I have just finished two weeks teaching a introductory course on linguistics and language learning skills, part of the World Horizons Equipping for Service programme. I find the whole subject of language fascinating, though I am not convinced that quite all the students shared my fascination! We delved into phonetics, morphology, semantics and pragmatics among other aspects of learning just how language works. We unpacked various language learning methodologies and saw how to take responsibility for our own learning, rather than merely rely on the effectiveness of available language schools. 10 minutes of German a day gave a taste of monolingual learning in context, and students got to try it all out with forays into other language communities around Llanelli. (And yes, simply learning to pronounce Welsh place names was a challenge for most!)
From my perspective, however, whatever the value of the skills and practical understanding gained, language learning for cross-cultural ministry can never consist in the mechanistic application of knowledge in order to acquire competence in the target language. So much more is involved.
Firstly, we must understand that language is a means, not an end. Language serves as the bridge that allows us to connect with others and bring that which God has placed within us to them. Excellence in language may indeed be a key to successfully engaging in cross-cultural ministry — and one of the most important ones –, but it is not our final goal.
Acknowledging this places language in a right perspective, but does not reduce its importance. For whilst not our ultimate aim, language is a necessary means. Language learning is not an optional extra for the cross-cultural worker. As a singular aspect of culture, language becomes the bottleneck through which our knowledge is transmitted. In the end, all ministry must pass through the filter that language capacity places on our ability to impact a community. “The Word… spoke.” The Word became human, we saw him and touched him, God revealed in human form. But the Word did not become silent; we also heard him. Works and words, word and deed. Works devoid of words are as sterile as word without works. Faith comes from hearing, not seeing, even if seeing may make us more willing to listen.
Secondly, language is a means of social interaction, not an academic pursuit. For too long language has figured in our minds as a subject for classroom study. It is not. We do not learn to communicate in another language the same way we learn mathematics or history. Certainly, we may learn something about language that way, and can no doubt commit third conjugation verb tables to memory in the same way as the periodic table of chemical elements. But that is no measure of competence. “The Word… spoke Aramaic.” Aramaic, the language of the people, learned on the streets, in homes, in daily work and life, the heart language of the people he lived amongst. Not Hebrew, the language of religious discussion, taught in school and synagogue, a tool for the preservation of the self-serving superiority of the religious powers-that-be. (In saying that, I have no doubt that Jesus also spoke decent Hebrew, probably both standard and late biblical varieties, not to mention Talmudic Aramaic and adequate Koiné Greek too. But that is another story.)
Jesus learned his language with the people he was called to, and used their oral communication forms to transmit his teaching. Language learning must be rooted in the community. By all means let us use every single means at our disposal to aid our learning — language school, grammar books, interactive electronic methods — but these must never be divorced from involvement with the language community. Study language, but use it too. Do your homework, but then get out of the safety of home and practice what you have learned with real people. Allow them to teach you and coach you in how the language you are learning really sounds. Laugh with them at your mistakes and take their correction to heart. Never let “language learning” separate you from people. Community must become your real language classroom.
Finally, all of this will only be achieved in the context of a commitment to incarnational ministry. The Word did indeed become flesh, take on humanity. God’s solution for human need could not be dispensed at arm’s length. God came to us. He experienced our fragility. He worked from the inside to point us in the direction of true life and freedom. Radical identification with ordinary Galilean citizens provided the backdrop for his learning and subsequent ministry. Becoming preceded speaking.
Jesus was thoroughly embedded in the community, genuinely “one of us”, so much so that it came as a bit of a shock to everyone when he started to say who he really was. (I often wonder what it must have been like to have God incarnate as your next-door-neighbour for thirty years and not notice.) It was sharing in the life of the people that gave him the resources to communicate God’s good news so effectively. For Jesus did not take second-hand material, theological pass-me-downs from a bygone age or a foreign mindset. He drew deeply on local idiom and custom to create an effective context for communication and then delivered that message first-hand, a familiar voice from within, not the strained tones of an uncomfortable outsider.
We will never communicate effectively using others’ words or modes. “Gospel messages” designed in 20th century Western environments are unlikely to cut much ice in 21st century south Asia, even if translated perfectly into the local language. And when delivered by someone identified by all as “not one of us”, or worse still, “not even trying to be one of us”, few will give us the time of day, much less make the effort to understand — not unless there are significant financial or other advantages to be gained from associating with the outsiders, that is, and that is never the best way to build genuine indigenous Christian community.
Language is a fundamental part of our identity; it marks who we are. As such, effective language learning is a key step in incarnational ministry. The perceived “short-cut” of learning just enough to get by and say what we want to can severely hamper our long-term chances of success. Quite simply, it is not worth the risk. If you are considering cross-cultural ministry, commit to excellence in language learning. Root yourself deeply into the community in order to do this. And learn to live out your life and service in that context. Allow the Word to become flesh through you, in their language, and — why not? — even with a strong local accent. You will be in good company.
(If you are interested in materials on language learning, access my webpage of phonetics resources at www.phonetics.co.nr or contact me for materials from the recent course.)