Often I reflect on entering a culture, remaining there, living life with people – that is sort of what has surrounded us for the last 13 years. Then I have this little kid now who bring concepts like bonding, trust, and identification to extreme levels. Our little boy has certainly sparked some of the thoughts here.
Today I Revisited Brewster’s “Bonding and the Task of Mission.” This article was written in the mid-80s but it has been an article that I have looked at over and over again. I have been asked to talk with some folks working with Nepalis in our new city about learning language. I was going over some thoughts today about all this today and figured I’d throw them up here on the blog as I guess that sort of the point of having this place to post.
Here are the thoughts as they came this afternoon. . .
1. English is an international language so it sort of takes us off the hook.

People all around the world are trying very hard, and often succeeding in learning English. No matter where you go in the world, you can find some English speakers in a given culture or ethnic enclave right here in the US. While it is true that you can find people who speak English,, you. only find certain kinds of people. Generally good English speakers fall into the categories of the young generation, wealthy, or very well educated. We bar ourselves off from huge segments of the population by using the “English is an international language” as an excuse. The only way to fully engage and belong over the long haul is to be able to communicate with everyone.


2. The bar of learning a foreign language as an American has been set pretty low.

While our country is changing so rapidly and diversity has given us a much broader perspective on language, it still remains that many growing up in the US who have English as their first language will never learn a foreign language. I remember I was talking with a buddy of mine from the Dominican Republic a few years back and he said, “Students can take 3 or 4 years of Spanish in high school, get a 100% on everything, get straight A’s, and graduate and can’t speak Spanish at all. Shouldn’t that mean you fail??” I laughed a lot as there is a lot of truth in that. Not the best example in the world, but the bar is just so low in terms of progress. I have lived abroad in a couple different context and the bar for foreigners, missionaries included was set extremely low. I talked to a few Nepali friends who had hung out with the missionary crowd through the years and they were saying that probably 30% of foreigners in the capital could speak Nepali and maybe would know the language in the more rural areas. I can’t say whether or not those stats are representative but wouldn’t it be cool if people in the countries where we lived wouldn’t be shocked that we speak their language simply thankful that we can communicate easily? There just isn’t a whole lot of expectation and we can often just go with the flow. If we can’t communicate though, what exactly can we do? That question was posed by a short-termer to me some months ago. Great question.


3. The alarm will eventually go off if you think about it long enough.

For me, I was sitting in the living room of a Bhutanese-Nepali family’s house back in 2009. I realized that I couldn’t communicate with anyone in the house over 45 years old. I couldn’t tell them even basics about food or drink. The goal and aim was to live in deep, life-giving relationship in which I would share the stories of Jesus and His Word. I can still feel the way the chair felt on my forearms as that alarm went off. It was a clarion call and I have tried to lead my family in this call. I’m not a great Nepali language communicator but I’ve worked hard toward the goal and by God’s grace we are decent communicators. For those going down this road, I would think that an alarm will go off at some point and they’ll be undone until progress happens.


Imagine if my 14 year old son had been sitting in another room these last months, never eating any milk, not communicating with his parents or others? He’d be highly, highly dysfunctional socially, emotionally, and physically. I have watched him grow in Nepali and American culture, understanding words and phrases, showing mannerisms from both cultures. He has bonded. What a delight it is for we as parents watch him grow that way and I see the joy in the actions and hearts of Nepalis as they watch him bond in his special way with them as well.


These thoughts however aren’t just for the missionary. I think those new to the US (or any country for that matter) will have to grapple with pushing themselves away from their safe, ethnic enclave and entering full on into society. Methods, classes, strategies are all fine and good but so much of this is about entering into a new life with people whom you wouldn’t naturally hang out. Here are Brewster’s thoughts on language: 


“Normal language acquisition is essentially a social activity, not an academic one. As a result, gaining proficiency in the language is normal for the person who is connected and has their sense of belonging in the new society. But language study will[often be a burden for the one who is bonded to other foreign missionaries ” (or anyone that holds a common language that we attach to in the starting moments of crossing cultures, I should add). 


So I’m thinking of the critical role of cross-cultural relationships in those early days for missionaries and those brand new to the US. As I will be walking with people on both sides of this in terms of learning language, I’m reminded that so much of this boils down to a decision to enter and belong to a society. It isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t easy either.


Lest any of us pretend that learning culture or language is the end all, may we be reminded of Paul’s words in his letter to Corinth. It is the love of Christ, expressed in thousands big and small ways that take all this effort, struggle, and linguistic jazz and set it on fire by God.
If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor. 13, NIV)