A missionary candidate once asked me, “Do you know of any successful missionary who did not have much language aptitude?” My answer was “Yes, I have known some, but all of them had done their best to learn the language.” I have never known one successful missionary who did not work at learning the language.
Another missionary candidate told me frankly that he had no intention of learning the language, that he planned to use an interpreter. He soon went back to the United States.
It is possible to be fluent in the language and to fail as a missionary, or to be deficient in the language and succeed in the work, but I do not believe the latter will be true if the missionary does not do all he can since acquiring the language is of paramount importance!
It is my opinion, based on 61 years of observation, that failure to acquire a working knowledge of the language is the number one cause of missionary casualties. This is sometimes true even when it is not the expressed cause. It may be the underlying cause even when the missionary says, and most likely sincerely believes, that he is leaving the field for other reasons.
The real reason may simply be that this missionary is unhappy. Without the language, there can be no cultural adaptation. Once a new missionary gets over the excitement of being where the Lord has called him to minister and a certain fascination with all that is new and different, a sense of loneliness and homesickness sets in. This is natural and will go away as the missionary learns enough of the new language to be able to participate in the life of the country. But if there is no language learning, there is no cultural adaptation, and the missionary has no life outside of his family and other English-speaking foreigners. He then becomes unhappy and leaves the field.
Then too, not knowing the language results in much frustration in the ministry. How can you lead someone to the Lord if you can’t speak his or her language? How can you counsel effectively through an interpreter? I was told of a missionary who in a large evangelistic meeting told the audience through an interpreter that if anyone would like to know more to call and talk to him. Someone in the audience responded, “How can we? You can’t understand us.”
Preaching or teaching through an interpreter is usually very unsatisfying, no matter how good the interpreter is. In the early days of the work in Mexico, G. Beauchamp Vick, who was noted for his very eloquent messages, came to Mexico and preached in our churches. His interpreter, missionary ‘Big Jim’ Smith, told him, “Keep it simple, Dr. Vick, because no matter how much steak you put into it, when I finish with it, it will be hamburger meat!”
In these days of a global economy, English is spoken in many parts of the world. It becomes a temptation to some missionaries not to bother to learn the native language of their people, but the hearts of people can rarely be reached except through their heart language, their mother tongue. It takes a great deal of effort and prayer to learn a new language, but it is worth it.
Learning the language requires a willingness to make mistakes, be corrected, and even be laughed at. When I first got to Mexico, I worked with a national pastor who was always getting up in front of the congregation and saying, “Have you heard the latest of Luisa’s jokes?” It wasn’t fun to be laughed at, but at least I learned not to say that again. Eventually I realized they weren’t laughing at me, they were laughing at the hilarious things I said.
Languages vary in their degree of difficulty for English-speaking people. Some use that fact as an excuse not to bother with language learning. But the fact that the language of one’s people group is harder than some others just means it will take longer to learn. But no language is unlearnable. To a child, one language is as easy to learn as another.
Now for some recommendations.
- To future missionaries:
Expose yourself to foreign languages as much as possible now. Study one if possible. Make the acquaintance of people who speak another language. Listen to recordings of other languages. Listening is the first step in language learning, so listen, listen, listen.
I do not recommend trying to learn a language on your own. I tried to do that with German. When I finally found a German lady to help me, I realized it hadn’t worked. You will need correction.
Learning all you can in advance pays off. I had two years of Latin in high school. Then I had 10 semester hours of Spanish in college, and later took private classes at a Berlitz language school. The result? I started teaching in Spanish three weeks after I got to Mexico. However, this will not be true in all cases. Remember, I had a national pastor who always corrected any mistake I made and told everybody about all the funny ones!
Back then, in 1948, we knew nothing about language school. But we do now. I highly recommend that new missionaries enroll in the very best language school they can find, preferably on their field of service. Most will need the organization and discipline of a school. If none are available, by all means find a good tutor, one who will correct you… and maybe laugh at you!
- To pastors and churches:
Encourage new missionaries to make language learning their priority. You want them to reach people for the Lord and build indigenous churches on the field. Help them see that this can only be accomplished if they take the time to learn the language and the culture. Your missionaries appreciate and respect you. You will be a blessing to them and to their work if you influence them to make language learning their priority.