tourist industry) and (2) viewing The People as subjects rather than as friends. So many foreigners do not have any nationals as friends. Of those who do, many of them are the ones who know how to speak English very well.

Up until now I have not talked much about language learning in the Koffi House. However, it is one of the things that is very close to my heart. I have seen the benefit of learning the language fluently and desire to help others avoid the trap of settling for non-fluency. Unlike Brad’s friend in The Ugly Missionary #7, I believe learning the language IS necessary to being effective in The Location.

So my next few posts will focus specifically on language learning. I will discuss what it takes to really learn a language. Please feel free to share your stories, too, if you have some.


  1. One of my best friends growing up was Mexican. I worked in her mom's Mexican restaurant and at various times, family members would come up from Mexico and work at the restaurant also. Generally they did not speak much English, if any at all.

    Language comes easy for me and it was a desire of mine to be able to converse in Spanish with my friends family. For several family members, I taught them English and they taught me Spanish. To this day they still consider me a part of the family and though my Spanish is rusty, we all get a good laugh out of my mistakes.

    A few years ago, I was working in the restaurant industry and getting ready to take a trip to Mexico. The cooks were Hispanic and I asked them to only speak Spanish to me so that I could brush up before my trip. I too think it is important to do my best to speak the local language as best I can. The locals are very patient and I think they respect the fact that you are trying.

    And when I go to Canada I make sure and say 'eh?' a lot at the end of the sentence.

  2. One of the residents living out her days at the nursing home where I've worked for the past 23 years, told that she was a painfully shy, young lady when she felt the strong call to missions. She just knew English and had no particular linguistic skills. Yet when she said YES to the Lord's call, the Holy Spirit removed her shyness completely and she said she learned the language of her people in a supernatural way that stunned even herself! I believe that when the calling is truly from the Lord, HE will equip. Am I too idealistic? I loved hearing all her experiences and adventures with the Lord. Her life blessed mine. The chaplain and I were honored to sing to her as she passed from this life to her eternal reward.

  3. Well, the comment I posted on your previous post could apply here as well.

    The youth pastor at my previous church grew up as a MK in Mexico. He has dark blond hair and blue eyes, so you don't really expect to hear him speaking fluent Spanish. He would often go out to lunch at a Mexican restuarant here. The wait staff would carry on conversations in front of him assuming that he could not understand a word of it. Then he would order in Spanish. I think that shocked many of them. But I also think it earned him some respect for knowing the language so well. Since I live in America, I have never felt the need to learn another language. But considering the large hispanic community here, I am beginning to think that I am missing a great number of opportunities to witness to people who only speak English sparingly.

  4. @Annie K--Yes, language is a door to intimate relationships with people that are impossible without it. Your comment about Canada cracked me up!

    @Karin--What a beautiful story! If we allow ourselves to view the people as our peers and freinds then we will spend enough time with them that we will learn the language much better. If we view them as our "subjects" or as different and strange people and we try to maintain our own lifestyles in the midst of them, then we will usually have limited contact with them and end up not learning the language very well. This very dynamic is what I was trying to get at with all the different "Ugly Missionary" stories. It is a dynamic, unfortunately, that is pretty prevalent even when we at home might assume otherwise. Thank you for that beautiful story!

    @Katidsh--Hay una vez que yo hable' espanol muy bien. Pero no es ahora. Estoy olvidando espanol. Yo me gusta comida mexicana pero no hay un restaurante mexicana en El Locacion. Yo noy soy marinaro. Soy capitan, soy capitan.

  5. Did you just tell me not to put soy sauce in your marinara sauce captain?

    I speak a little Spanish: "Don de esta, casa de pee pee?" (Where is the bathroom?)

  6. You're so funny, Katdish. Casa de pee pee.

  7. What does the phrase I am not the sailor, I'm the captain, mean. I have assumed it to be a metaphor saying I am a leader, not a follower. Is that correct?

  8. Helen--I think that is probably what it means. It is from the song "La Bamba". I was just trying to be funny by displaying that my only knowledge of Spanish comes from popular songs.

  9. Oh.....well then, Viva Las Vegas! ;-)