Language Study In Missions

The Wrong Direction

It had been a wonderful afternoon; a picnic lunch at the riverside in the beautiful Cambodian countryside with my Khmer pastor friend’s small group. Opportunities to practice language abounded alongside the delicious fried noodles, icy cold coke, hilarious jokes, and peals of laughter. The afternoon had been encouraging in terms of gauging my language progress. I had been able to follow most of the dialogue as well as engage in a variety of conversations.

Returning from our excursion, I pulled my moto into the small, gated courtyard and parked beside my friend Kannya. I hopped off, and in that moment everything started to go downhill. She pointed to me and to my moto. I heard the words: right, left side, moto, and park. I thought to myself, “Oh, she must want me to move to the right so there is enough room for Soda (her name, not the soft drink) to park on the left side of me.”

I dragged my moto to the right. Everyone started laughing. “That was not what she intended to tell me,” I realized. “She must have wanted me to move it to the left.” Without questioning her further I lugged my moto several feet to the left. By this point everyone was laughing so hard they were unable to explain what was so funny, and I was standing there completely bewildered. All I could understand was the vehement shaking of their heads and the occasional bits of words in between gasps of air. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Piseth (the pastor), arrived on the scene. I asked him, “What is Kannya wanting to tell me?”

He turned to Kannya, who was still shaking with laughter, and asked her a few questions. Starting to chuckle himself, he turned to me and said, “She just wanted to tell you that you get off your moto weird. Normally Cambodians get off on the left side, but you get off on the right.”

As the whole scenario began to make sense, I could not keep myself from laughing at the entertainment I had clearly provided. Not only does this white girl get off her moto weird, but I must have looked hilarious dragging my moto all over the courtyard.

Learning to Communicate

I never realized how much I took for granted the ease with which I was able to express my thoughts and feelings to the people around me. Eight months ago when I moved to Cambodia, simple communication suddenly became a daunting task. Going to the market and making a few basic purchases sometimes left me feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. I was forced to “relearn” things I learned in first grade: numbers, the alphabet, colors, etc.

Putting these basic skills to use became a joyfully humbling experience. I quickly became very proficient at laughing at myself with others. Simply stated, language learning has involved hours and hours and hours of hard work and dedicated study. There have been really good days, and really, really bad days. Learning to communicate has been a rollercoaster filled with extreme joys and overwhelming frustrations.

What is the Point?

Why have I taken on the challenge of becoming fluent in a second language? Surely it would have been easier and more time efficient to just learn basic survival language and use a translator for ministry. Even better, I could have stayed home where there are plenty of ministry opportunities and I already knew the language.

Why spend hours studying only to continually find myself in situations, like the above story, where I look like an utter fool? I have chosen to face the difficulty of learning a second language because of my love for Jesus and my desire to follow and obey the things He has commanded us to do in Scripture.

Reaching the Heart

Jesus, in Matthew 28:19-20a told us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” God has called me to make disciples in Cambodia.

This task, I believe, would be unwise to attempt without knowing their language and understanding the culture. The longer I have studied language, the more convinced I have become that cultural understanding is unattainable without knowing the language. Many words and phrases have given me a window into how the Cambodian people view and process life.

So, I have continued to press on towards fluency with hope that someday soon, I will be able to converse at a heart level with my friends in their mother tongue. Reaching this point will enable me to share the good news of the Gospel and explain the narrative of the Bible in a way that makes sense in the context of Cambodian culture.

As followers of Jesus who desire to love and obey Him, we have all been called to actively share the Gospel. For some that has meant moving overseas and facing the challenges of living in an unfamiliar country. For others, it is getting involved in your local city outreach or assisting an immigrant family.

Regardless of the place, we should wholeheartedly seek to truly understand the hearts and culture of the people with whom we aim to share God’s love and plan of redemption. Let us be faithful in diligently doing our part so that everyone can hear and understand the good news of the Gospel, before it is too late, to the glory of Christ!

Sources: All Scripture quotes are taken from the ESV.

Rachelle Working with DNI in Cambodia, Rachelle is currently a full-time language learner. She desires to see Jesus transform lives through sharing the Gospel message and is passionate about seeing young women embrace godly femininity. When language studies are not consuming her time, she enjoys interacting with people, studying theology and various other interests, savoring a good cup of coffee, traveling to and exploring new places, and delving into the pages of a well-written book.

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