At our post-service lunch of beans, rice, and flatbread today, a group of us men got into sharing riddles. I don’t know that many riddles, but I did manage to submit a few to the group, including one translated from my childhood readings of The Hobbit: “A box without hinges, key, or a lid, yet inside golden treasure is hid.“
Hint: the answer is something that comes from chickens and is fried for breakfast.
One local rhyming riddle was new for me:
What has a ceiling above and a basement beneath, one shepherd, and four sheep?
The answer was a hand, as held out flat and horizontally. The ceiling – the back of the hand. The basement – the palm. The four sheep? Fingers. And the shepherd? The thumb.
This led to a session of discussing the local names for each of the fingers. I find them honestly hilarious and quirky.
In our previous city we once tried to host a reconciliation meeting in our living room. Two key families in our young church plant had fallen out with each other. So we tried to get them in the same room together with a respected believing brother who we hoped could help mediate.
We quickly learned why locals do not attempt this sort of meeting format, but rather depend on each party sharing their side separately with a “judge” who then gets them together, but only to pronounce the binding judgement. This set up prevents the angry parties from breaking out into a shouting match or a fist fight, both of which almost took place in the middle of our living room “reconciliation meeting.” The gravitas of the honorable judge figure demands they keep their peace, at least in the meeting itself. I’m not saying that the kind of reconciliation meetings where both parties get to share their side in front of one another are utterly impossible here, once believers mature in their faith. But we quickly saw that we were at that point completely unable to keep that meeting from spiraling out of control. Hard hearts and sharp words led to an almost complete disaster.
We had by that point come into the Advanced-Mid language level, the much longed-for goal of all of the first term families with our organization. But having reached that point where we were able to teach, evangelize, disciple, and befriend almost entirely in the local language, we still experienced a very frightening thing that night. Our language level was nowhere near strong enough to handle angry and arguing local believers who were right about to throw punches. We were, having supposedly “tested out,” utterly linguistically incompetent for that kind of situation. It was a sobering and humbling realization.
A few months later one of those local men embarked on a campaign of slander, half-truths, and deception against us that ended up splitting that fledgling church plant. Once again, we found our language ability woefully insufficient to keep up with this divisive man who was practically running circles around us.
Why do I share these things? Well, my wife actually inspired this post. In a meeting today she shared this story as a way to spur our team on toward pressing on in our language learning, in spite of the difficulty and cost. To do church planting work well in places like this, we simply must get to the point where we are able to navigate angry and emotional conflict language. Our experience that night was that our comprehension, usually up around eighty to ninety percent, had dropped down below twenty. And the emotion of the moment meant that our tongues and brains were stuck. We were unable to broker peace at the crucial moment. And yet as cross-cultural church planters, we absolutely need to be able to do that – and to be able to counteract the Titus 3 divisive man when he emerges. To stop proactively learning language when we get to a point like Advanced-Mid is to leave the young believers in great danger.
So, we must press on. If you have been overseas for a number of years, then you know well the toll language learning can take. It is awfully tempting to plateau, assuring ourselves that we have enough language to do fruitful ministry. Often we do have enough language to do fruitful ministry. The question is, do we have enough language to do the urgent ministry required when it all hits the proverbial fan? This is another question entirely.
Press on, weary language learners. That phrase, that verb, that idiom – it may the key to defusing a dangerous situation, to saving a church plant.
If you have been called, sent, trained, and deployed to reach a certain people group on the mission field, how exclusive should you be in your focus? How many things should you make a commitment NOT to do so that you can achieve your aim?
There’s one phrase I keep finding myself saying as a team leader, “It’s an inclusive focus, not an exclusive one.”
When it comes to language learning, strategy, and teaming together, I find many are wanting to draw hard lines beyond what I’m actually asking for – and beyond what the Scriptures are asking for. The default often seems an embrace of an either/or mindset, rather than an steady emphasis on one thing wisely paired with an openness to the unexpected opportunities the Spirit might bring.
“If our goal is to share the gospel in the local language, we shouldn’t share the gospel in English, right?”
No, while we push to get to gospel fluency in our focus language, by all means share the gospel in whichever language is most effective for clarity and for that person!
“If our goal is to plant healthy churches among this people group, should I turn down my neighbor from that other people group if he wants to study the Bible with me?”
No, while the majority of our time needs to be focused on the people group we have been called to reach, let’s not use that calling as an excuse to not extend basic Christian love and discipleship to others that are open around us. Who knows? Maybe that unexpected person will be the key to breakthrough among our focus group. If there’s no partner who can study the Bible with that person, then you are the one who should do it.
“If I’m focused primarily on our house-church planting strategy, that means I shouldn’t mix with the international-church strategy people, right?”
No, cross-pollination and the visible unity of believers bring far greater benefits that outweigh the possible costs of mixing with likeminded believers who have a slightly different strategic focus. We need many faithful strategies to reach our city, and we need to be fluent in as many of them as possible. We need relationships of trust with those involved in different strategies as we will very likely need to lean on one another in the future – especially if the work really takes off.
“Because we are supposed to be devoting our time to language learning, evangelism, discipleship, and church planting, I really shouldn’t invest time in that life-giving hobby of mine, right?”
Once again, no. If playing the piano, rock climbing, or blogging (!) are life-giving for you, you’d better invest in that. These kinds of things are important for our wholeness and flourishing on the field. God has made us to do more than ministry – to create, to play, and to rest. We need to trust him as we invest in those things, especially when we can’t see any immediate ministry payoff.
In my experience, many default to an exclusive focus mindset and would not agree with my positions on the above questions. I believe this often comes from fear. If I don’t draw these hard lines, how am I to be protected from the dreaded mission drift? Well, mission drift is a real danger. It’s important that we regularly assess ourselves to make sure that we are primarily focused on the things we are supposed to be primarily focused on. That’s what team vision, meetings, regular rhythms, and goals are for. And yet the unintentional effects of an overly exclusive focus are often a lack of openness to what the Spirit might be doing in our context and frustrated colleagues who feel their consciences are being bound. Not to mention the fractured relationships and lamentable absence of healthy unity among likeminded groups on the field.
Far better that we embrace a posture of inclusive focus. We can learn that target language and freely share in English (or any other tongue) when we need to. We can labor to reach our focus people group and still find ways to serve the open among other people groups. We can focus on the strategy that we think will be most effective and still find healthy ways to partner with other strategies. We can still be faithful missionaries and pursue some life-giving hobbies for the good of our souls.
I think my greatest worry with an exclusive focus mindset is the assumption that we know the details of how the Spirit is going to bring awakening in our particular context. Don’t get me wrong. We know the main plan – Share the gospel, make disciples, plant churches, put it on repeat. He has been abundantly clear on that front and we don’t need to question “his heart for this land” in that regard. But why are we so cock-sure that we know the will of the Spirit in the minute details of lifestyle, strategy, and contextualization which are not made clear in scripture?
Given the unexpected ways the Spirit moves, it seems far wiser to embrace an inclusive focus posture. Be about learning your target language. Devote the bulk of your time to your people group and your strategy. But not exclusively. Rather, be about these things with an openness that acknowledges our own blind-spots, limitations, and inability to predict where the lightning of the Spirit will strike next – and that our particular work is not the only thing the Spirit is doing in our context.
Let’s make our plans with great intentionality and wisdom. And yet regardless of what missiology says, if the Scriptures have not made certain things a law, then please let us also not make them laws. Let us instead hold our focus intentionally and loosely, and not let it close us off to the unexpected work of the Holy Spirit.
While walking in a park yesterday, a friend and I spotted a bird with a long blue/black fan tail. My friend wasn’t sure what it was called in the local language. Apparently, it doesn’t show itself very often in the city. I shared with him that it reminded me of a bird we had in Melanesia called the Willy Wagtail. As I explained to him what wag means in English, and how we use it for the tail of a dog, he exclaimed, “Oh! That’s what we call tail cracking! Like when you crack your knuckles. We use the same verb for both situations because it’s like the animal is cracking it’s tail.”
One of the great joys of language learning is stumbling onto new ways in which to describe reality and connect its different parts. I never would have seen a connection before between the wagging of a dog’s tail and a person cracking their neck or their knuckles. But my Central Asian friends have seen it and reflected it in their language. I guess when a happy dog is next to a door, there is a rhythmic crack crack crack as his tail repeatedly hits the surface. Perhaps this is where it came from. Or just the swaying action looks similar to a human trying to stretch back and forth in search of a refreshing series of pops. This crack/pop verb is also the same one used for the firing of a gun and related to the word used for the explosion of a bomb. Indeed, the more you chew on it, the more you can see the common thread tying these things together.
Later in the afternoon we had a language lesson. As we studied a regional folktale together, our tutor pointed out the phrase used when a character suddenly fell in love – her heart was roasted. The same verb used to roast something in the oven, which is also used in adjective form for a rotisserie chicken. Not too distant from certain poetic ways the English language speaks of love, such as being inflamed or burning with desire. But roasted? What an interesting way to conceptualize having a serious crush on someone. It carries with it a certain completeness in the effect of the emotion upon the heart, deeper than you might get from the mere idea of a flickering flame.
As we discussed folktales and oral tradition, we learned that the phrase used to describe how a story is passed from father to son is that it has come from chest to chest. This is because the historic understanding here was that memory was located in the chest, the core of the person. So, naturally, something which is memorized by one generation and then passed on to be memorized by the next is understood as passing from chest to chest. I really like this one. It reminds me of 2nd Timothy 2:2, “and what you have heard from me, entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” Pass it on from chest to chest, dear Timothy.
Speaking of entrusted, the very name of this blog comes from discovering a new way to speak of death in our local language, that a person is entrusted to the dirt. A dear friend told me last week that the name of this blog sounds to him like Lamentations, like a “face in the dust.” While my title does certainly reference death and its connection to the dirt, I actually chose it because of the subtle hint of resurrection implied by the word entrusted. When something is entrusted, it has not been lost or abandoned. There is a certain stewardship implied, a certain aim, perhaps even a return. Like 2 Tim 2:2, that aim might be faithful preservation and multiplication of a body of teaching. In the case of believers’ bodies and the soil, it is a trust given anticipating a glorious return. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44). We entrust our dear ones to the soil and we eventually entrust ourselves, knowing by faith that glory and resurrection will be the sure and unstoppable outcome. It’s still dirt, it is still death, it’s still not the way things are supposed to be. But that’s not the end of the story. The dirt holds a mighty secret. All of creation whispers that resurrection is coming. And so our tears are mingled with a certain flicker of joy.
Each language is like a unique form of poetry, all of them attempting to describe creation as God has allowed us to experience it. As such, there is fascination and even delight to be found in the ways other tongues speak of things like tails wagging, hearts burning, stories passed on – and even of death itself. Take heart, weary language learners out there. There is more wonder in the end than there is drudgery. One of the things I’m looking forward to in the New Heavens and New Earth? Being with believers speaking thousands of complex and poetic languages – and all the time we need to learn each and every one of them.
Plus a resurrected brain with which to learn them. Let’s not forget about that part.
Being a wise person has much to do with devoting ourselves to simple, good daily habits. Every Christian who has had a steady time of daily Bible study and prayer can attest how powerful the daily plod can prove to be – in cumulative, at least. We all have those days where we carry out said rhythm and it feels like nothing good has actually come of it. Thankfully, this is one more case where our feelings are out of touch with reality. Brief but consistent daily repetition almost always results in measurable long-term growth.
Yet so many of us also fall into habit fatigue. We’ve tried to start so many new habits so many times and have so often failed to follow through. So we despair of ever actually being able to implement that good rhythm like we know we should. I’m still there with some things as well, important things like exercise and fasting. Often the breakthrough to starting and continuing a new habit seems to hinge on the most incremental amounts of motivation. So any help in getting that obedience onto the bottom shelf, the easiest place to reach, can be a game-changer.
It’s in that vein that I commend a simple, unoriginal piece of advice: Attach a new habit to something that is already a daily rhythm.
What am I already doing every day? And is there a way in which I can hang a new habit easily onto that preexisting rhythm? I’ve found that it requires much less motivation to do this than it does to start a new habit at a new scheduled time every day. Setting a new alarm for some set time when I think I will be free and motivated just hasn’t proved to be as effective as latching a new habit onto the trailer hitch of that other habit that’s already rumbling down the road.
Ever since our first child was very young we’ve been able to be very consistent at daily family Bible reading, singing, and prayer together. Is this because we are more self-controlled or spiritual than others? Not at all. It’s because our kids naturally have a bedtime routine: pajamas, bathroom, teeth brushing, hugs and kisses. This happens almost every single night. That meant that attaching family worship to the front end of bedtime was much easier to accomplish. This has been going on for seven years now! It’s become very normal and second-nature to us, and yet we’ve hosted many over the years who had never seen a simple rhythm like this until they had observed it at our house.
Mealtimes are also great for new habits, because again, they actually happen every single day. That makes them a perfect place to attach new rhythms. Last year I was feeling like my dinner prayers were growing stale. So I made a list of short prayers from the Bible and important figures in church history and we began rotating through them at supper. I love church history and desire to find creative ways to expose my kids to it. So why not precede our Central Asian dinners of rice, beans, and kabob with a little Basil of Caesarea?
Steer the ship of my life, good Lord, to your quiet harbor, where I can be safe from the storms of sin and conflict. Show me the course I should take. Renew in me the gift of discernment, so that I can always see the right direction in which I should go. And give me the strength and the courage to choose the right course, even when the sea is rough and the waves are high, knowing that through enduring hardship and danger in your name we shall find comfort and peace.
What about lunchtime? Well, just for fun, we’ve been telling a new joke every day, using this article, The 50 Best Jokes for Little Kids. We’ve been consistent at this for about a month and our kids (8, 6, and 2) have been loving it. It also helps me also get out of my serious work mindset and into silly dad mode, which is not always my natural bent. Attaching this rhythm to lunch made it very accessible and my kids never fail to remind me about our lunch joke. What do you call a dancing cow? A milkshake! (ba-dum-psh!)
Daily habits and language learning/retention. These two absolutely must go together. God has wired our brains to learn and retain language through daily usage, and to lose that language if we don’t use it. I was overjoyed to stumble into a new habit a year and a half ago where I was able to use Bible apps on my phone to read two verses a day in four parallel languages. I may be the only person in my current country that speaks one of these languages, but I don’t want to lose it! Three of the other languages are those I’m trying to learn or make progress in. Two verses a day isn’t much. But when it happens almost every day over a couple years that means I’ve carefully worked through over seven hundred verses – and managed to keep the gears for that particular language fresh and oiled in my brain. Where did I stick this new habit? On the tail end of my personal study and prayer time in the morning. It adds ten minutes to the routine, but they are ten minutes well invested.
Finally, lest anyone start to feel impressed by any of this, I must admit that I struggled for years to remember to brush my teeth in the morning. At night, yes, but morning? Terrible. The breakthrough came with the simple act of putting an extra toothbrush and toothpaste tube in the shower itself, right next to the shampoo. I was already naturally showering every day, so why couldn’t I remember to do my teeth? I could, I just had to stick the needed ingredients somehow in a place where my absent-minded motivation could access them. Now, I do my dentists proud (If only I could not drink so much chai. Alas!).
When it comes to forming new habits, as my former team leader used to say, let’s put it down real low where the chickens can get it. It’s hard to start new habits cold-Turkey. Like geese flying in a V-formation, new habits can be better carried along on the energy of habits already-established (that’s three bird analogies right in a row, mind you).
So, if you are like me and sometimes despair of ever having the motivation to start that thing you know you need to start, you may want to give this habit-forming trick a shot. Attach a new habit to something that is already a daily rhythm. I can testify that there is practical help to be found there.
There are over 6,000 languages in the world and many of them are dying out. Little seems to stand in the way of the growth of English as the first truly global language (since Babel). So why are thousands of missionaries all over the world spending years of their lives learning minority languages and translating the Bible into obscure tongues? Why not save the blood, sweat, and tears and focus only on the regional trade languages or on the globally dominant ones?
My own focus language has somewhere around five to ten million speakers. This means it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, but it’s also obscure enough (belonging to an ethnic minority) that it’s not likely to become useful or influential in other parts of the world. So is my investment in this language worth it? I want to outline seven reasons why I believe it is good and worth it to invest in minority tongues.
Theological Beauty and Limitation. Each language is uniquely able to help us worship God and each language is insufficient in itself to fully describe God. Saying that human language is unable to describe God adequately is no mere poetic flourish. Each human language is actually a limited thing, something which can truly describe truth about God, but not ever comprehensively describe him. One of the blessings of Babel is that we now have thousands of languages which can be used to worship God in ways that are uniquely beautiful (and possible) to that language. Specific sounds, titles, adjectives, and verbs exist in some languages and not in others. Some kinds of poetry, songs, and metaphor are only possible certain tongues. In this way, the diversity of human languages acts like a giant choir, where each language gets to sing praises to God in the ways it is particularly gifted. To lose a language is to lose a unique voice of the choir.
A Record for Future Generations. Even languages that die are worth preserving. If the sad day comes where there are no longer any living speakers of a language, having that language recorded and documented is still worth it. Again, it shines an important window into how a certain group of people uniquely spoke about creation and about God. This can help us. Every individual language also contains data that helps us learn about the way language in general can function. Even secular reporters who bemoan the supposed “culture changing” of tribal missionaries celebrate the fact that by learning the language enough to translate the Bible, many missionaries are preserving a record of languages soon to be extinct.
Spiritual Power. The mother tongue or heart language of a person usually speaks to their soul with greatest potency and clarity. To feel this point, you will probably need to be bilingual yourself or have experience learning language in a multilingual environment. It wasn’t random when the Holy Spirit used the native languages of Elamites, Medes, Arabs, and Libyans at the day of Pentecost. When you hear someone speaking your mother tongue, you pay attention. The mother tongue is often the language of dreams, desperate prayers, and curses. It is the language most intimately entwined with our affections. So, if we want to cut to the heart, we should preach in the mother tongue when possible. Many of my friends who come to faith out of Islam report having dreams about Jesus where he spoke to them, not in the trade language or the speech of the foreigners, but in their own language. The thought that God knows my language is a very powerful one to those who have never heard this truth before.
Love and Honor. Learning the language of a minority group is a powerful way to show love and honor, especially if they have been oppressed by others. Denigrating another group’s language as somehow inferior is an age-old form of hatred. Many minority groups around the world have never had an outsider learn and love their language. When a missionary does this, it often communicates a deep love and respect for the people themselves. If a foreigner will love them that much, then perhaps the wild thought that God also loves them and knows their language is true after all.
The Priesthood of All Languages. Here I’m playing off of the phrase, “the priesthood of all believers.” No one language is holier than another. It is no accident that the Bible was written in three languages with loan words from many others. No one human language is the language of heaven (though there may be a spiritual language that is?). All languages are equally affected by the curse, meaning they preserve some of the image of God, though now in marred form. However, they are also redeemed in the worship of God forever in Revelation 7:9. There are many things about Islam that make my blood boil, but the claim that other peoples must worship God in 7th century Arabic and not in the language that God has sovereignly given them is particularly odorous.
The Mysteries of Providence. We don’t know what God might do with a given language in the future. No one 800 years ago could have predicted that English would come to dominate the globe. At the time, Old English was dying out due to the influence of the Norman French of the ruling classes. Yet here we are. English is the primary language not only of global business and education, but also of the modern missionary movement. When Patrick learned Irish, he could not have known how God would use the obscure Irish Christian scribes to miraculously salvage the biblical and classical literature of the Western Roman Empire after Rome fell. Their descendants would then go on to reintroduce Christianity to mainland Europe and found monastery missions that would later become cities like Vienna, Austria. We simply don’t know how God might take a humble, unknown language and do mighty things through it.
The Internet Resurgence. Many endangered languages are experiencing revival with the tools the internet provides. This has given an unexpected vitality to many languages that were supposed to die before now. The internet provides a place for native speakers to easily develop content, classes, and resources in their mother tongue which can be used to help the next generation. Sometimes languages even come back from the dead, like modern Hebrew. Languages are a lot like hobbits. They are full of surprises.
So, are we wasting our time investing in minority languages? No. Each language has unique value to God, to the Church, to current speakers, and to future generations. Learning a minority language is an act of faith. We just can’t predict the future of languages. But we can trust that on the last day, any investment made in these languages for the sake of love will not be made in vain.
My wife and I are now five years or so into our journey of learning the delightful and difficult language of our Central Asian people group. Along the way, we have made some cringe-worthy and hilarious mistakes. I remember reading in CJ Mahaney’s book, Humility, that being able to laugh at yourself is a good way to grow in being less prideful. So in that vein, I present to you our list of epic language mistakes.
“Then Jesus sat down next to the canary and began to teach about the kingdom of God.” The words for shore and canary are extremely close! I said this while teaching in church.
“The squeegee is our peace!” I meant to say that Christ is our peace… again, squeegee and Christ are painfully close, hinging on a throaty “h” sound that is quite hard for us to pull off.
“Thanks so much for the monkeys!” When we were trying to say thanks so much for your hospitality.
“But where are the monkey’s people from? Where are the monkeys people?!” I had not yet learned that asking where someone is from literally means asking where their people are, whereas another phrase is used for objects and animals.
“This is so tasteless!” I was trying to tell my friend’s mom how delicious her food was without yet understanding how an”ey” and “ah” prefix vowel reverses the meaning of an adjective.
“You are drunk!” When trying to say, “May your head be blessed!”
“My death.” Instead of “My husband.”
“I’d like the fat chicken, please.” Definitely meant to say the boiled chicken.
“We live behind the frogs of spring.” Actually lived behind Spring Apartments.
“How much Islamic Law should I fry for the rice?” Noodles, little noodles, not Islamic Law…
“Please turn to song sixty sixty.” The local believers never let me live this one down, snickering for the next year every time anyone in our group said sixty six.
(Singing) “I only want you, Tanya!” Who’s Tanya? And isn’t this supposed to be a worship song?
“How old is your donkey? May his years be long.” When trying to ask about the age of a man’s son…
In conclusion, please be merciful to those learning your language. And if you are learning another language, be sure to laugh. A lot.
P.S. If there are other language learners out there, please feel free to leave your own language bloopers in the comments for our mutual edification.
The part of Melanesia I grew up in could be quite dangerous. Similarly, the areas of American cities I have lived in are also considered not the best neighborhoods around. And the Central Asian region where we currently serve has its own unique dangers – I narrowly missed being blown up by a car bomb some years ago. While different groups have exposed us to some fantastic training and resources, the deepest practical security lessons I have learned came from my single mom.
After my dad passed away, we eventually returned to the mission field as a family of four: my single mom, my two older brothers, and myself. The Melanesian country we lived in was particularly dangerous for single women. Yet my mom moved around with incredible freedom and independence, with barely any security incidents for over seven years. My mom is very short and slender, so it wasn’t that she cut such an imposing figure that the bad guys stayed away. She didn’t carry a handgun on her either. Instead, she simply lived out some good missiological and neighborly principles. I have learned that these several things can mean the ability to live safely almost anywhere in the world.
First, my mom learned the local language well. All missionaries are supposed to do this, but sadly many can’t or won’t learn the language to the point where they would be considered advanced speakers (language learning is very difficult!). Yet the ability to understand what is being spoken around you and to speak yourself quickly and intelligibly is a massive part of situational awareness and staying safe. Learning the language(s) well and continuing to learn for the long-term should be a central part of wisdom for living safely in risky places. Just one well-dropped comment in the local language can alert everyone around that not only do you understand everything that is being said, but also that you are no mere tourist unable to respond and react in the powerful local vernacular.
Together with the language, my mom also learned the culture well. She learned not only what words meant but also what forms meant, things like body language and clothing and honorable conduct. Especially for foreign women, understanding how to dress modestly and interact respectably could mean the difference between a normal trip to the market and a terrifying encounter with a man with a machete. Learning the culture teaches you how to prevent dangerous situations from happening, how to defuse those that do become threatening, and also how to respond once an incident has occurred (Which in Melanesia even meant the possibility of summoning an enraged mob to your defense). Learning culture is harder than learning mere language because so much of it operates below the surface and must be intuited and pieced together. And yet the often invisible culture sets the rules that can mean life and death. In our our current Central Asian context, my wife has learned that respectful greetings to men, such as shop owners, can place her in the category of an honorable sister who should be protected, rather than the category of strange and probably-immoral foreigner, which means she is less likely to be objectified.
Finally, my mom did everything with local friends. Whether we were making a run to town for groceries or going on a village trip or going to church, we almost always had one local “brother” or “sister” or more with us. No matter how good you get at the language and the culture, you will never be able to interpret a situation as quickly and as intuitively as a local can. This extra set of eyes and ears provides a massive boost to freedom and security in a given context. Being accompanied by local friends also makes a powerful visual statement, especially in honor-shame or tribal contexts. It means you’ve got people who will vouch for you and who will defend you, people who are loyal to you. In these cultures this can mean not only that you’re less of an easy target, but also that you are the kind of person who does not deserve to be attacked or robbed. If you have visibly earned the respect of local friends, then other locals are more likely to extend respect you also – even those who might rob you.
My mom knew the language and the culture and she went everywhere with local friends. The honorable conduct of “Mama R” meant that she had freedom to move around safely that surpassed that of most of the other expat women in our context. We now serve in a very different part of the world, but I think of these things when we have the opportunity to visit parts of our region or city that might be more dangerous. These principles are valid anywhere, even in our home country. Sure, we might be fluent in American English, but could we grow in better understanding the various subcultures around us and in befriending those from those cultures? Absolutely. And that would mean greater safety and freedom with which to take the gospel into risky places.
Greater freedom and safety should, after all, be leveraged for greater gospel access. I learned that from my mom.
I’m not sure where exactly I first came across that saying. But it has yielded good fruit in my life over the last few years. One fruitful application of which has been in language learning. I’m a Native US English speaker who grew up also speaking a Melanesian creole. I’ve been learning the language of our Central Asian people group for about five years now and am at an advanced level, but seeking to push toward true fluency. In addition to this, I’m trying to learn biblical Greek and Classical Latin. I hope to be able to read and understand at least four more historical languages and my dream is to be conversant in several more living languages of my area (an area which is quite the linguistic stew). Contrary to some, I’m convinced that the key to learning multiple languages, whether dead or living tongues, has less to do with natural ability and more to do with simple daily practice and exposure and delight.
There is a city about an hour and a half from where we live where almost the entire population is trilingual. People from this city have a reputation for being sharp with language. But I don’t think it’s because they are any more intelligent or gifted than those from other nearby cities. This trilingual city is unique in that it is divided ethically into three more-or-less equal populations, each of which has its own language, and that from a distinct language family. One population speaks an Indo-European language, another speaks a Semitic language, and the third speaks a Turkic language. So while vocabulary is shared generously between these languages, the underlying structures of these languages are not at all the same. And yet virtually the whole city can speak all three, with other residents throwing in other minority mother tongues and English to boot. How is this possible? I believe this is what is going on: When a resident of said city leaves his home where his mother tongue is spoken and goes to a neighborhood store, butcher, or barbershop, at each location a different language may be the primary tongue used in that establishment. When he goes to work, he may use mainly the Semitic language. When he is the bazaar, he may primarily use the Turkic. And at home, he speaks to his family in the Indo-European. The simple daily use of these diverse languages keeps the brain capable of learning, retaining, growing, and code-switching between these very different systems of speaking and understanding.
In this, I believe, lies an important key for anyone seeking to learn a new language or multiple new languages. Simple daily exposure and practice is remarkably powerful. Daily learning and upkeep is the key to not only acquiring, but also preserving and advancing languages already learned. And who wants to learn a language only to later lose it? Why should I keep up my Melanesian creole when I am the only one in this entire country to speak it? Well, personally, there is something about losing a language that feels akin to losing a friend. Each language is a unique way of viewing the world, of using different forms to communicate meaning. My Melanesian creole contains fun and creative ways of expressing meaning that just don’t exist in English. It contains ways of communicating with and about God that are beautiful and distinct. I don’t want to lose that even if by worldly standards keeping up this language is not “practical.” Thankfully, I have learned that I don’t have to lose it if I can fit in a few minutes of exposure to the language every day that can also lead to daily incremental growth. And daily incremental growth means substantial growth when thinking in terms of months and years.
So, prioritize the daily over the occasional for language learning and language retention. Ten minutes per day is better than a two hour lesson once per week. Ten minutes per day is also sustainable. And finding a sustainable practice leads to hope in language learning, and hope is key to perseverance. Smaller daily doses of language also keep it in the realm of the enjoyable and out of the realm of the drudge – another key to persevering in language learning. My current daily routine involves reading a few verses of the New Testament in parallel Melanesian creole, my adopted Central Asian language, New Testament Greek, and in Latin. The YouVersion Bible app allows you to compare different translations or languages side by side and is very helpful for this. I’m also finding helpful a book called Keep Up Your Biblical Greek in Two Minutes a Day by Jonathan Kline. I do this comparative Bible reading in the morning, then later on in the evening I’m working through the Duolingo Latin course, spending maybe 10-15 minutes per day in that app. Throughout my day I also have multiple opportunities to practice the Central Asian language I’m learning. My hope is to get multiple historical languages to the point where I can read in them a little bit everyday, thereby insuring incremental contextual learning – picking up new vocabulary and grammar as I go along as I continue to do in the endless ocean of the English language. However, I know that mere reading will not be enough for languages I hope to be conversant in. That will take daily conversation. I’ll have to develop my own rhythms that enable me to metaphorically drop in at the Turkic store, visit the Semitic butcher, and speak to my Indo-European relatives on a daily basis.
If you are daunted by the thought of learning a new language or retaining one that is slipping, take heart and take the pressure off. If you can find a sustainable method by which to be in that language a little bit everyday, then your growth in that language is guaranteed.