6 – The curse and blessing of language study

Embedding ourselves among the people we seek to serve is a core value of Interserve. This is because Jesus’ incarnation shapes our lives. Jesus became one of us. He entered our world, joined himself to a specific group of people, spoke their language, and thought their thoughts. He invites us to go in like manner to all the peoples of the earth.

Exciting, but scary.

Why would this be scary?

Well, the first thing that is scary is learning a new language. Many of us quietly dread learning a new language. Our dread is quite rational. Most of us (Americans) have never learned a second language as an adult so we have no confidence in our skills.

We are glad when there is a language school available in the country or city to which we are going. We hope that the language school will make up for all we lack. Little do we know, not every language school is well equipped to help us.

I can empathize with this fear – I faced it. I took Latin for three years and Spanish for one year in high school. I memorized all the vocabulary and grammar in order to pass with good grades; but, I never learned to communicate in either language. In addition, I learned little to nothing about contemporary Hispanic or ancient Roman cultures. In contrast, my wife grew up in Africa. Besides English she spoke French, Fulani, and bit of several other languages. She had no worries about adding one more language. It was just another adventure to her. When we actually did our language learning, she could learn in one hour what took me days. So unfair!

What also raised my anxiety level was that there was no proper language school for the Pashtu language. Pashtu was taught at the University of Peshawar; but the classes were text based like my Latin and Spanish classes. They were not designed to enable competent communication in the language. I learned vocabulary and grammar to pass a written test.

Some Pentecostal friends shared my dread of learning a second language. They hoped for the charisma of speaking Pashtu, in order to be spared years of study. They had heard of people going to Mexico and speaking in tongues and everyone in the villages understanding them. I would have liked that gift as well, but it never came. We all had to invest the seemingly endless time and energy to climb the rugged mountain called language learning.

The reality for many, if not most, overseas workers’ is that they never achieve professional proficiency in the language of their host community. They arrive untrained in how to learn a second language and they are not allotted the appropriate amount of time needed to learn. The fortunate few are given six months to study language. Many are expected to begin work right away and study language in their spare time. Consequently, most end up with a proficiency level that allows them to accomplish basic tasks; but they never end up developing a professional level of proficiency.

What helped to deliver me from fear and failure was the Toronto Institute of Linguistics (TIL). TIL was a one-month intensive applied linguistics course that provided skills to learn a second language with or without a language school. (Nowadays, Wheaton College and some other organizations offer equivalent courses.) The instructors at TIL directed us to view our task as more than learning how to speak a new language. Language was a people’s means of expressing the way they saw, interpreted, and lived coherently in their world. Therefore, learning a new language was really a passageway into seeing the world differently, seeing it through their eyes.

I may be an exceptionally slow learner, but it took me two and a half years of language learning even to find the entrance to that passageway – Lewis’ “wardrobe.”

In my second and third years of language study I lived on a short street. Every day at four o’clock I would go out and talk with two neighbors. They were seniors in high school. We would talk about politics and religion- the favorite topics for Peshawari males. They would disparage different policies of the United States; I would consistently disagree and our lively debate would ensue. The three of us thoroughly enjoyed these discussions, and it was great for developing fluency. One day, they came out of their houses and started the usual discussion, complaining about some US policy. I do not remember what the policy was, but I remember the light going on in my head. I saw their point and I could actually agree with them. At that moment I realized that I had finally found the passageway that I had been searching for, the way into seeing life from their perspective. So, in that moment, I turned to them and said, “You are right. I agree with you.”

The two of them stood stunned for a moment. Then the older of the two looked at me and said, “You do?”

“Yes, I do,” I replied.

Smiles erupted and a deep bond was established among us.

A new dimension had entered my life. I began to see and understand their culture from their eyes. I knew that I had so much more to learn; yet, I had found the wardrobe and that remains a precious moment in my life.

With this epiphany I realized what a blessing language learning was. It really wasn’t a curse. It was God’s way of slowing me down, enabling me to listen to and learn from my hosts in the culture.

If we only learn a different language, we will only communicate our ideas in that language. Our particular cultural understandings will continue to shape our ideas even if we use their words. Since the life contexts of our hosts are so different from those in our passport countries, our ideas are often intriguing but inapplicable to their contexts. As gracious hosts, they are too kind to tell us how irrelevant our ideas are. Yet, when we learn another way of living and thinking, then when we communicate, we are not just communicating, we are truly interacting.

The longer we are in our hosts’ culture, our interaction becomes much more meaningful, much richer, and much deeper. It also becomes so much more rewarding- for us and for our hosts.

So, let me encourage everyone to press on in language study. As you persist, one day you will discover and enter the passageway into the eyes, the ears, the minds, and the hearts of the people God has invited you to serve. When you enter that passageway, a whole new world awaits you. Moving in and out of their culture and yours will become like moving in and out of Narnia.