by G. Linwood Barney and Donald N. Larson
There's and a truism everybody would accept: missionary success and language skills go hand in hand. Why then the swelling tide of despair about the language problem?
There's and a truism everybody would accept: missionary success and language skills go hand in hand. Why then the swelling tide of despair about the language problem? Why do we reject otherwise worthy candidates on the basis of low languagelearning aptitude test scores alone, and ignore motivation in language-learning? Why do we go on assigning people as if a country's language problems and the language-learning potential of the candidate make no difference in his ultimate success or failure?
We put great stress on mission policy and procedure in our candidate orientation programs, but forget the whole matter of how a new missionary is supposed to be accepted as an alien in a new community. We don't stop to consider if there are good opportunities for him in language training, so he can study according to his own ability and the requirements of his job. We overlook the connection between the language skills required by certain jobs and the ability of candidates to attain these skills.
We've got to use the know-how that's available about aptitude and motivation, about how to assign people, and how to appraise a candidate's needs. If we do the right things, new missionaries can make the best use of their opportunities and reach a legitimate level of success. For the purposes of this article, a missionary succeeds when he fits in well in the new community, carries out his own job well, and gives a good witness in the new language. To that end, this article will do two things: (1) show how language skills relate to success, and (2) show how the mission can make the right decisions about candidates.
Two main factors are important in assigning the new missionary: (1) the area's language problems and (2) language skills needed in the work.
1. The Area's Language Problems. Language problems are unbelievably complex and they're getting worse. The new missionary must know if the language is difficult or easy, how many languages he will have to learn, and how much energy and time he will have to spend learning to read and write.
Languages are difficult or easy relative to your mother tongue. It depends on how much you have to change your normal speech habits. Languages of the same family tend to be easier to learn, but when you cross from one familto another, as from English to Japanese, you face more difficulty.
Sometimes missionaries must live in areas where many people are multilingual. To gain his objectives, the missionary may have to learn how to speak well in two or more languages (e.g., in former colonies of French West Africa). Each of these languages may have quite different uses within the nation. They may or may not have a common ancestor. Prestige factors may strongly suggest that you learn one before the other. Two languages as different as Meo and Lao, for example, are not related historically and differ significantly in prestige in Laos.
Missions make a serious mistake when they push the new missionary out of one learning experience into another before he has mastered the first and adequately prepared for the change. They must carefully consider: (1) From the national church's point of view, which language should be learned first? (2) When is the missionary ready to learn the second language?
Certain kinds of writing systems make it harder for the language learner. When principles other than alphabetic are used, the student needs more time. When writing systems are inefficient or loaded with detailed rules, he needs a good bit of exposure before he can reasonably be expected to read and write.
It is quite unreasonable to expect the person in an area of complex language problems to be as successful as the person in an area with one relatively simple language that has an easy writing system. Suppose we rank the relative difficulty of a language 1-2-3; the number of languages to be learned, one, two or three; and the difficulty of the writing system 1-23. Add the totals for a given area and you will see that a missionary in an area of nine points will have considerably more difficulty that a missionary in a three-point area.
To recap, the first conclusion is: success and failure are conditioned by the language problems of an area. Now let's go on the second.
2. Language Skills Needed in Different Levels of Work. Different missionary work requires different levels of language skills. Some would say, for example, that you don't need to learn the language if you teach missionaries' children, work in the office, or do technical work like a radio engineer does. Going back to our first yardstick of success (acceptance in the community), it would seem that missionary work like this has little to do with fitting in. But let's face it: any missionary worth his salt has to mix with the people, regardless of his 8 to 5 work. He's got to engage in everyday conversation on a wide range of subjects and in many different situations. He's got to use the community's language to be accepted.
At the same time, doing work like this doesn't require the same language skills that a teacher, pastor, or evangelist must have. They have to be able to explain new ideas. They must redefine and match their own ideas with those of the people. They must speak understandably in difficult and unusual situations.
And yet there's a third level. The first two kinds of work don't require the same skill that a language specialist must have: the translator, the writer, or editor. That kind of work demands the utmost language skill. Questions of grammar and style are foremost. So the specialist's language concerns are quite different from the office worker's or the pastor's.
So you can see that it's quite unreasonable to expect people of the same ability linguistically to be as successful in the specialist's work as in the office worker's or evangelist's. We must make field assignments with this in mind. You've got to match the person's language ability with the work you give him to do. The second criterion of success or failure, in the light of language problems, is the work the missionary is supposed to do.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR LANGUAGE STUDY ON THE FIELD
Only rarely do we provide opportunities for language study according to both the area's language problems and the missionary's work. Language study programs have not been diversified in this way. Most are geared for the average missionary's needs. Some missionaries get good programs, but never use the benefits. Others get poor language preparation, but language problems abound in their work and they need great language skills. Ideally, we should tailor language study for particular students. If we did we certainly would see a higher degree of language skills in the new missionary. Short of this, we must remember certain crucial factors and work with what we have in tile lest way.
1. The nature of language-learning. Learning to speak anew language is primarily a matter ofskill, not facts. You must learn to make different sounds. You must learn to organize sentences differently. You must learn to call things by new names. This early phase of language study is devoted almost entirely to mechanics not to content. You practice to improve your control of the fundamentals. Once you master them you can enrich yourself in the life and culture of the people. Your mother tongue has little importance in interpersonal relationships. But you can't enter this enrichment phase without a foundation in the mechanics, and there's no point in mastering the fundamentals without using them for enrichment.
Until the new missionary can use the language to enrich himself, he can't take part in .the everyday life of the community as an accepted member. Using the language symbolizes his membership andhelps him carry out his work. Language study that gives the mechanics is fine, but if there's no chance for systematic enrichment, the new missionary may not get the language as well as he should.
2. Exposure time. The basic goal in language-learning is new habits; forming habits takes time and work. Unless you spend most of your creative work in mastering these habits, you'll lose out because you'll revert to your mother tongue. In language study, time and work loads must be carefully planned. Time is important because (1) you need enough time to form new language habits, and (2) study time and free time must be well-balanced. There are many advantages to full-time study under qualified leaders. While half-time or quarter-time study may be good during the enrichment phase, it's wasteful during the mechanical phase. The new missionary needs enough time to master the mechanics and to get as far along in enrichment as he needs to before he can carry through on his own. Depending on the language, the individual and the situation, learning the mechanics may take from four months to a year. Languages closely related to English may take only a few months, but languages in many other families may take much longer. The enrichment phase continues for several years; the chief problem is to figure out when the student can go it alone. This may take another three or four months; some may not be able to break out on their own for nearly a year.
Time, of course, is not the only thing in learning a language well; you've got to use energy so that your habits change enough for you to use the language within a reasonable length of time. Controlling energy isn't easy. Language school people-those who run it and teach-have much to do with energy control. Programming written materials is equally important. The physical setting for study makes a difference. Some students do better working alone with a teacher; others need the competition from a small group. Some couples can study together; others find it's better to do it separately.
Three things affect getting a new language well: (1) aptitude, (2) motivation, and (3) opportunity to learn. Aptitude is God-given; motivation comes from within; the mission must arrange opportunities to learn.
Aptitude is least important of the three; motivation, most important. People with very low aptitude can learn if they are motivated. At the same time, people with very high aptitude test scores may fail miserably at language-learning, because they lack motivation.'
Many things affect motivation: presence of spouses in language study, prior experience, and self-image, for example. It's hard to measure motivation, of course. Nida and others have given us important suggestions.' The drive that forces a person to communicate freely and widely provides the energy language study requires. People who are sensitive to the feelings and behavior of others have an edge in language-learning over those who aren't. Those who are sensitive to theoutgroups, as Nida puts it, are oftenmotivated to develop habits that will enablethem to join the activity. Where these two things-the drive to communicate and sensitivity to others-are missing, aptitude alone can't make the grade. Where these two things are present, even the people with low aptitude can learn the language. If we can learn the connection between aptitude and motivation, and provide the conditions where motivation thrives, we will see much improvement in the language skills of new missionaries.
On the basis of aptitude and motivation we can grade candidates as strong, weak, normal, and uncertain. Wellmotivated people with good scores on an aptitude test are strong compared to those who show no signs of motivation and do not achieve well on tests. Those with normal motivation and whose scores range in the 30 to 70 percentile aren't likely to fail, nor are they likely to breezethrough language-learning without effort. Those who are highly motivated, but score in
the 20th percentile or lower, are hard to grade; so are those with little motivation and high scores. As we get better at evaluating aptitude and motivation, we can undoubtedly do a better job of guiding candidates into the best language-learning situations.
This is what we've said thus far: (1) No candidate should be rejected solely on the basis of a low aptitude test score. (2) Permanent assignments should always be made in the light of area language problems and language skills required by the missionary's specific work. (3) Language study should fit the new missionary's potential and permanent assignment. To follow these suggestions will mean that practical problems of timing and orientation will have to be worked out. Some missions make permanent assignments before they measure the candidate's potential; others don't make assignments until after language study is completed. In certain parts of the world language study opportunities are severely limited.
WHAT TO DO
Confronted by many choices for each candidate, how can a mission decide what to do? To get the answer, put candidates in three groups by language-learning potential: strong, normal, and weak. Then rank the area, the work the new missionary is to do, and the language study opportunities. As we said, an area may be easy or difficult depending on the language itself, the number of languages to be learned, and the nature of the writing problem. Rank the area 1-2-3 in order of difficulty (3, most difficult). The missionary's work may require the language skills of the teacher of missionaries' children, clerical worker, or radio technician, for example (rank 1), or that of the pastor, teacher and evangelist (rank 2), or that of the linguistic specialist (rank 3). The new missionary may have the fullest available opportunity to study the language in the most efficient manner (rank 1), or the usual kind of study situation (rank 2), or he may have to study entirely on his own (rank 3).
Strong candidates and weak candidates should be assigned and helped differently. Failure comes from mismatching the candidate's potential and the work and area to which he is assigned. The following ideas will help missions avoid this disastrous mismatching.
1. Candidates with normal aptitude. The candidate with normal language aptitude can be assigned to areas of average difficulty, to work in a position where he will need average language skills, where he is given the normal kind of opportunity for language-learning. But if he's put in a difficult area, or in a work that demands superior language skills, or has to study the language alone, you can expect him to face difficulties that will cause trouble. If you move him up a notch in the difficulty scale, you can compensate for this by moving him down a notch in one of the other categories,either to a position with less language demands or to a language study situation that gives him greater support. If lie is assigned to a 3-3-3 situation, his chances for success are slim. If he is assigned to a 1-1-1 situation, he won't be properly challenged.
2. Candidates with weak aptitude. Candidates with weak language aptitude can be assigned to the 1-1-1 situation: an easy area, a normal work assignment, and the best opportunity for language-learning. If he's moved up in any category one step, you're endangering his success. If you move him up two steps, you're practically guaranteeing failure.
3. Candidates with strong aptitude. The candidate with strong language aptitude should be reserved for the 3-3-3 situation; anything less is likely to produce frustration or failure. To assign the strong candidate to a 1-1-1 situation is a mistake;he's not likely to be challenged.
4. Uncertain candidates. Candidates with unclear aptitude and motivation pictures should be placed in situations where these things can be measured without risk to the person or those around him. Where motivation seems to be strong and aptitude weak, it's safe to assign him to either a 1-1-2 or a 1-2-1 situation. Where motivation seems to be weak and aptitude strong, it's safe to assign him to either a 2-1-1 or 2-2-1 situation. Try in these cases to build motivation in every possible way. Flexibility is the key with candidates of uncertain language-learnipg potential. Permanent assignments should be left open while you closely observe the candidate during his language study.
Even though we lack conclusive information about language-learning potential, language problems on the field, and opportunities for tailor-made language study, we do have some programs for candidates before they leave for the field.
1. Universities offer intensive programs. They focus on the mechanics of language-learning; there's little opportunity for enrichment. If you complete such a program you're probably ready to continue on the field without much more formal training. Such study may test the candidate's potential at a much lower cost than a term on the field. A university opportunity would be especially, important for weak or uncertain candidates, who need the controls of such a program to find their bearings in language study. This doesn't lessen its value for the strong candidate.
2. The Summer Institute of Linguistics. This program is especially important for the specialist assigned to rough areas where little analytical work has been done. But it doesn't generally meet the needs of the average person in the usual missionary work, or of those assigned to normal or easy areas. This program is not for the person of normal or weak potential, but rather for the one with a high aptitude for verbal skills, strongly motivated to join the activity of a new community, which stresses the assimilation of its language, although not necessarily its analysis.
3. The Toronto Institute of Linguistics. (Similar programs are offered by the National Council of Churches, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., and others.) This program is helpful for candidates with less than strong potential, although strong candidates may be helped if they face a 3-3-2 or a 3-3-3 situation. The Toronto program, with which we have been closely associated for ten years, gives the student a threedimensional orientation to the language problem.
(1) He spends forty hours in phonetics and another forty hours in personal instruction in a language laboratory. This makes him more sensitive to the sounds he will hear and have to produce. (2) He spends forty hours learning how to supplement the formal language study he will receive on the field, how to make up exercises to correct his mistakes, and how to come up with ideas for the best exposure to the speech community during his language study. (3) He spends twenty hours in ethnolinguistics covering problems he will face in knowing when to talk and when not to, whom to talk with and whom not to, when to discuss politics or religion and when to talk about the weather.
During the month's intensive program we watch each student closely in small-group drill and practice sessions. Personal conferences help the student to anticipate the kinds of situations he will face and help him to find the best help around. We try to evaluate each person's potential and to advise him and his mission about permanent assignment and language study on the field. The program serves the candidate and the board by (1) getting at the candidate's motivation, apprehension, and anxiety about the language problem, and (2) dealing constructively with them so he will make the most of his language-learning opportunity.
The missionary's role is continually changing. As our Western ways encroach on non-Western traditions, the missionary more than ever must be the symbol of love and the expression of an eternal, unchanging God. To be this kind of person, he must place himself within the community, not beside it. There he will be the salt and the light. Language skill is a means to this end. The missionary who remains an alien-only present physically in a community-can never live and speak the Gospel without first becoming a member of that group. To do this means learning the common man's language. Missions face a grave situation because they-must select, train, and assign those with the potential for being this kind o£ missionary.
1. A testing program at the Interchurch Language School in Manila, 1961 to 1963, showed that a number o£ people with strong aptitude nevertheless lacked motivation, and this appeared to be the major factor in their failure.
2. Eugene A. Nida reported his findings in "Motivation in Second Language Learning," in Language Learning, Journal of Applied Linguistics, University of Michigan.
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