An excerpt from:
Becoming Again: Incarnation and Language Learning
My students had been studying the Guaraní language with me in Escobar, Paraguay, for about five months. One afternoon, they went as a family to the grocery store in the nearby town of Paraguarí, taking their children—Micah and his two younger sisters. As they moved up and down the aisles, Micah caught sight of a disabled man and, like most 5-year-olds, started asking his parents questions. The conversation turned to heaven, which they had talked about a few days before. His parents, missionaries with Serving In Mission, reminded their son that in heaven there would be no sickness, no pain, and no sadness. With astonishing speed typical of little boys, Micah’s mind made a connection, and he looked up hopefully into the eyes of his dad and suggested, “And no more Spanish?”
Do you feel the pain behind his question? In the year that he had been in Paraguay, Micah had had many opportunities to regret that Spanish was a part of his new life. When playing with the kids in his neighborhood, he often felt that he was on the outside—missing a lot of the conversation, feeling foolish and disconnected. Even a 5-year-old suspects that people laughing at jokes in another language might be referencing him! His little heart had already begun to long for a place and time where language would not divide him from others and where all the words would be clear and would be his to command.
It’s the curse of Babel. God’s antidote to the arrogance of man was to confuse their language. Little will bring you face to face with your own pride like the complete inability to understand and to make yourself understood.
But it’s also the genius of God’s ways. That’s because the fallout from Babel ensured that one day, when God’s people began to take His incomparable good news across cultural barriers, they would be forced to do it humbly. They would have to enter as learners, needy and ignorant, like children starting all over.
For 14 years, I’ve been helping missionaries from Christian organizations learn the Guaraní language. Paraguay’s unique history has preserved not one national language but two—Guaraní, the language of the loose confederation of Indian communities the Spanish conquistadores found when they arrived in the early 1500s; and Spanish, the language of the colonizers. The great majority of Paraguayans today are bilingual, whether or not they actually have any Guaraní ancestry.
Most missionaries working cross-culturally have to learn a new language. Few missionaries study language for less than nine months. For many of these messengers of the gospel, it’s among the most difficult tasks they will ever face in their ministry, and it’s right at the beginning! It’s obvious to us that language learning and missions go hand in hand.
What may be less obvious is why missionaries learn language. Clearly if you can’t communicate, you can’t get around—buy groceries, get your government documents, or find the post office. If you don’t have a language in common with people, you can’t share with them the propositional information—the facts—of the gospel. But it goes far beyond that. If this is all language learning is, then it’s easy to view it as a hurdle that must be jumped so that missionaries can get to the real ministry. They have to get through language study, and then they can start really being missionaries.
The worker who thinks like this misses the key truth that language learning itself is ministry. And more than that, it’s an occasion to become what God has sent her to become—to become incarnate to the people of her host culture. Paul talks about this becoming in 1 Corinthians 9, where he speaks of becoming “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (9:22 NIV). Paul doesn’t advocate pretending or faking it by putting on a mask. Becoming is hard work. It requires time and effort. “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NIV). The missionary going through language learning knows exactly what Paul means. It’s a struggle, day in and day out—vocabulary lists and verb conjugations, memorized monologues, and routes through the community to practice and grow.
Meanwhile, life still goes on. Missionaries interact with their neighbors, feeling like fools, inarticulate, not able to present themselves as they long to: as an educated person with experiences, relationships, status, and a life. They start from nothing, rebuilding their world from scratch, learning new names for every single item in it. Their neighbors’ 3-year-olds are better communicators than they are. Children sometimes giggle at the comical things they unintentionally say. The missionary language-learner either learns to laugh at himself or spends every day frustrated by his lack of status and dignity. As missionaries make the effort (and it is an effort!) to learn the language of the heart, a subtle, unspoken, but very powerful message is communicated: “I don’t look down on you. I value your culture. Who you are as a Paraguayan is unique, and it’s worth taking the time to invest in.” So often, Paraguayans, prepared by long experience with foreigners to be considered inferior, are disarmed when the outsider asks admittance to their world in this humble way. And they welcome the stranger in.
ACT: Has someone in your neighborhood or church moved from another culture? Take time this month to get to know them. Ask intentional questions: What’s your favorite color? What’s the common greeting in your culture? What do they like to do for fun? Using their answers, love this person in very practical ways—buy them a small gift in their favorite color, practice greeting them using your new language acquisition, ask to take part in their favorite activity, etc. Be creative and see what God teaches you through this new friendship.