You’re speaking a foreign language

“In our ‘instant’ society, we often hear stories of how God gave someone the ability to speak a foreign language in a flash, or we hear about highly intelligent people who learned a language in three months! The truth is, I believe God allows us to struggle – the trials and challenges of ‘learning a people’ brings with it, deep and lasting friendships and appreciation of culture and His unique creation. As for those highly intelligent people, I’ve personally experienced that one can pick up an impressive sounding smattering after three months but mastery takes a lot longer. If there really are such geniuses, they certainly haven’t lived amongst the Makhua – definitely not the bushmen!

When the first missionaries were sent out many years ago, the command was, ‘Go and preach the Gospel’. For most of us who think of missionaries in Africa, we envisage some man or women with Bible under arm, bashing through the bush to reach the simple, uncivilised savage. What is missing in this picture is the fact that the missionary’s arm is a little more encumbered, for under it are actually two books. Apart from the Bible there is a big book which takes up a lot of space. It is simply called, The Fundamentals of Bantu Grammar. The title is actually misleading because the contents of the book are very complex and often the missionary goes to sleep tired and sad and wondering if he’ll ever understand this strange new tongue. He has come to realise by now that unless he masters this big book, he’ll never be able to explain the other book to these people – who he has also now realised are actually quite civilised with a language that is quite far from simple.

My wife and I gained a lot of exposure to other ministries to unreached tribes. We were struck at the many different forms of ministry such as radio stations, carpentry shops, building, preaching, church planting, schooling, gardening and farming. Every mission had something beautiful and unique about it, yet nearly every person we spoke to expressed one regret – they all wished they had dedicated more time to language learning when they first arrived. Most have settled with meeting the challenge of learning the national language but have not gone on to master the tribal dialect of their respective region. I believe that when time for language learning is allowed in the beginning, results are slower at first yet deeper and truer in the long-run.”

These are some thoughts on the experiences of language learning recently penned by new WOI frontier missionaries to the field in Mozambique. While it is often said that the way to a person’s heart with the Gospel is through their mother-tongue – breaking into a new people group has it’s rewards and effect but is often accompanied by challenge, frustration and embarrassment as Barry McKnight (British missionary to South East Asia) also recalls:

“Learning a foreign language was no easy task for me. To begin with, Thai is a tonal language, having five tones, namely, low, mid, high, rising and falling. It has a difficult alphabet which is so unlike English. Thai, we were told, has 44 consonants and 32 vowels. It is written without gaps between words and with no punctuation.

My biggest problem at language school was using the correct tones when speaking. I would often try to say a word, concentrating on the correct pronunciation but then saying the word with the wrong tone. One day I came to a crisis point. If I could not master the tones, I may as well give up and go back to England. I shared this with my Mission language supervisor who arranged for me to have a test. It was agreed I did have a problem. Wisely they gave me various language drills focussing on tones, so from then on – day and night, I would listen to these audio tapes, repeating the different drills. It worked! I got a wonderful break-through and never looked back.

It’s common knowledge that to learn a foreign language well, one has to be highly motivated. I was. This was partly due to the fact that before going to Thailand, I worked as an assistant pastor of a church. Now I was in a foreign country, I felt like a baby, hardly being able to say anything comprehensible. To add to my frustration, a leader in our Mission told us we could not teach using an interpreter. My burning desire to teach Thai people about Jesus propelled me to work on my language skills really hard.

At school in Bangkok, we studied in the mornings for 3-4 hours. In the afternoons we were supposed to go out on the streets to practise what we had learned in the classroom. After one lesson on asking directions, my wife Rowena and I stopped people to ‘ask them the way to the Narai Hotel’. One person tried to take us there, another called a taxi for us. That was very kind of them, but we did not have enough language to explain that we did not actually want to go there but were just practising using phrases we had learned!

It can be so stressful. I discovered during my time at language school that learning a new language can produce stress and bring out the worst in a person. It was obvious that other students had their struggles too. Sadly I have to confess that one day as a group of us were walking to school, I almost succumbed to the temptation to push one woman into the canal after she boasted about knowing all the new vocabulary we had been assigned to learn.

One is bound to make mistakes on the way to becoming a fluent speaker of a foreign language. Some are incredibly humorous. I remember when I was beginning my learning, ordering a meal at a road-side restaurant. Instead of asking for ‘red pork and rice’, which is what I thought I said, I ordered ‘red rat and rice’. The difference was one consonant, but think of the consequences! The cook smiled and graciously brought me what I wanted and not what I asked for. Some missionaries have made some awful errors. One man I know prayed, ‘Thank you God that you are a big woman’.  Just one little tonal mistake and he was guilty of teaching bad theology. Mistakes are numerous and add to the fun of learning. One has to learn to laugh at themselves, as well as not be offended when others laugh at you!”

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