keyboardI recently ran into a mission worker (let’s call him Bill, which is not his real name) who had been a mission worker in a foreign country for a couple of years, together with his wife.

Since the language of that country is somewhat complicated, I asked how he was getting on with learning it.  His reply was one I have never before heard:

We didn’t bother with language lessons; we have a full-time interpreter.  If we want to phone out for a pizza, it’s easier to get her to do it.

Many of you will be involuntarily cringing at the very thought of this.  Honestly, it happened.  Bill had been in country for two years and couldn’t even order a pizza.  Do you think that’s right?

At Syzygy we think learning the language serves a number of purposes:

  • it shows respect for the people we have come to serve
  • it opens up communication with those who don’t speak English
  • it helps us understand their culture better
  • it creates missional opportunitiess as we practice
  • it equips us to read road signs, magazines and books and understand TV and radio
  • it helps us share the gospel with everyone around us
Pick a language!

Pick a language!

Yet many independent mission workers don’t take language learning seriously, if they bother at all.  Most agencies require their mission partners to make a significant effort, and it’s not uncommon to do a year of full time language study, gradually reducing that as ministry takes over.  But even with discipline, it can take many years to achieve fluency, and many of us settle for adequacy.

The British by and large have a poor reputation for language learning, and we are fortunate that the global prominence of our transatlantic cousins means we often don’t need to bother, but most of us feel it’s important to make an effort.

I frequently hear Brits say that they’re not very good at languages, but when they have to haggle for a chicken, or negotiate their way through the visa office, their need focusses their attention and they do a pretty good job.  Their attention is focussed even more effectively when their mission agency requires them to speak the language to a certain standard within a given time, and threatens to send them home if they don’t achieve it.

But how much effort is really necessary?  Is it appropriate to rely on interpreters all the time?  Or just hope that there’ll always be somebody around who speaks English?  While such attitudes may have overtones of neo-colonial arrogance, we seem to be entering a postmodern era world where many mission workers will only stay a few years in the field before moving on.  If that is true, do we really have time to invest a year in language learning?  Do we really need to strive for proficiency like the old-time lifelong mission workers did?

These days, there is little excuse not to try to learn at least a little of the language.  With online courses and dvds so cheap, and even online translation apps available, it’s possible to pick up a few words easily, and lay a good foundation even before you get on the plane.  It doesn’t really take a lot of effort to make a good start, and once you are in the field being able to speak just a few sentences in your target language will generate such goodwill in your community that people will be much more willing to listen to the message you’re trying to communicate, whichever language you end up using.