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03 November 2022

Why missionaries should learn languages


Louise Simon is on the teaching staff at St Andrew’s Hall, and is a language consultant for CMS. She and her family served with CMS in South-East Asia, and Louise has also lived and worked in East Asia. 

Why should cross-cultural workers learn language? Wouldn’t it be quicker and easier to use English—especially since so many people now speak it? Or use a local translator?  

I recommend the four articles listed below as short, easy reads which help us understand some key reasons why language learning is so important, and why we invest so much time in it.  

To briefly mention some key ideas, consider first that being a Christian is about being in relationship: with God through Jesus, and with other believers as the body of Christ; with those we long to see come to know Jesus. Relationships take work, time, commitment, and intentionality. Deep relationships come from learning more and more about a person’s worldview, their heart’s desires, their joys, their longings, and their struggles. In order to have these deeper relationships, we need to learn the language/s of the people among whom we’re living and ministering. Language learning is not an academic exercise, but a way to build relationships. It is not something we do for a time, then set aside to ‘do ministry.’ It is ministry, because ministry is about relationships.  

What language learning communicates to the hearer 

So what does learning a person’s language communicate to the hearer? Firstly, language learning communicates that we love them. Not only do we love them, but God loves them and they can have a personal relationship with him—he’s relatable.  

Secondly, learning language shows we value people and are committed to them—we are willing to lay aside our language and our culture to learn another’s, to meet them where they’re at. We become dependent on them to teach and correct us. We go back to being children in need of guidance: What do we say and when? How do we say it appropriately, taking into account gender, age, and social status?  

Language and culture 

Language learning goes hand-in-hand with culture learning. You can’t learn one without the other—they are inexorably connected. When I learn the appropriate way of receiving a gift from someone, I’m not just learning the words to say to that person, I’m also learning the body language (e.g. one hand, or two? Left hand, or right? Bow…and how deep the bow…or not?); the social etiquette (to open the gift in front of the person or not? How do I open the gift—carefully, or rip the paper off?); and the culturally appropriate ways of giving a gift in return (or not…or when?). As we learn language, we start to ‘belong’ in our host context. In time, we become less strange, easier to talk to, and easier to relate to. We become ‘knowable’, and in doing so, help people know God better too. 

Language and our relationship with God 

Not only do other people get to know God better through our efforts at language learning, but we also develop and deepen our own relationship with God. Just thinking of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26) can demonstrate this. It can be very hard to be patient with ourselves in language learning, especially if we feel our progress is slow, as well as patient with others who are helping us or who we may feel are ‘holding us back.’ We need to be kind and gentle with ourselves and others, not berating ourselves over our mistakes and lacks. We need self-control—when we’re tempted to insist on our own way, when we’re frustrated with being misunderstood, when we’re fed up with all the ‘exceptions to the rule.’ Language learning can help us put aside envy, pride, and boasting. It can be tempting to think ‘I’ll never speak as well as them’ or ‘I’m really good at this language, but they’re not.’ As language learners, we become dependent on God to grow us in Christlikeness in ways we may not have had to before.  

Ultimately, our willingness to be vulnerable, our weaknesses, and our perseverance in language learning all communicate to people that the message we bring is important. Jesus humbled himself and set aside his equality with God, so that every knee should bow and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:1-11). We look forward to the day where God’s people from all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages are gathered around his throne, worshipping him (Revelation 7:9-10)! 

Resources  
  1. Anderson, C. ‘Why Bother to Learn the Local Language?’ Missionary Life. 4 March, 2022. missionarylife.org/why-bother-learn-heart-language/
  2. Miller, Jim. ‘Language Learning Requires Death but Gives Life.’ The Gospel Coalition, U.S. edition. 15 July, 2022. thegospelcoalition.org/article/language-learning-death-life/
  3. Rhodes, Matt. ‘Why Missionaries Must Learn Language.’ The Gospel Coalition, U.S. edition. 24 February, 2022. thegospelcoalition.org/article/missionaries-learn-language/
  4. Whitehead, Nick. ‘Someone Needs Your Second Language.’ desiringgod. 19 June, 2018. desiringgod.org/articles/someone-needs-your-second-language