How Will They Hear Unless We Speak Their Language?

Within the first several centuries after Christ, there was a thriving church in North Africa. It was the home of influential church fathers like Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine. Today, it’s a completely different story. Tunisia, for example, is 99% Muslim and only 0.03% Evangelical Christian.[1] What happened? Part of the answer is the Muslim invasions in the 7th century. But there is more to the story. 

The North African church did not have a vision for reaching the native peoples. The Bible was taught only in Latin and was never translated into the local languages. Even though the church thrived, Christianity remained a religion of foreigners. Many historians agree that this lack of vision for an indigenous church and the failure to translate the Bible into the local language was one of “the most decisive factors in leading to the decline of the [North African] Church”.[2] For an indigenous church to take root, flourish, and reproduce, the Gospel must be communicated and disciples must be taught in the heart language of the people.  

Unfortunately, many mission organizations and missionaries do not prioritize language study. Language learning is hard work. The needs on the field are overwhelming, and mission teams are chronically understaffed. It seems like a waste of time to sit in language school for months on end. 

Addressing the Objections

There are a number of ways that missionaries and mission organizations justify skimping on language study.   

The most important thing is that you love the people. Yes, the greatest of these is love. But the fact remains that people don’t get saved by seeing that we are good people. For people to be saved, somehow they must hear the message of the Gospel in their own language. “Faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10:17).  And God’s preferred method of doing this is not through angels or Google Translate. It is through personal Gospel messengers. As God himself declares “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace” (Romans 10:15). 

We’ll just work through translators. Yes, in humanitarian aid or community development work, a lot can be accomplished through translators. But church planting work requires a different level of communication.  

Basic evangelism can be done quite effectively through a translator.  But the Great Commission is not just about evangelism; the primary emphasis is making disciples. In my own experience, it is extremely difficult to disciple people through a translator. A church planter who doesn’t know the language will always be one step removed from the people. He can never really know the people he’s trying to reach. Duane Elmer says in his book Cross Cultural Servanthood, “To not make the effort to learn another’s language is by itself a form of rejection of people. We cannot separate ourselves from the language we speak. It is how we define ourselves and make meaning out of life. Not to know my language is not to know me.”[3] A willingness to do the hard work of language learning communicates value to people.

Just immerse yourself in the culture and you will pick up the language as you go along. Yes it’s true, to become fluent in a language, you have to immerse yourself in it. But it’s also true that it’s nearly impossible for most people to learn to speak a second language well without some kind of systematic study of the language.  Some friends of ours had just arrived on the mission field and were taking classes at a local language school. One of the other students had been on the mission field for seven years. One day she woke up to the fact that the only native speakers who could understand her were those who knew her well and were accustomed to her accent. Unfortunately her bad habits in pronunciation were so ingrained that she found it was virtually impossible to undo them. 

Most of us have had the experience of being on the phone with a customer service agent whose English was difficult to understand. It’s hard work, and it’s frustrating. Poor pronunciation and grammar creates a barrier to communication. Few of us will ever sound like a native speaker in a second language. However, with some focused language study and some perseverance anyone can become fluent enough so that grammar and pronunciation are no longer a barrier to communication. And why would we not want to do it when we have such an important message to share!

Why? 

One of the main keys to language learning is motivation. You need to find your why.  Do you:

  • Love learning new things? 
  • Think it would be interesting to learn a second language? 
  • Want to avoid Alzheimer’s?[4] 

Not bad motivations, but they won’t get you far.  Immersing yourself in the language is a great external motivator. The sink or swim approach will get you there the quickest. If you put yourself in an environment where there is no other option, you will be highly motivated to learn. But you still have to answer the question of why you would put yourself there in the first place.  The only motivation that will keep you going through the discouragements and setbacks of language learning and ministry is a deep love for God and a passion to see Him worshiped where Christ has not been named.

On the day of Pentecost, God spoke through the apostles in foreign languages. The people responded ““we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”” (Acts 2:11b-12). It’s interesting that most, if not all, of the people there that day spoke a common trade language, Aramaic. Despite that common language,  God apparently thought it was important for the people to hear the Gospel in their own heart language!

All of us have already learned one language, which means we all have the capacity to learn a second language. We all have the same vocal hardware: tongue, teeth, lips, vocal chords, that are necessary to produce those “strange” new sounds. So why not? If we take the Great Commission seriously; if we really are passionate about making God’s name famous among all the peoples of the earth; if we really believe that Christ died to redeem for himself people from every nation, tribe, people, and tongue; then some of us are going to have to do this thing of learning a second language, no matter how hard it may be. It is worth our time and energy, because He is worthy!

Interested in learning another language but don’t know where to start? I’d be happy to share some resources with you. Contact me at blankhenry@gmail.com.

Sadie Henry Blank lives in Queens, NY with his wife Deborah and four children. He is president of DestiNations International and serves on the leadership team of Life in Christ Mennonite Church. He is passionate about the Word of God and challenging people to view all of life through the lens of scripture. He plays guitar and has rather diverse tastes in music – from bluegrass to Beethoven. He loves ethnic food and his favorite pastime is road cycling.
  1. Joshua Project, Accessed July 11, 2019.  https://joshuaproject.net/countries/TS.
  2. Richard Coombs, “The Decline in the North African Church” Master’s thesis, South African Theological Seminary, 2012, 126.
  3. Duane Elmer, Cross Cultural Servanthood (Chicago: Intervarsity Press, 2006), 66-67.
  4. Clara Moskowitz, “Learning a Second Language Protects against Alzheimer’s,” Live Science,  Accessed July 11, 2019. https://www.livescience.com/12917-learning-language-bilingual-protects-alzheimers.html.

 

3 thoughts on “How Will They Hear Unless We Speak Their Language?

  1. Preach it! 🙂 I agree. We do need to keep in mind, though, that second language acquisition is much harder than our first language, even if we still have the same brain, teeth, and mouth with which we learned our first language. No longer are do our brains have the same neuroplasticity that we had at the age of 2 or 3 when we learned a new language. Also, personal ability can also be a factor in how well we are able to pick up a second language. Some people pick it up through assimilation without seemingly having to work hard. Others study for years and still struggle to hold a simple conversation.This language barrier, if it still exists after years of study, can be extremely frustrating for missionaries. All that to say, I still agree with what you said about how not learning a language can feel like rejection to the people. Learning a language means you automatically learn culture at the same time, since language and culture are inseparably intertwined. You also begin identifying with them and they can feel this acceptance. I cannot begin to say how much this means to the nationals of a country when you make an effort to speak their language. Even if you never master it well, they love you for simply trying.

    Like

Share your thoughts here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s