From Hello to Heart: The Missionary’s Guide to Learning a Foreign Language

Explore the important benefits of mastering the heart language and discover practical tips to get started right now.

This is an excerpt of an article originally published by Crossworld here.

When I travel to other countries, I’m consistently amazed at how often English is spoken. It’s easy to get by with English while you’re on vacation or a short-term mission trip. But if you’re considering full-time missions, don’t overlook the importance of learning the local language. It’s not primarily about surviving in your new location, but about communicating effectively and building heart-level discipling relationships.

Your willingness to learn the heart language of your host country reflects a cultural awareness and a humility to “become like” the people you’re seeking to reach with the gospel.

What is a heart language?

A heart language bonds a people group together with a shared source of cultural history and identity and allows deep and intimate connection. Our task as Christ-followers to make disciples of all nations requires this level of connection.

You may be able to get by with English or with limited local language skills, but you won’t be an effective disciple-maker. It’s the heart language we must learn to speak if we hope to be welcomed and to communicate the message of the gospel to the very heart of our friends.

A Crossworld worker in North Africa recently told this story.

[My taxi driver] was shocked when I said I don’t speak any French but I do speak a little Arabic. He asked me why I’m learning Arabic instead of French, like most foreigners here do.

I said, “I’m learning Arabic because I love your country and the people, and this is a small way I can show that.”

He turned around with his hand over his heart and tears in his eyes and said, “Thank you for learning my language. You are welcome here.”

How to learn the heart language

  1. Figure out how you learn.
    Are you an auditory or visual learner? Do you like to learn with peers in a classroom setting or do you prefer one-on-one attention from a language tutor? Trying to learn in a method that doesn’t work for you will be ineffective and frustrating.

  2. Don’t be afraid to mess up.
    The worst mistake you can make is not making any mistakes at all because you’re too afraid to sound silly. Trust me, you will sound silly. The sooner you learn to laugh at your mistakes, the sooner you can learn from them.

  3. Make local friends.
    Your local friends will be your biggest allies in helping you become fluent in their language. Find a friend who will politely but truthfully correct your speech. Ask questions, listen, and be eager to learn.

  4. Don’t rush the process.
    There’s no magic method — becoming fluent takes years. You’ll be tempted (and maybe even encouraged) to jump into ministry after a few months of language classes, but I strongly urge you not to do that. Spending even a few years in full-time language study will not be wasted but will help you become more effective in the long run.  

  5. Stay focused on your goal.
    There will be days you’re frustrated and unable to see progress. Don’t give up. Keep focused on your goal, which is not ultimately being fluent in the language but making heart connections with people who need the gospel. A Crossworld worker in Thailand said, “[Language learning] is very rewarding. Every milestone we hit gets us closer to the people we love.”

The task of learning the local language can be daunting. But your devotion will be one of the loudest expressions of the love of Christ in you. And the reward of deep, intimate connection with the local people will be so worth it.

Natalie M. serves as a missions coach with Crossworld in Kansas City, where she invests much of her time in the city’s growing international population. She’s passionate about different cultures, is game for trying any and all ethnic cuisines, and enjoys learning to make disciples as a way of life.

This article is submitted by Crossworld. Crossworld is a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

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  1. Having learnt the heart language once saved me a traffic fine! I had been pulled over and the traffic officer already had his book out wanting to write a stiff fine. I was speaking to him in the country’s trade language, Portuguese. I turned back to the car and said to my passenger in the local heart language “I think this is going to take a while”. Upon hearing me speak the local language, the officer promptly put away his book, smiled, and said with a smile “You speak the local language? Go. Don’t do it again.”
    BTW: Having learnt two languages as an adult (one documented and the other not), and having taught missionaries to learn language, I can heartily recommend the book “Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It” by Gabriel Wyner. He combines some of the modern language approaches in a practical way, and makes it tech savvy too.

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