Do we really need to learn the language?

Pick a language!

Pick a language!

I 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

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.

Becoming less human?

trigger

Trigger the philosopher

In an episode of the classic BBC comedy “Only Fools and Horses” Trigger, a roadsweeper, claims to have used the same broom for 20 years, though he adds that in that time it has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles.  His friends clearly doubt that it therefore qualifies to be considered the same broom.  This is a modern variant of the ancient paradox called the Ship of Theseus, a philosophical debate over whether the identity of the original object can be said to be continuous over time when all its original parts have been replaced.  A bit like the Sugababes after the three original members had all left.

A similar question can be raised about being human.  It has been estimated by several authoritative microbiologists[1] that bacteria and fungi living in and on the human body outnumber the human cells by an incredible 10 to 1, with over 500 different species living in the gut and 500 more living on the skin.  Less than 10% of the cells in your body are human!  While these fellow-travelling cells are blatantly parasitic and can cause disease, they can also significantly help our existence, helping us digest food and absorb energy, stimulating our immune systems, breaking down waste and acting as a protective barrier on the skin.  Some of them even defend us, attacking invading bacteria of the wrong sort.  One microbiologist has said of this prolific microbial infestation: “they truly represent another arm of the immune system.”[2]

All of this has a huge impact on our understanding of what it means to be human.  Babies are born free of microbes, and we acquire more throughout our lives with every drink, touch, or kiss.  So as we move from 0% to over 90% microbe throughout our lives, life itself is a journey into becoming less human!

Or is it?  To be human is to be in community.  Way back in the days of the Garden of Eden, God concluded that ‘It is not good for the human to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18).  The human needed community of its own kind, and ducks, fish and elephants weren’t quite up to the job – fortunately!  This need for community reflects the community inherent in a Trinitarian understanding of God: three persons in perfect harmony, love and unity within the One being.  Historically, human life has thrived in community.  The aggressively assertive individualism of 20th century Europe is a historical anomaly, which is already showing signs of being redressed as postmodern youth are more aware of their connection to the global village and of their need for community, even if it’s expressed mostly through their technology!

In the same way as we enjoy a symbiotic relationship with other life forms at a microscopic level, we also enjoy one at a macroscopic level – with God!  Jesus teaches a lot about this in John’s gospel but we are not accustomed to thinking about our interaction with God in this way, largely because our thinking has become so individualistic.  But consider the impact of the following verses, all from John when viewed from the standpoint of a committed, interacting, mutual relationship with God:

I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (14:20).  Is Jesus really in us in the same way that he is in the Father?  Linking these statements in this way makes it appear he believes so.  Does it really mean that being ‘in Christ’ effectively invites us through him to participate in the nature and essence of the Trinity?

Abide in me, and I will abide in you… apart from me, you can do nothing (15:4-5).  Jesus’ teaching on the vine makes it clear that unless the branch stays connected to the vine, it can’t hope to survive, let alone bear good fruit.  Branches don’t dip in and out as they choose.  They are intimately and permanently interconnected, allowing the sap to flow continuously, not just when they feel the need for it.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him (6:56).  Eating and drinking is a reference using physical sustenance as a metaphor for spiritual life.  It parallels the sap from the vine.  It’s not about the need to take communion regularly so much as the constant communion of looking to Jesus as the source of our being (Acts 17:28).  Compare the English idiom ‘that’s meat and drink to me.’[3]

Whoever believes in me, from his belly shall flow rivers of living water (7:38).  This verse has echoes of the river seen in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 47:7-12) and foreshadows the one in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-2).  It is not a pathetic trickle or an intermittently dripping tap, it is a powerful, life-giving and permanent watercourse which symbolises the interconnectedness of our life with the Holy Spirit.

As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (20:21).  In this, John’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus links his sending to the Father’s.  As the Father sent, Jesus sends; as Jesus went, so do we.  We are united in ministry with the Trinity.

This gives us a new view of the intimacy and togetherness of our relationship with God.  What does it mean for each of us as we go into meetings, hold conversations, shop and eat?  It means that God is with us in everything that we think, say and do, not just in the times of prayer and ministry.  We face those difficult situations together with God.  When we walk into a room, God walks in with us.  Into every situation we take with us the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14).  Let us reflect on how that knowledge may change our sense of isolation and disempowerment in difficult situations.

To become more human means to become less human!

 


[1] references are available on request as they are too numerous to quote!

[2] Gary Huffnagle, University of Michigan Ann Arbor

[3] Oxford Dictionary: be a source of great pleasure to; be a customary matter for – “but the high balls to the front two were meat and drink to the big Partick defenders, and Thistle soon hit back to deadly effect.” (The Sun, 2002)