Posts tagged ‘language learning’

Language Learning and the Task of Missions

When I started this blog, I warned that it would be both a platform to share our journey in Narnia as well as write on issues pertaining to theology, missions, and international development. I have been feeling the knack to take a swing at some thoughts on language learning as it pertains to the missionary task. Since this is what we have been giving our lives fully to over the last year or so (and part time for a couple years prior to that) I feel like it is fresh on my mind and maybe worth a read. Maybe not, but we’ll see where this goes.

Starting with the Basics

The goal for every cross-cultural worker whether they are doing health care work, church planting, Bible translation, media ministry, , or anything in between is to take the Gospel where it has never been before and see lives and communities transformed by Jesus. (Mat. 28:18-20, Rms. 15:20). The very essence of being an apostle/missionary necessitates crossing a cultural barrier and primarily focusing on where the church is not. This is not to say that many of the activities that international workers find themselves doing are not important to the missionary task. But orphanage work, teaching in Bible schools, pastoring international churches, media support ministries and the like did not drive the missionary movement nor get us to the place we are today. Men and women for centuries now have realized that communities and groups of people are living in situations where they have absolutely no access to the Gospel and so they get to them. They bring the realities of the Kingdom to a certain place. All the other things that happen (schools, training centers, media creation, rehabilitation drug places) are a result of the Gospel being taken to the unreached.

I’m sure we could fight over my narrow definition of missions or where it starts but I believe this is biblically what an apostle has been sent to do. Now, by virtue of where the missionary goes he is often put into a situation where he needs to learn another language to be able to communicate to the very people he or she serves. Without the ability to communicate you have few relationships, you never really “live” in your new society, and most importantly you are never able to teach and demonstrate the very Kingdom God has called you to announce.

Entering Into Your New Culture After Rallying Supporters Around You

So many of you know the drill. God speaks to people about taking His message to the ends of the earth. Sometimes He calls to a very specific context, sometimes to a people group, sometimes where the need is greatest. In the end, the mission agency and missionary agree to commit, often times, a big chunk of their lives to a particular context and people group.

The next phase is either to find a job in the country where they will serve or do a lot of fundraising so they will be able to sustain themselves and do ministry over a long period of time. This can be a rather short process; at times, it can be quite long. I have heard of folks getting to the field in a matter of weeks and I have seen others raise funds for 3-4 years before arriving to the place where God has called them. For many, the calling was something God burned in their heart many years prior and on into their 30s or 40s they finally are commissioned and sent out.

By this time, hundreds of people know about the calling on the new missionary’s life. They are sending out newsletters, have met with groups of people, often have spoken in dozens of churches – their plan is well known by many. During this fundraising process, many newly appointed workers are telling supporters that their first year or two will be spent in language learning. Sometimes if probed they give details but more often than not the two words “learning language” is the full descript of the next 2 years of their lives as they come on the field.

Agencies and teams have very different approaches to how a person should or shouldn’t learn language. But often times, at least in my experience, I have seen little to know clarity of expectation for the new missionary as they go about learning language. They often land in their new country and are taken care of by other team members who speak their same language and start forming bonds with expats. The story is so typical. A couple moves from America, they begin attending an international church, they hang out with other missionaries and team members as they socialize, and then they start going to language classes 2 or 3 hours a day 5 days a week. They are bonding deeply with people from their same culture, learn to do everything in a new country from foreigners, and naturally want to be with this group of people all the time. This leaves very, very little chance of bonding with the new culture and really no chance of learning the language. 8 hours of class time pales in comparison to the thousands of hours you will get if you are able to fully enter into your new society instead of some missionary, English-speaking sub-culture.

Learning to Say “No” to Teammates and Ex-pats

Thomas and Elizabeth Brewster wrote several years back on Bonding and the Missionary Task where they compared the new missionary’s first weeks in a new country to a mother breast-feeding her baby. Without that essential time of bonding, they argue that a missionary will never fully bond with the new culture. Beyond learning to communicate, the new international workers are robbed of cultural understanding, how to take local transport in the same way as their neighbors, how to shop in a similar fashion as locals, etc. Everything has been filtered through the lens of foreigners and several months into the game it leaves the new missionary throwing their hands up in the air wondering why they have not bonded or have progressed farther in language. Language learning without bonding with a new culture is almost impossible when understood in view of bringing Kingdom transformation modeled after the incarnational life of Jesus (Jn. 1, Phil. 2).

So, those early days must be spent away from expats and foreigners if we really want to maximize our adjustment and progress in language. Brewster challenges newcomers to live in smaller villages away from the foreigner community and commit to several weeks, even months, before coming up for air. Whether that happens in the village or the city isn’t the issue really. It is a matter of putting your petal to the metal and driving hard, forming new relationships, struggling together, and coming out on the other side as a communicator in your new culture.

I’m not a linguist and I probably can’t make too many comments on methods, learning styles, or techniques. I will just comment briefly and say that the language learner must find a strategy that maximizes their learning-style and pulls them very far along in the language process. It is important for the international worker to know before coming to their new context how they best learn language and to have already thought of a strategy to see that happen. They need to commit to that strategy and when they find it going towards a dead end, they need to turn around and start driving again. Being stuck is no excuse for switching to an English-based ministry, pastoring an international church, or working with a people group other than the one God called you to. If a person just can’t learn a new language, no matter how hard they try, than obviously they need to look at other options. But I would suggest that if you have been called to serve in a country where English is rarely spoken, then you need to commit to the national language. If you can’t learn, maybe a person should explore options of serving in an English-speaking country or context rather than waste missions money, roaming around, pretending to do ministry in a half-ass manner because they can’t communicate. Language is part and parcel with the task at hand.

Personal Reflections

I was sitting in a room full of Narnian speakers a few years back in the US when I had this overwhelming feeling of misunderstanding. I knew that no one in the room worshipped the One True God and all were polytheist. My heart sank as I realized I couldn’t communicate and enjoy friendship on a deep level with my friends, nor could I tell them the most beautiful news in the universe. This came after 2 or so years of working in a cross-cultural environment in the US where several languages were being spoken. At this time, Janessa and I were focusing mostly on the narnians in our neighborhood. To that point, I had learned a few hundred vocabulary of Narnian and could say some basic greetings but that day was as if a stake was wedged in the ground. It marked me and from that day forward I made a very deliberate effort to try to learn Narnian while in the US.

Janessa and I met with a private tutor for 14 months, 2 days a week studying in 2 hour sessions. We were spending 20 hours or so a week in the Narnian community so a lot of hours were being given to this. We both were working jobs other than ministry/mission related work at that point and the immersion experience in the US is extremely difficult. But the stake was driven in the ground and we plowed forward. Over those 14 months we learned to communicate in an elementary way and our relationships deepened. In the midst of that, God called us to Narnia for the long-term to which we responded to promptly. In September of last year we moved to Narnia in response to that call.

Since moving to Narnia, we have tried hard to cut ourselves off from the expat community and international church scene. It has been lonely at times but we’ve seen ourselves progress very far in the language to where we now operate in Narnian for most of the day. Our attitude went from counting hours, class time and vocabulary words, to where we now interact all the time (still taking classes) in Narnian but have put the clock away. We don’t count and try to assess things all the time. We have entered into Narnian society to the best of our ability. It has certainly been lonely at times, especially in the early days when we were terrible communicators. But it is this grind of learning language that will allow us to thrive in this country over the long haul.

Lately, a few people (even veteran international workers) have singled me out and asked about our strategy and what we’ve done. The best I can come up with is to fully enter into your new society. Run from creating a sub-culture and cling tightly to the Narnian friends you make along the way.

We have to remember that the God who called us to this place is faithful. He wants His Gospel and glory to be seen far more than we do. But that Gospel and glory cannot be seen unless the Kingdom message is communicated and understood. Just because we learned how to buy fruit at the fruit stand or can take a taxi to our favorite restaurant means very, very little in the big scheme of things. The heart and aim is for people who have never heard this beautiful Kingdom news to hear, understand and see their entire community transformed.

We are not great language learners or linguist. But we still remember the feeling we both had in our friend’s living room back in the US and how, without language, we won’t be able to share life together in this age or the age to come. We’re hopeful that some of our mistakes and accomplishments along the way can inform and inspire those who come after us

7 How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!” – Isa. 52

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His communication really this difficult?

When I was growing up I was a pretty shy kid. I remember in early high school waiting for the minutes of the school day to tick away in hopes that I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone. I’m not sure where this anxiety or anti-socialism came from but it was pretty real. Once I left the classroom and headed for the track and the roads as a runner however, I became a pretty cocky, talkative guy. So those two worlds were as weird for me as I was trying to figure out life.

Through the years, I think I have battled social pressure to say the right thing at the right time. Can I tell a funny joke, a story, say something sarcastic? What if what I say is stupid and everyone else looks at me funny or has no response whatsoever? I think this is one of the reasons why students in high school and college don’t ask enough questions. There is a lot of peer pressure and image faking out that we do. I still feel this from time to time if I’m in the room with folks from my own culture where the social rules are generally the same. Sometimes we grow out of it and become comfortable in our own skin. Sometimes we don’t.

And then I made the choice to live cross-culturally. . .

There are definitely expectations, rules, and norms but often the missionary or cross-cultural worker is pretty slow to figure these things out. Compound that with an inability to understand sarcasm in a language or be the guy that says the most clever thing. In the end what do you have? Simple communication. That’s it. People talking to one another, trying to be friendly, and often times going deep into a person’s heart language and connecting at a deep level.

As we learn Narnian, conversations become deeper and deeper all the time. Last week I was able to tell the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to a group of friends. I talked to a tutor this week about the lifestyles of my grandparents and the family drama that they had. Daily I talk to Harry (a made up name), the corner shop owner I keep referring to, about international news. Korea boat sinkings, crazy people murdering one another, world geography . . . and then today the honor killing that recently took place by a woman’s family in Pakistan. There is never a moment for either of us where we are thinking, “Hmmm. . . I wonder if I should or should not talk about this. Will my friend think I’m strange?” We simply don’t have the cultural depth to process all that crap on the fly. So we communicate. We hang out with each other, relax, and become friends.

Learning another language is far more than understanding grammar constructions, putting a sentence together, or becoming confident in listening to native speakers talk. Reading, listening, speaking, understanding – yes, all these things happen but that isn’t the sum of learning a different language. You basically strip down to nothing and enter a new culture as a little baby. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day that moved to a country in Eurasia recently. He said he went out to the road to buy something one time when he first arrived and took all the money out of his pockets. He had no idea how much the purchase should be, how much money he had in his hands – he knew nothing really. He was at the mercy of the seller. And, so many situations are like this as you enter into a brand new culture. Tom and Elizabeth Brewster wrote a book titled Bonding and the Missionary Task 30 years ago that compares the new language learner as an infant that is in desperate need of bonding with their mother. If that bonding process doesn’t take place, they will never grow and develop into maturity.

I’m not sure where I am in the whole language learning process. We were around the Narnian language for 5 years in the US as we worked with refugees who were brand new to the country and spoke this language on a continual basis. Starting in February of 2012, after many years of hearing the language and having a several hundred vocabulary word base, we started meeting with a tutor using the Growing Participation Approach as advocated by Greg Thompson. Our language tutor/nurturer was one of our best friends and we met with her 2 hours a day twice a week and it really pulled us along. Until we moved to Narnia, we had not realized what kind of foundation this had given us. Further, the 5 years of working with the group of people we currently live with helped to throw away all the social anxiety that we may have felt initially as we moved.

In October, we began meeting with separate tutors 5 days a week 3 hours a day and have been doing that consistently ever since. The tutors began polishing our very terrible sentences and I (won’t speak for Janessa here) am at the place where I can talk about anything to anyone. I guess it is a certain level of fluency. We made a very strong decision not to get involved in an international English-speaking church or to hang out with expats and English speakers much. We found a community with few to no expats and put our hand to the plow. Other than chatting with each other and family on Skype, we operate inNarnian. It has been very, very lonely at times but we’re glad we are where we are. Still so, so long to go. I still struggle a lot with understanding native to native speech, but on the fly I can understand and communicate most things. I still feel very rigid and like I’m starting an old pick-up sometimes when I speak and I hope that eventually goes away. But I have never had this social pressure in Narnaian to be clever, say something amusing, or try to fake people out. I’m just too stupid to do so at this point. And that baby-like mindset and necessity of bonding has stripped all that away.

I share all that just to give a bit of an update on language, but also to muse over the challenge of being authentic as we communicate with folks in our own culture. We simply are people. Just people. And we want to get to one another don’t we? And if we’re Christ-followers we want to communicate the best news on the planet that Jesus is alive and giving an invitation to follow Him. So why don’t we do that? Why don’t we just talk and listen to each other and communicate the story of Christ in our relationships?

Maybe I’m being overly simplistic. But maybe I’m not. It isn’t exactly easy to humble yourself to the point of being like a baby and babbling a load of garbage/gibberish out that makes sense to no one in your neighborhood. I know that we can’t rid ourselves of our cultural knowledge and expectations in our own culture, but I want to continue to take what I’ve learned in language development into all my relationships. We’re just people. We need each other. And we all need Jesus. Let’s talk about that with one another and learn to serve together in God’s Kingdom. At the end of the day, that is all we’re doing out here.

I constantly meditate on Christ’s example of making himself nothing, becoming the very nature of a servant and going to the cross (Philippians 2). Christ could have chosen to make an entrance in so many different ways – something powerful, something flashy, something quick. He chose a long, slow path of becoming a baby being born into a refugee family. One day I will do a PhD on bonding, the incarnation, and how all of this precedes community transformation. Learning and growing together. . . one day. J

Thanks for letting me ramble on about language. It is kind of our world at the moment and we’re thankful for God’s grace in the midst of it.

Language Learning Plan

It is crazy to think that in just a few weeks we’ll be set up in an apartment in the capital city of Narnia studying language several hours a day. When we took our trip to Narnia last year we met a couple teachers that seemed to work well with us and will likely stick with them as we go. Janessa and I will have separate teachers since our learning styles are quite different and are at different levels with our Narnianese. Janessa prefers a very structured environment, doing lots of drills with lots of repetition and writing. I just assume to freestyle – drop me down in the middle of a conversation and see if I can survive. Together in learning with such different personalities and styles would only frustrate us. So yeah – the segregation of the sexes is sometimes a good thing.

I have learned lots of new technology that makes my life easier now that I’ve lost most of my eyesight. I use a talking computer, talking phone, and use braille or audio software to read books. I also have this special camera that takes a picture of any printed document and reads it back to me. Perhaps the coolest machine I have is a refreshable braille display. I hook it up to my laptop or connect it via bluetooth to my phone and it takes the printed text and puts it in braille with a display about the size of and Ipad. It raises small pins to reflect paper braille. It is super compact and will refresh as I near the end of each line and proceed to the next. Wikipedia refreshable braille displays. You’d be amazed. I was. All that to say, I have a lot of gadgets to assist in the language learning process.

That being said, there isn’t a great deal of literature available in braille Narnianese nor will it be very advantageous to use it on a daily basis. So, I will have to focus exclusively on oral communication. I can get my computer and phone to read Narnianese with its audio settings, but no actual braille. Janessa however, will definitely be focusing much more on literacy and hopefully develop a level of proficiency.

My dad asked the other day what our days may look like in this process. We both hope to set up our schedules where we’re actually doing our lessons and classes at roughly the same time. We’ll have 3 hour classes followed by studying our notes as well as interacting in the community. This will be our life for the first 3 to 6 months in the country. Since we have developed conversational Narnianese we are hopeful this goal isn’t to expedient. If it is, we’ll stay in the capital city longer before moving out to the farm. For us, this process isn’t a hurdle to jump over but simply life in Narnia. It is this process of learning to talk easier and bonding with those we are serving that will deepen our understanding for years to come in the country. I think we are both quite eager to jump in and get going.

We understand from our Narnian friends in the US that making friends and hanging out is not difficult. Obviously, the city context will present a different challenge as most of our friends who are Narnianese speakers who live in the US grew up far from the capital. Anytime you are in an urban context anywhere in the world people like to try out their English on foreigners. That will be no different for us. We just have to stay disciplined and focused, engaging in as much conversation as we can.

I still remember the moment I had three or four years ago sitting on the couch at a Narnianaese family’s house in our former city in the US. I was sitting with dear friends, all of whom worshipped a different god than me, and most of whom I couldn’t communicate with. I had the thought, “If I don’t learn the language, my friends may never know the story of Jesus. Ever.” That jolted Janessa and I into setting up classes with a tutor in our area and getting to this point. That feeling I had sitting on the couch that day is still as fresh today – that is the motivation. We want to be the best friends and neighbors to our new community that we can possibly be. That can’t happen without understanding each other.

So there it is for tonight. Feeling a bit anxious and excited as we know we’ll be blasted into a setting quite different very soon. Pray our Narnianese tongues will loosen up and we’ll understand the sounds of friends w’eve been hearing for the last 5 years in the US. Inching closer.