by Mark Willis
The woman in the crowded market obviously wasn’t cooperating with me. I had simply pointed to her basket of tomatoes and asked how much they cost. I expected her to say something like, “Four for a quarter,” or “Seventy-five cents a dozen.” But she kept repeating a simple word I had never heard before.
The woman in the crowded market obviously wasn’t cooperating with me. I had simply pointed to her basket of tomatoes and asked how much they cost. I expected her to say something like, “Four for a quarter,” or “Seventy-five cents a dozen.” But she kept repeating a simple word I had never heard before. I was puzzled. Why couldn’t she just answer my simple question? The response to it always came so predictably whenever I listened to the Ixil (ee-SHEAL) language-learning tapes.
Once again, I pointed more energetically at the lady’s basket of tomatoes. Again came the same one-word response. I stopped and slowly worked through what she was saying to me. “They’re mine,” she said emphatically for the fourth time. Then it dawned on me. Those tomatoes were not for sale! She had just bought them for herself and had no intention of selling them.
The mundane—and sometimes humbling—process of language learning has sharpened my view of biblical servanthood. But being a good, task-oriented North American, it was easy for me to view language learning as just another goal, as something to get “out of the way” so I could get on with ministering to the people. Although it was certainly helpful to pursue certain goals involving language learning, it was a mistake to treat the experience as an academic activity instead of the social activity that it is. And God used children to show me this truth.
One morning I heard the familiar rap of little hands on my door. I was barely into my second year in Chajul (chah-HOOL) and felt pressured to “learn” the language. More than once I turned down spontaneous invitations to visit and minister to certain individuals around town because it would “take too long” or pull me away from my desk where I mistakenly thought I could get most of my language work done. I didn’t realize it then, but I was turning down the best prescription for moving toward my language goals: social activity among the Ixil. Now, some of the neighborhood kids were calling me to come out and sit on the front step and talk with them.
“Mark, come out!” “Mark, come out!” was the friendly plea. Reluctantly, I pulled myself away from my desk, opened my door to their silly giggles and sat down on the front step to visit with them. They immediately began to ask questions about me, my family, and who makes my tortillas (!). As we visited, they took turns holding my hand or putting their arms on my shoulder. I thought of the importance of the language-learning process in communicating the gospel. I remembered reading about a conversation that missionary anthropologist Charles Kraft had with a young person:
“How much time should one who goes to serve as a two-month short-term missionary spend in language learning?”
Kraft responded: “Two months.”
The questioner continued: “What about one who stays six months?” “Then spend six months in language learning.”
“And if he stays two years?”
“There is nothing he could do that would communicate more effectively than spending those two years in language learning.” Kraft continued: “Indeed, if we do no more than engage in the process of language learning, we will have communicated more of the essentials of the gospel than if we devote ourselves to any other task I can think of.”
“No, you said ‘pillow,’ not ‘mountain,’” giggled my little visitors as I tried to repeat the word for mountain in Ixil. It wasn’t easy returning to the level of a child learning to talk. I often stammered and stumbled like a 4-year-old (and still do at times) in my initial attempts to speak Ixil. When I finally got it right, they patted me on the shoulder and said, “You’re getting it; now try it again!”
It is fascinating to me that diligence in an activity so uncelestial as language learning can communicate the essentials of the gospel. Eventually, by God’s grace, I learned to relax and see the language-learning process as Charles Kraft sees it: as a ministry in itself. How so? In the very act of trying to assimilate their speech as a child would, I was communicating two basic things tomy hosts: (1) my interest in them as people, and (2) my need to learn from them. In the process, I was serving them, often without even realizing it.
“We have to go now. We’ll come back and visit you again,” they said as they ran down the path toward their house. These kids were overjoyed they could teach me and patiently stuck with me when I made numerous mistakes.
Communicating the essentials of the gospel is certainly serving. And if Kraft’s words are true for the short-term missionary, they are all the more true for the career missionary. Persistent language learning, then, has sharpened my understanding of what Paul speaks of in Philippians 2:3-7. It is a process—often painful—that has taught me some valuable lessons:
- Language learning is more social than academic.
- It is a process that, if done with a learner’s perspective, can communicate an appreciation for what others know. This is a valuable way to serve them and build bridges for the gospel.
- Mistakes are frequent and inevitable. The issue is whether we are learning from them.
- We must be willing to laugh at ourselves and the mistakes we make; we cannot take ourselves too seriously.
In spite of discouragement and temptations to quit, I am convinced that a persistent, faithful effort in learning the language of another communicates the essentials of servanthood found in Philippians 2:3-7. In doing so, we seize the opportunity to “consider others better than ourselves.”
Indeed, the entire missionary experience is one of learning. A teachable spirit, especially early on in cross-cultural relationships, makes a favorable impression upon the people a missionary is trying to reach for the gospel. And if missionaries grow into the role of friend, encourager, or teacher, they can never abandon the role of learner—not if they want to grow in their effectiveness as followers of Christ. For to be a disciple of Christ is to be a learner (Matt.10:24).
Mark Willis has been a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators since 1987 and serves among the Ixil people of Guatemala. He is a graduate of Azusa Pacific University. His wife Ana, a doctor from El Salvador, manages a medical clinic in Chajul. They have one daughter.
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