Why bother with the headaches and embarrassment that come with mastering a new language? In this day, when English is widely spoken across the globe and the smartphones in our pockets can translate on the spot, why should you invest time and stress in the language-learning process?
Speaking to Hearts
Language learning is important because when you speak someone’s language you can speak to their heart. When you are able to hold a conversation about Jesus in the tongue of the people you live among, they will meet Him in their heart language. You demonstrate your God is not just an American, English-speaking deity. He is the God of all people, fluent in all languages and in every heart. When that happens, they can receive the gospel message as contextualized and relevant, not academic and imported.
You serve least-reached people by taking time to laboriously understand the grammar, vocabulary and nuances of their heart language. As Jesus became flesh and moved into our neighborhood, so you—as a language-learning worker—will demonstrate humility, curiosity and compassion for the people among whom you live because you are striving to understand the language of their hearts. That will not go unnoticed by your new community.
For a self-sufficient, independent person (a cultural norm for Westerners), it is hard to become a learner and listener. You’ll feel humbled and exhausted, and you’ll often get it wrong. It’s hard work. You may feel that your intellect has been reduced to that of a child, as you find yourself unable to complete simple tasks like grocery shopping. It may take months or even years before you feel comfortable or even functional conversing within the constructs of a new language. Learning the intricate nuances of language and culture can take a lifetime.
But when your vocabulary is reduced to the most simplistic forms, and your desire for connection with people is hampered by your limited vocabulary, you’ll be driven to plead with the Holy Spirit for help. You’ll pray for the right words at the right time and learn to fully depend on God.
Language learning isn’t just about memorizing words or attending classes; it’s about becoming a student of culture. Cultural understanding is vital to communication because the way you speak, interact and live within your new culture matters.
Learning not only what to say but how to say it is a tall order, but there are resources to help you. Before you leave for the field, quality pre-field language acquisition programs can teach you tools to tackle a new language and culture. These help you understand your own language and how to avoid transferring its sounds and grammar to a new language. A good program also provides strategies to learn, practice and review grammar, vocabulary and phonetic sounds.
Once you arrive in your host country, you’ll find encouragement and support from you language coach and community with other language learners. It will be hard, and there will be discouraging moments. But God will be with you, and your support team will praying for you. Cling fast to your relationship with Christ, and rely on Him for sustaining strength. You are not alone!
Above all else, a language learner needs to keep a vital, deep walk with God. This will sustain you when the process gets hard. You learn the language because it demonstrates the love Christ showed by taking on flesh and living among us so we might behold the glory of God. You persevere through the difficulty and stress by clinging to God through the process.
“My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” Psalm 63:8 (ESV)
How can I get involved?
Dozens of Christar workers are currently in the throes of language learning. Pray for courage, perseverance and vision in this process.