A missionary must learn the language of the people he serves in order to be effective. This is not an option. I know first hand, that learning any language is not easy, it is a process that takes a life time. There are many words that I do not know in English. If that is true about my mother tongue, how much more true is it about the second language I have learned? But just because it is hard, or just because it takes time, doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth it. A missionary who serves a people but doesn’t know their language is limited. Some will tell you that they can minister to nationals through an interpreter. This can be true, but only to a point. Here is an illustration, if a man wants to talk to the missionary about a sensitive subject, something that is taking everything inside him to go to the pastor to talk to him, do you think he will share something so private with a peer to interpret the conversation? The answer is no! I would never be able to do it either. The people that the missionary serves must be able to go to him in confidence and share their heart, even in private sometimes. As we all know, this is such a hard thing to do. I am thankful for my Pastor, but if the only way I could speak to him was through an interpreter, the threat of a peer (the interpreter) knowing about that “private issue or struggle” would only cause me to keep quiet, which can lead to a lot of pain!
Learning a language is a process, and “fluency” is not a line the language learner crosses one day, but is made up of different stages. There is always more to learn! So there are important questions that come up with a missionary and language learning…
- “How does one learn a language?”
- “What are some effective ways to learn a language?”
- “When is a missionary ready to start a church?”
Here is how I answer these questions…
How do I learn a language? You learn a language by practicing. This is the key to learning a language. Most people point to language school as the key. While this is important, it is no where near as important as practicing the language. You practice the language by listening, talking, reading, and writing. First off listening and talking. These two things should take up the majority of the missionaries time when he first arrives to the field. A language school teaches you rules, but at the end of the day you still will not be able to understand others or articulate your thoughts by being in language school. It is all about practice, listen and talk, do it again, spend hours listening and talking. At first you will not understand anything, but in time you will understand a few words. Practice, then practice more, then practice more. You learn a language by practicing it!
What are some effective ways I can learn a language? If you learn a language by practicing it, the most effective way to learn the language is staying around people that speak the language. Pray for someone who will take you under their wing, someone who will teach you how to speak, who will correct you with every mistake, no matter how small. You need to spend a minimum of 50 hours a week in the language, and the vast majority of that should be interaction with other people. This is the most effective way to learn a language.
When is a missionary ready to start a church? Leslie and I were married on June 19, 2004. It wasn’t long before people started asking us when we thought we would have a baby. People would tell us, “If you wait until your are ready to have a baby, you will never have one.” This is the same thought I have about church planting. The missionary will never be “fully ready”. There is always room for improvement and experience. but after two years, it should be time to start a church. Those first two years are vital to the missionaries ministry, but that is for another post (one that I wrote a last month). Once those first two yers are over, I believe it is a good time to start the first church.
Speaking the language of the national people should not be an option. Dear missionary friend, give yourself to learning the language, practice the language by listening, talking, reading, and writing. You will get it. An effective missionary learns the language.