So you are going on a short term missions trip and you're beginning to ask the question, "Should I work at learning the language before I go?"
It is a question everyone seems to ask for which there is but one answer . . . .
YES! Yes you should!
But . . .
The missionary anthropologist Charles H. Kraft was recently asked, "How much time should one who goes to serve as a two month short-term missionary spend in language learning?"
Charles Kraft holds a high value on learning the local language. Learning the local language is often seen as little more than a means to an end. The end for most followers of Jesus is the proclamation of the gospel.
And yes, this is essential! This is why we go.
But it too often reduces to the local language to nothing more than a tool. This is unfortunate because language is always so much more than just a tool. Language is the carrier of culture and worldviews, of relationships, of love and joy and pain and fear and hope.
When we reduce language to merely a tool, we often come to the conclusion that we need not bother learning any of that language when we travel as part of a short term mission trip.
This is unfortunate for a number of reasons.
Practically speaking, language is important to survive. At the very least we can all understand just how important it might be to be able to say, "Do you know where the bathroom is?" Learning 10 - 20 survival phrases will go along way to saving you from the embarrassment of being lost or unable to find the nearest bathroom.
Relationally speaking, our efforts to posture ourselves as learners of the language and culture communicate fundamentally important respect and honor for the people to whom we have gone to serve. Nothing says that you actually care about the person in front of you quite as powerfully as stepping into the humble place of a language learner. In doing so, by taking on the role of the learner, of the one without the power, you invite your host to in effect, take you by the hand lead you.
This is an act of kindness. This is laying down our rights. This is love.
I want to encourage you to take a few minutes to read a four page essay written by Thomas and Elizabeth Brewster. They were at the forefront of helping generations of missionaries learn the languages of the people they were going to serve. The Charles Kraft quote above comes from this powerful essay.
You can read it here: Language Learning is Communication -- Is Ministry
So you have a trip on the horizon. You are a few weeks away from departure or perhaps you have many months to prepare. Regardless of how much time you have, here are a few things you can do to begin learning the language. These are the things I'm doing to learn French for an upcoming trip to West Africa.
Sign up for Duolingo: Ten minutes a day will give you a beginning in the language and get you started with a foundation of vocabulary and basic grammar structures. You can find it on the app store for your smart phone or you can access it on your computer. (learn more here)
Begin Listening to Worship Music: For the past month or so I've had a French worship mix from Hilllsong playing in the background while I work during the day. In a way, what I am doing is training my ear to hear and distinguish sounds, intonation and rhythms of the French language. You can find worship music by searching for it on Youtube. For example, by searching on Youtube for "French Worship", I found this mix of French worship songs.
Listen to a Gospel: Chose one of the gospels and begin listening to a chapter or two every day. When you finish, start over from the beginning. You'll be surprised how much you begin to understand. You can find many languages available on the Youversion app or the Bible.is app.
Memorize Phrases: Find and memorize 10 - 20 important phrases in the language. Make sure that one of those phrases is, "Can you help me learn your language?"
Here are 25 phrases I'll be starting to learn in French.
Keep Learning: While in the country take every opportunity to practice with your local hosts. Keep learning. Ask questions. Boldly step into the role of being the town clown! Yes, people will be entertained by your language foibles, but it is worth it!
A language mentor of mine used to say that "it takes a million mistakes to learn another language --- So get started!"
Don't Miss Out
Investing as much time and energy as you can in learning the language will do much to make your trip more meaningful and transformational. We all have different capacities and time constraints but we can all do something. It is what you'd want someone to do for you if they were coming to visit you. Jesus tells us to "do to others as you'd have them do to you."
Learning the language then is an act of obedience to Jesus.
Don't miss out.
My Language Learning Story
In a past iteration of life, I was a language coach, helping everyday, ordinary people be more effective, more efficient and have more fun with the language learning journey. I created a number of resources that I'd love to be able to pass on to you if you would find them helpful. I have a number of ebooks as well as a series of videos. You can watch the language learning tips videos HERE. If you would like to have any of the ebooks, leave a comment below.
Below is one of those language learning tip videos. Enjoy!
The E2E Community
We are a collection of practitioners and trainers dedicated to equipping and encouraging everyone everywhere to proclaim the gospel and make disciples among the unreached locally, nationally and globally.