Some thoughts for missionaries about the great value of learning a language (continued from Part 1 here)…
3. Entering a culture is a modeling of the incarnation of Christ
Jesus learned a language. Maybe more than one. He not only became fully human, he became fully Jewish, fully Galilean, fully Nazarene. You could brush shoulders with him in the marketplace and not know you had just come within an inch of your Creator! Such was the inconceivable humbling of our Savior. No one could tell him apart from the others. This humbling was included in the price of our redemption, and he gladly paid it!
Now we offer that redemption to the nations, and that offering requires us to partake of the Savior’s sufferings. In the long hours of language school, we reflect the same determination to be in the same boat as sinners that characterized Jesus. And, as many can attest, there is a strange power that attends the testimony of the gospel delivered by a foreigner who has learned the local language well.
4. Life-shaping relationships are built with conversations
As missionaries, we are not only learning a language to preach a message. We are also learning a language so that we may have meaningful relationships with a new group of people. We wish to befriend unbelievers and express the love of Christ to them. We wish to disciple unbelievers, teaching them to obey all of Jesus’ commands. We wish to live as brother and sister and lead as father and mother in the context of a local church. A commitment to be a missionary is a commitment to exchange your current friends for a new lot.
And such intimate relationships do not grow out of any soil other than communication. While in a place like China you meet many who speak some English, any attempt to converse about anything of substance quickly reveals the limits of their abilities. A commitment to build real friendships necessitates learning their language until they feel comfortable speaking plainly with you.
5. Learning a new language is a pride-destroying experience
Feel confident about your abilities? Do you look pretty good most of the time? Try language school. Any illusion you have about your own intelligence, your good-naturedness, your patience or your humility will quickly evaporate. And most anything that’s bad for your pride is good for your soul.
To learn a language requires becoming like a little child – good practice for those of us who would enter the kingdom of God. It means submitting to constant instruction and correction. It means being treated like a fool, the butt of the joke. Yeah, not fun. But Christians need not fear – in every humiliation is an opportunity for humble worship.
6. A new language opens up new vistas in the study of Scripture
And I don’t just mean the original languages of Scripture. I started reading my Bible devotionally in Chinese the year I arrived in China and have never gone back. First of all, because I want to be very familiar with the Chinese Bible for the sake of ministering to Chinese people. But second, I seem to glean more out of my reading of the Chinese Bible than I do in English. Now, it’s not the English Bible’s fault. It’s my own. Two things hinder my profitable reading of the Bible in English: familiarity and assumptions. Familiarity: I know these passages, so my eyes pick up the pace and I miss the details. Assumptions: I think I know what this word means or what this passage is about. Often when I read the Chinese Bible I’ll read something and think, “There’s no way it says that in English!” Then I open my old Bible and there it is! I don’t know the Bible as well as I think I do. The added perspective of another language leads me closer to the intent of the author.
7. Diligent study is a form of wise stewardship
A missionary is a very expensive piece of equipment. It usually requires the combined efforts of many sacrificial churches and individuals to get a missionary set up on the other side of the planet. Missionaries should feel a grave responsibility – this investment has been made in them for the gospel’s sake. For many believers back home in the U.S., my family represents their plan to give the gospel to people in Taiwan.
Now some missionaries feel this weight and skip language school, desperate to see some fruit in this country and show that the investment of the believers back home was not ill-advised. For the above reasons, I would certainly not advise that. But I think that sense of responsibility is right on – let us use it, though, to motivate us to study harder in language school, and not to avoid language school. We should be the most diligent students in our classes, putting in more hours and setting a higher standard. Our classmates may settle for poor pronunciation, but not us. As we are representatives of other Christians, we should labor with added intensity. After so many have invested in us, our diligent study is a simple matter of wise stewardship.
Yes, greater returns on their investment will come someday. But even now, by doing the hard work that so few do, you are showing that the choice made in you was a good one.