by Lincoln Edwardson
The following distractions prolong our discomfort and often keep us from fitting in or belonging.
A number of years ago I heard Dr. Arnold Cook, former president of the C&MA in Canada, quoted as saying, “Wherever you are, be all there.” This is especially true for those of us involved in learning another language and incarnating the gospel in another culture. We are striving to “become all things to all people” as we painfully peel off layers of our own culture so that we can slip deeper into our host culture. The deeper we succeed in going, the more effective we will become in winning, discipling and facilitating our brothers and sisters from another culture. Not only will we be more successful, but I am convinced the longer we remain in our host country, the better we’ll acquire the language. A sense of belonging culturally is one of the highest prerequisites for a mission-ary’s contentment.
Why do many of us never reach that desired depth of cultural incarnation and find our language learning slow and unsatisfactory? I believe that often it is because we are not “all there.” We resist diving in and immersing ourselves in the new language and culture while we unconsciously fill our lives with distractions that keep us from our original goal. Often we defend these distractions as important to our sanity, but the fastest road to contentment and “sanity” in our new culture is plunging in and learning the language well. This road enables us to belong and have meaningful relationships.
The following distractions prolong our discomfort and often keep us from fitting in or belonging. We would do well to consider them carefully. Each distraction is inherently good and can be positive if kept in balance. If we are creative, they can even be bridges into the new culture, but can hinder us if not kept in check.
While cars are very convenient, they can be dangerous. Language learning gurus Brewster and Brewster emphasize the importance of being “dependent” on people from the host culture. Vehicles make us independent and less likely to remain in our neighborhoods. They can easily tempt us away from our difficult language learning environment and make us busy with activities that do not force us to practice language and build relationships.
Our first year on the field we convinced ourselves not to purchase a vehicle. Boarding public transportation with two pre-schoolers and a baby caused us to think carefully before leaving our neighborhood. Instead of running to the mall or supermarket, we walked through the maze of neighborhood alleys to a small store. Rather than driving off to play soccer with my expat friends, it was easier to play ping-pong in the dusty courtyard of our community.
When our white Toyota arrived in year two, our connectedness to the community dropped drastically. We began to drive half an hour to a bulk food grocery store. Our tinted windows and air conditioning isolated us from the average person on public transportation. Avoid owning a car during the first year of language study if possible.
2. TV, VIDEOS and DVDs
Television can be a wonderful window to the hearts, minds and culture of our host country or it can be another distraction that removes us from our complex and unsettling countries. With the push of a button we are lifted from the reality of our unemployed neighbor and the haunting call to prayer. We are transported to a hospital room in Chicago or a beach-front in southern California. Not only are we tempted to fill our minds with images and language that are not “profitable,” but without our realization, several hours a day can be siphoned away from the important task before us.
A careful selection of what we watch, however, can help us to learn language and culture. Local language news, talk shows, comedies and even soap operas can teach us how the average person thinks and what they believe. I am pleased when my children watch Popeye dubbed in the national language because they are hearing and learning language. A possible viewing guideline could be that we only watch as much TV as we have spent time talking with people, and of that, at least half should be in our target language.
3. FELLOWSHIP WITH EXPATS
I remember clearly the first time I heard “O Boundless Salvation” in this new language and how I struggled to keep up with the complicated foreign words. I thought, “Will I ever be able to worship in this language?” Sitting through service after service and “singing” hymn after hymn, after ten years my soul leaps with praise when I sing “Suci, Suci, Suci.” Not only will attending a church in the local language enable you to learn the language, but it will give you fulfilling relationships with believers that can meet your needs for friendship and fellowship.
An occasional visit to an English speaking fellowship obviously will not destroy your ministry, but we must remind ourselves that we did not become cross-cultural workers to be served, but to serve. Most of us did not come to do that among expatriates.
4. E-MAIL AND THE INTERNET
The music group Air Supply sang a song with the lyrics, “Love is like oxygen, too much gonna make you high, not enough and you’re gonna die.” The same could be said about e-mail. Not enough communication with prayer partners and supporters will cause us to suffer, and the importance of faithfully writing to those who pray for us cannot be overstated. However, like oxygen, we can have too much of a good thing. We need to ask ourselves, “Am I spending an inordinate amount of time chatting with people from home, and thus escaping from the reality of my current situation?” Also, “Am I seeking too much counsel and input from family and friends and not investing in teammates on the field, national workers and neighbors?” We must choose to let go or at least loosen our grip on some relationships back home if we are to develop deep, meaningful relationships where we serve.
Even more dangerous as a time-waster is the Internet. I have yet to hear a good reason why a person in the first year of language and culture learning needs to spend any time surfing the Web. More often than not it is another distraction and an escape from going out, practicing new words and having new experiences. Language learners that use the Internet would do well to limit themselves to an hour a week to catch up on news.
Computers and their endless appetite for support equipment like scanners, drives, speakers, mikes, printers, etc., can be wolves in sheep’s clothing. Too much time spent on their research, acquisition, programming, repairing, up-grading and then devirusing can be a dangerous distraction from people and culture. In the name of efficiency and ministry we are tempted to spend valuable hours fiddling with unnecessary electronic equipment doing unnecessary things. An unwritten rule says that if it is faster or clearer, it is good and thus justifiable.
I would like to challenge us with the question, “Do I really need all of it to do the work God has given me to do at this time?” For those of us who complain about having too little time for people and culture, a helpful rule might be: “Buy only what you truly need and use it only as long as you truly need to.”
Westerners commonly misconceive that the refuge of a nice house will lead to contentment and emotional health. While poor living conditions certainly add to our stress levels, an overemphasis on homes that separate us from people can contribute to fear, loneliness and isolation. Several friends told me that your neighbors are the only people who will always be there for you, and that the best insurance against theft is good relationships with those around you. Several months ago when my daughter woke up at midnight fearing robbers, I told her to look out the window through our low fence at our neighbors, Pak Ade and Pak Totong, smoking cigarettes only a few yards away. Being close to people whom she knew helped her feel safe. Walls, dogs and big yards rarely contribute to a feeling of belonging and don’t facilitate language learning.
Language learning experts agree that reading in the target language helps us master grammar and vocabulary, but no research has yet revealed that spending three hours on Wednesday afternoon reading John Grisham or Good Houskeeping contributes anything to acquiring a foreign language. A moderate amount of time spent reading novels and magazines can provide some necessary relaxation, but too much time can be an unhealthy escape and distraction. My wife, an avid reader, redeemed her need for the page by choosing books by famous local authors translated into English so she at least learned about the country and culture.
A language learning friend who enjoys fishing went out all night with some friends to fish. Though he came home with his nets empty, his cultural pockets were bulging with hours of language practice and new levels of friendships.
Choose hobbies that put you in contact with people and not those that distract you from the task or are foreign in nature. Chess with a neighbor is better than Risk with an American. Ping-pong at the community center is more valuable than stamp collecting alone.
9. FOREIGN SPORTS
A friend recently got up in the middle of the night to listen to the World Series on the radio. He happily relived summer days at the ballpark with hotdogs and a Coke. For several hours he escaped his less attractive world here and transferred himself into a fantasy world.
What my friend did is not wrong, but wouldn’t it be better for him to find sports that his neighbors and potential friends here enjoy? Instead of listening alone to a shortwave radio in a dark house, he could drink sweet coffee and nibble on banana chips at his neighbor’s house while watching badminton, soccer or boxing.
Even if you don’t watch with someone, knowledge of local sports or at least those sports locals enjoy will give you hours of topics to chat about with your contacts. Almost every time I see one neighbor I ask him, “Is there any boxing on?” Then he always invites me to sit down on his porch, and we begin to talk.
I trust that the thoughts above will challenge us language learners to evaluate our lives and adjust our lifestyles to learn more effectively the language of our new culture. We must desire to develop deeper relationships with better language skills so that God can speak through us to reach the hearts of those around us.
Lincoln Edwardson is a pseudonym for a fellow laborer who has learned the national language of his host country fluently at a formal language school and is currently struggling with the local language on his own. He has served in Southeast Asia with the C&MA for ten years in theological education, wholistic development and church planting.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 322-325. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.