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.