Language Learning and Mission Work

I’d like to reflect on language learning, culture, and effectiveness on the mission field. This is intended not for short-term mission teams, but for long-term commitments that require preparatory language learning.

Every missionary making a long-term commitment to cross-cultural missions will say that he or she wants to be effective in the target people group. There is no objection to wanting to fit in, identify with the people and their needs, and understand their culture, and thus minister in a way that will impact lives. There is no disagreement on these matters. The challenge comes in the area of methodology. What is the most effective way to prepare to be practically effective?

Mission organizations, upon sending missionaries to an area that speaks a different language, sends them first to language school. For example, missionaries going to French-speaking African countries are sent either to France or Canada for a year of French studies. The rationale for this approach is that they want their missionaries to arrive in their new setting ready to go and ready to communicate with the people, thus finding it easy to fit in, adapt, and be more effective in ministry. Yet, this could be misleading for several reasons.  Two questions come to mind.

  1. Location. Where is the best place to do the language learning? Interestingly, French in France comes with the French culture and accent attached. It is the same with learning French in Canada. How does that affect the work of a missionary in a francophone African country, which has its own accent and culture attached to the use of the French language?
  2. Duration. Is one year adequate for effective grasp of the language? At the most, one year gives one the basics.  The missionary needs to grow in the use of the language, as well as understanding the local idioms.

I want to affirm the wisdom of learning a language in preparation for ministry in a particular location. The importance of this approach cannot be overstated. It is very helpful to arrive at a location knowing how to address people and express yourself to them. So, this is good. At the same time, I do propose the following:

While language learning is critical, the place of learning the language should be chosen with careful thought. If one is going to work in an African context, it would be best to seek to learn the language on site. (There are benefits to this that will be stated later). So, rather than going to Canada or France to study French prior to working in Congo or Burundi or Cameroon, it would be preferable to spend that language learning time on site.

Why? Reasons abound. It’s cost effective, it helps local teachers economically etc. but I want to expand on just a few:

  1. Language learning on location will help the missionary make a quicker and more effective adaptation to the culture. The fact is that when one is learning a language, included is the culture of the country in which the language is being studied. Culture-specific stories, touristic sites, entertainment places, names of stores and other illustrative examples will be culture specific. A person learning how to order from a menu in a restaurant in Paris will be at a loss in an African village where there are no menus and where you have to bargain in the open market place. But, if the language learning occurred in the area of ministry, the culturally specific issues needing to be addressed and gotten used to in ministry would be treated in the course of language learning. This is beneficial.
  2. To be understood properly, you need to speak in a way that is very close to the way the nationals speak. This is true even with the English language.  If you speak American English in a former British colony, it is difficult to be understood. As an international student studying in the USA, my pronunciation was often corrected. It wasn’t easy, but I needed to learn how Americans pronounce words, and adapt. Learning language on location helps remove this possible hindrance by fine tuning the dialect.
  3. Cultural effectiveness. Studying French in France will not prepare a missionary for the local customs of the people he will be serving. As a result, one ends up spending time in language studies and then more time on location adjusting the language and learning the local customs. For example, it is improper for a young person to cross the legs or wear a baseball cap in the presence of older persons in some Cameroonian villages. Since crossing the legs is a common American habit, the missionary has to unlearn it. When learning language in the Cameroonian context, these customs become a natural part of the lesson as you interact with people and practice the language.
  4. In terms of duration of language studies, one year cannot possibly be adequate, but for a long period of time will disrupt the vision for mission work. Rather than giving a year for language studies, why not make it a life long process? The first year of ministry can be specifically for language learning. The second year continue language learning 50% of the time and then begin to get your feet wet in the ministry context. By the third year, 30% language learning and more ministry work. This provides more benefits than learning the language at a remote location.

Language learning is a must for mission work. Yet, the location matters and duration matters as well.