Monday, April 20, 2009

The Ugly Missionary #7: Language Learning

I’m sorry for posting about ugliness here at the Koffi House. I do it for a purpose, however. I write these stories so that we will see what we should not be; how we should not think; and what we should not do. There aren’t any “old scores” I’m trying to settle. (Some of these stories will include my own actions.) Rather, I want us to evaluate and adjust, consider and repent, so that we will be effective missionaries wherever we are.

Brad moved to The Location not too long ago. Before he came to the field his organization sent him through a rigorous pre-field orientation process that included instruction on cross-cultural living, language learning and ministry. Brad was inspired by this training and reported to his friends before leaving to the field that it was some of the best preparatory instruction he has even gotten even after majoring in “missions” in Bible college. Brad had in mind to use local transportation for the first year on the field (instead of quickly buying a car) so that it would increase his interaction with the nationals.

Brad also had in mind to use the LAMP method of language acquisition. LAMP stands for “Language Acquisition Made Practical” and consists of doing a language route where you go around to the same 15-20 nationals every day and speak a phrase or two that you’ve just learned. Over time this helps the missionary not only learn the language, but also build a core of national friends.

But Brad wasn’t alone when he moved to The Location. He also had his family—a wife and three kids. After arrival one of his first obligations was to get his children enrolled in school. The only problem was that they each had to attend different schools because of their ages. Brad spent more than an hour taking each of them to school in the morning by riding the popular motorcycle taxis in the city. In the evening it was another hour. Brad didn’t want his oldest (a 14 year old son) to take the taxis alone—he feared something bad might happen. So every day Brad spent 2 hours riding motorcycle taxis.

Brad was also trying to get his house settled and his stuff shipped over from home. He was inundated with all kinds of decisions, not only about school and work, but about hiring a maid, buying food, purchasing computers and Internet access, getting to know other expats, etc. It wasn’t long before Brad said, “Forget this! I’m getting a car.” So Brad found a car he could use to send his children to school every day, and then to work.

Brad never got around to doing a language route. He kept putting it off. First it was to make sure his children were enrolled in school. After that he would start his language route. Then Brad found himself busy setting up his house. He had furniture to buy and things to get shipped over from home. As soon as the house was set up then he would start his language route. Brad’s project gave him a month to “get settled” before starting to work in the office and a year to concentrate primarily on language learning. But Brad found that a month wasn’t enough. Even so, Brad thought to himself that a regular schedule would help him be more disciplined about doing a language route.

As assistant director of his project Brad was given a national employee to help him. This young man was fluent in English. So Brad enlisted his help with getting set up in The Location. He became Brad’s translator. If Brad wanted to discuss something with city utilities, this young man translated. If Brad wanted to buy some things at the market, he took his employee along to translate and help settle the price. Brad was so much happier having someone who could speak the local language working for him. But he still always felt guilty about never doing a language route or learning much of the language.

Brad decided to hire a local language teacher to give him lessons every afternoon. However, Brad found that afternoons turned out to be a busy time doing e-mail, picking his kids up from school and crossing the border to a more developed neighboring country to do shopping, eat pizza and take a break from living in The Location. So Brad had to cancel his language lessons often.

Finally, Brad met another missionary who worked in the same city and has been living in The Location for three years. This man teaches a Bible study several times a week to The People. He uses one of his employees to translate for him. After many dinners out with their two families, this man explained to Brad that he feels it isn’t really necessary to learn the language to work and minister in The Location. He has been doing just fine using an interpreter. Brad really respects this man and began to feel better about not picking up the language.

After a year’s time, when his language-study period has been completed, Brad can only say, “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “How are you? I’m fine.” All of his kids know how to greet people in the local language but cannot say anything beyond that. When a representative from Brad’s mission agency visits the field and asks about his language ability, Brad admits that he has not done too well. But he points to the necessity of taking care of his family and making friends in the expat community, to the hectic nature of his office and the reality that learning the language isn’t as necessary as he once thought.


  1. These are all pretty powerful lessons! They don't make for 'happy' reading, but are necessary truth and admonition. They make me examine myself and my actions in my own calling and life's circumstances. Sometimes we're simply ugly in living the Christian life because SELF is still on the throne of our hearts.

  2. Hi Karin. You're right--these posts don't make for happy writing either! I hope they are beneficial, however, for those of us who purpose to make a difference whether that is in a cross-cultural setting or at home.

  3. I've done similar things myself: great intentions, but poor follow through. I better go look for my Spanish language audio course now ;-), the one I was supposed to be working a chapter a week as a New Year's resolution...

  4. These have been very interesting reading. I don't want to judge too quickly because I have never been a missionary, so I can't say what I would do. I'm sure it's intimidating being a stranger in another country, especially having ones family with them.

    I would think though, that the locals would be more drawn and receptive to someone who works to learn the culture and language. (I just know I've experienced this from my few travels out of country.)

    Thanks for sharing all of this Koffijah. It has been very enlightening and a great reminder that missionaries are human and struggle with self as much as the rest of us.

  5. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  6. The old saying about walking a mile in someone's shoes comes to mind here. "How you see someone has much to do with how you love them" comes back again, too. In the final analysis, everything seems to come back to love: for God and for people.

  7. Yes, yes, Katdish, you are right.