by Donald N. Larson
In working with hundreds of missionary candidates in pre-field orientation programs and several score in field situations, I have come to question whether the linguistic and sociolinguistic dimensions of missionary service are fully considered in the allocation of personnel.
In working with hundreds of missionary candidates in pre-field orientation programs and several score in field situations, I have come to question whether the linguistic and sociolinguistic dimensions of missionary service are fully considered in the allocation of personnel. For example, not long ago two candidates were appointed for overseas service by the same board to two different fields. One of the candidates—Mr. Strong, with obvious motivation and aptitude for language, was assigned to one of the "easy" areas of the world. Mr. Weak, with a lack of motivation and aptitude that was equally obvious, was assigned to virtually the most difficult field in the world, so far as language complexity and multilingualism are concerned. To make matters worse, the easy field had a fine program with experienced and well-trained leaders, supportive of the alien learner in every way, while the other field could provide the missionary with little more than a handful of worn-out, obsolete notes, an inexperienced and untrained tutor, and a few months of part-time study.
The results were what we had predicted: Mr. Strong breezed through the program with potential to spare and became functionally bilingual. Mr. Weak, on the other hand, was back in North America within two years.
It would be foolish to claim that Mr. Strong and Mr. Weak should have been allocated to opposite fields, for there may have been many reasons why this could not be done. It would be equally foolish to claim that language was solely responsible for Mr. Weak’s drop-out. On the other hand, linguistic and sociolinguistic factors are part of the total picture and should be given routine consideration in allocation. Missionaries cannot be allocated solely on the basis of these factors, but perhaps with a few fundamental guidelines, greater sensitivity to these dimensions can be developed. This article, then, continues our earlier discussion of language factors in missionary allocation. (See "How We Can Lick the Language Problem," Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Fall, 1967.) The discussion grows out of our experience at the Toronto Institute of Linguistics, where we have been applying these guidelines for the past several years.
The typical missionary is usually allocated to a country or region or community on the basis of his experience, educational background and the particular needs of a mission program, his linguistic experience or the linguistic and sociolinguistic factors inherent in the situation in which he will work. In 1968 at TIL we began to develop a final report on each student which analyzed his linguistic readiness in relation to the field situation as he described it and as we understood it.
Our underlying assumption was that there should be some attempt to match missionary to situation on the basis of certain linguistic and sociolinguistic considerations. When we consider such variables in a given situation alongside the strengths or weaknesses of a given missionary, we may find him to be over-taxed or under-challenged. Our immediate objective was to study both of these dimensions and to come up with some differential figure which would compare a missionary’s potential with a situation’s demands.
We recognized, of course, that his allocation would not likely be changed on the basis of our report, although we hoped that there might be ways and means of upgrading his opportunity for language study if indeed he seemed to lack resources for meeting the demands of the situation as we understood it.
TWO MAJOR QUESTIONS
To evaluate a missionary’s linguistic and sociolinguistic potential in relation to the situation to which he is assigned, we study his performance at TIL and his field situation and compare the results. We try to answer two questions: (1) What is the linguistic and sociolinguistic nature of the missionary’s overseas situation? (2) What is the nature and extent of his participation at TIL? We will now explore each of these questions in detail.
I. OVERSEAS SITUATION
The linguistic difficulties which confront the new missionary seem to fall into four major categories: (1) the language itself; (2) the opportunity for learning the new language; (3) the function of the language in the community; (4) the use made of the language in the missionary’s role.
A. Linguistic Factors. In considering the difficulty of a new language, two aspects are of major importance. The first has to do with the structure of the language, including the difficulty of its phonology, its grammar and its writing system. The second has to do with the availability of resources including learning materials, materials on the analysis of the language, dictionaries and reference material, and the use of the language in mass media.
A situation, for example, may be very difficult if the structure of the language presents great pronunciation problems for a speaker of English, or if its grammar is difficult, or if he must learn a strange new way of writing. Navaho and Mandarin night be examples of relatively difficult languages when these criteria are applied. A situation may be difficult because of the scarcity of resources. For example, if one were learning Buhid in the Philippines he would find relatively few books for adult learners, only fragments of analytic materials, inadequate dictionaries and reference material, and almost no use in mass media, as compared with what the learner of Spanish would encounter.
The degree of difficulty, then, is in direct proportion to the difficulty of a language’s structure and the availability of resources.
B. Opportunity for Learning.The degree of difficulty in learning a new language is in inverse proportion to the richness of opportunity. There are two main dimensions to be considered. First, as far as the organization of a program is concerned, an opportunity may be very weak: developed by untrained personnel and guided by teachers or tutors who are relatively inexperienced. Second, as far as exposure is concerned, there are two considerations: daily exposure and total length of time. Some missionaries are given the opportunity for full time study, while others are given none at all. Some are given a sufficient number of months, as measured by the overall difficulty of the situation, while others are in language study on a week-to-week basis until they are needed elsewhere.
Quite clearly, the difficulty of a situation for a missionary is far greater if he is in a program with little formal organization, with inexperienced tutors, with no allotted daily time and no special period for study. Compare this with the missionary who is in a highly formalized program with experienced tutors on a full time basis for a sufficient number of months.
C. Function in Community.The degree of difficulty in learning a new language is in inverse proportion to the favorable nature of the student’s social and psychological environment during language study. There are four main dimensions: (1) availability of a family surrogate, (2) community expectations, (3) multilingualism and national complexity, (4) social tensions involving the matter of alienation and its degrees.
1. A single person living with a national family normally has a significant advantage over the married couple living on a compound in learning the new language and becoming part of a new community. Between these extremes, perhaps, is the married couple living with a national family, although this is difficult to arrange, and a single person living with another missionary – a common practice. The matter of family surrogate, then, is a significant variable in successful language learning.
2. Communities differ in their expectations toward aliens learning their language. We can differentiate (a) those which desire aliens to do so, (b) those which are indifferent, and (c) those which are hostile, with no expectation whatever.
3. Countries differ in their linguistic complexity, some being (a) simple and relatively monolingual, while (b) others are very complex, with a high degree of interaction between different speech communities.
4. Some situations involve considerable social tension for the North American, making life very difficult. We can differentiate three ranges on a scale of difficulty: (a) amiable international relations with Americans, (b) moderate relations, (c) highly charged feelings and emotions.
It is evident that the missionary who goes into a situation where he can live with a national family in a community where it is desirable to learn the new language has a decided advantage over the couple who lives alone on a compound where they can get along reasonably well in English. The missionary in a country with relatively few languages or relatively little complexity and where feelings between citizens of that country and North Americans are amiable can expect an easier time at language learning than the person who goes into a tough country where feelings against North Americans are evident in every city, town or hamlet
D. Missionary’s Role.The degree of difficulty in language is also related to the role which he is to fulfill in his mission’s program. Three dimensions seem to be significant.
1. Demands for proficiency inherent in his role. This problem was discussed in our earlier article. We can differentiate four types of roles and the levels of proficiency which each requires.
a. Office staff, technical personnel and certain other support personnel are said to be involved in work which requires no proficiency in the new language.
b. Some missionaries use the language mainly for everyday, casual conversation on a wide range of topics in a variety of situations.
c. Some missionaries are engaged in teaching, pastoral and preaching activities where they constantly need to explain new ideas and concepts, redefine and equate their own ideas with those of the nationals.
d. Some missionaries are specialists in translation or literacy, full-time teachers of English as a second language, authors or editors. Such roles which bring verbal behavior into constant and primary focus require considerable proficiency.
2. A second dimension concerns the use of English in on-the-job functions. The greater the opportunity for using English, the more difficult to learn the new language. We can differentiate three rather crude levels of difficulty: (a) No use of English and must talk a great deal; (b) Moderate use of English and moderate amount of talking; (c) Total use of English and much talking.
3. A third dimension involves the sponsor’s demands for proficiency. (a) Some place high demands on the missionary with various kinds of penalties. (b) Others place high demands but without penalty. (c) Still others place no demands whatever.
Clearly the missionary in a situation where he is part of an office staff which speaks English, where he hears and uses it all day long, and where sponsors make no demands on him whatsoever is not likely to learn the language.
II. ORIENTATION SESSION
Although the orientation session can only give us impressions of a missionary’s potential for learning a new language, until there are more substantive ways to predict success, we shall have to work as sensitively as possible with the impressions. At the present time, four variables seem to be of significance in giving us a picture of probable success.
A. Aptitude.At TIL, every study takes the Modern Language Aptitude Test and percentile scores are studied carefully and interpreted in terms of three ranges: (1) trouble-free, (2) normal, safe, (3) danger.
B. Phonetic Skills.We watch a student’s development of proficiency in phonetics in four areas: (1) mimicry, (2) production, (3) discrimination, and (4) sound-symbol association. These skills seem to be of critical importance in learning a new language.
C. Understanding and application of techniques. In the orientation session various techniques and skills for the missionary’s own development of language learning materials are taught and applied to the learning of a disposable language used during the session. Admittedly, our confidence level is low here, although it was significantly strengthened in 1970 when we began to use New Guinea Pidgin as a disposable language.
Four areas are differentiated: (1) awareness of the problems involved in the acquisition of a new language; (2) ability to analyze typical problems, develop relevant solutions, apply and implement procedures; (3) ability to accept formal and informal opportunities provided by TIL to learn and use a disposable language, on the assumption that this experience will transfer to a new situation; (4) measure of creative insight and initiative in using formal and informal opportunties as observed by the staff.
D. Motivation and Sensitivity.Working chiefly with Nida’s hypothesis ("Motivation in Second Language Learning," in Language Learning), we seek ways and means of measuring a student’s motivation or desire to communicate and his sensitivity to out-groups. This is admittedly an area where much subjectivism is still evident.
the matter of motivation is further differentiated in terms of the following: (a) Interaction with others as seen on a scale from being withdrawn to ability and ease in initiating conversations; (b) transactions as seen on a scale from exchanging superficial remarks to exchanging ideas, discussing issues, learning from others, and empathizing.
The matter of sensitivity is differentiated in terms of (a) protective-projective characteristics, and (b) in-group and out-group relationships. Some students are observed to reflect a noticeable discomfort in out-groups while others are readily able to identify. This, we hypothesize, is an important ingredient in language learning potential.
A learner’s achievement seems to rest on how all these components are combined and seem to be important indicators of probable success.
In the course of the month we seek to compile data in all these areas to form an individual profile of potential.
It is extremely difficult to deal with these dimensions in terms of discrete quantities. Experience will undoubtedly suggest refinements in the future.
At present we assign 100 points of difficulty to the overseas situation as outlined in the above model. We also assign 100 points of strength to the learner’s potential as it is revealed in the orientation session at TIL. We distribute these points as follows:
I. Overseas Situation (100 points)
A. Linguistic Factors (1-25 points)
a. Difficulty of phonology (1-5)
b. Difficulty of grammar (1-5)
c. Difficulty of writing systems (1-5)
2. Resources (scaled from considerable to none to allow for increasing degree of difficulty for the adult language learner)
a. Language learning materials (1-2-3)
b. Analytical materials (1-2)
c. Dictionaries, references (1-2)
d. Language in mass media (1-2-3)
B. Opportunity for Learning (1-25 points)
1. Organization of language program and experience of tutors (1-15)
Degree of Organization / experience of tutors / scale
a. Highly formalized / experienced / 1
b. Some formal org. / experienced / 4
c. Some formal org. / inexperienced / 8
d. Little formal org. / experienced / 12
e. Little formal org. / indexperienced / 15
2. Extent of exposure (1-10)
Daily Exposuure / Length of Time / Scale
a. Full time / sufficient for situation / 1
b. Full-time / limited period / 4
c. Part-time / limited period / 8
d. No allotted time / no special period / 10
C. Function in Community (1-25 points)
1. Living arrangements (1-9)
a. Single person living with nationals / scale 1
b. Couple with nationals / scale 3
c. Single with other missionary / scale 7
d. Couple on compound or alone / scale 9
2. Community expectations (1-9)
a. Desire aliens to learn language / scale 1
b. Indifferent / scale 5
c. Hostile, with no expectations / scale 9
3. National complexity (1-4)
Mixed language groups increase difficulties
a. Simple monolingual situation / scale 1
b. Very complex situation / scale 4
4. Social tensions (degrees of alienation) (1-3)
a. Amiable international relations / scale 1
b. Moderate relations / scale 2
c. High tenstions / scale 3
D. Role (1-25 points)
1. Demands inherent in role (1-9)
a. No proficiency / scale 0
b. Everyday use / scale 3
c. Innovators / scale 6
d. Specialists / scale 9
2. Use of English on the job (1-7)
a. No use of English / scale 1
b. Moderate use of English / scale 4
c. Total use of English / scale 7
3. Sponsor’s demand for proficiency (1-9)
a. High demand with penalty / scale 1
b. High demand without penalty / scale 5
c. No demands / scale 9
II. Orientation Session (100 points)
A. Aptitude [1 (low) to 20 (high) points] 6 to 14 is within normal range
B. Phonetic Skills [1 (low) to 20 (high) points] 1. Mimicry (1-5 points)
2. Production (1-5 points)
3. Discrimination (1-5 points)
4. Sound-symbol association (1-5 points)
C. Techniques (1-20 points)
1. Awareness of problem (1-5 points)
2. Ability to solve the problem (1-5 points)
3. Use of formal opportunity (1-5 points)
4. Use of informal opportunity (1-5 points)
D. Motivation and Sensitivity (1-40 points)
1. Desire to communicate (1-20)
a. Interaction (1-5 points)
b. Transaction (1-5 points)
2. Sensitivity to others (1-20)
a. Protective-projective (1-10 points)
b. In-group/out-group (1-10 points)
One might legitimately question our judgments of relative importance. For example, we have assumed that the four dimensions of the overseas situation are of equal importance and that motivation and sensitivity are to be weighted more heavily than aptitude, phonetic skills or techniques. This aspect needs careful study, and refinement of details is made year year.
Whenever complex human behavior is translated into discrete quantities, one runs the risk of overlooking significant variables and magnifying certain others out of proportion. At the same time, if the use of the model is carefully restricted, perhaps the evaluations can serve some limited purpose. That is our intention.
With reference to the overseas situation, our data is limited and chances of error high, although by reporting our approach to the problem in this way we hope to enlist cooperation in upgrading our information.
APPLICATION OF RESULTS
What use can be made of this evaluation by the missionary and his sponsor? The graph below may be used to compare potential for language learning as revealed in the orientation session and difficulty in the overseas situation. It is our estimation that any intersection of ability and difficulty between lines A and B on the graph indicates normal problems in acquisition of a new language. Any intersection above line A indicates the degree to which the missionary’s ability may not be fully or efficiently utilized, while any intersection below line B indicates the degree to which his ability may be overtaxed. For example, 80 points of potential and 20 points of difficulty (see x on the graph) would indicate a failure to utilize ability, while 20 points of potential and 80 points of difficulty (see y on the graph) would indicate an overtaxing of the missionary.
The data must be examined carefully, for the difficulty of the overseas situation of the missionary may have been underrated, misjudging any one or all of the factors involved. The sponsor and the missionary also need to evaluate our view of the missionary’s potential. Involvement in the orientation program may be seen differently by the student himself.
A second step involves compensation, for areas of apparent weakness can perhaps be improved with further study. Perhaps as motivation and sensitivity are brought into view, it will serve to highlight their importance and even stimulate them.
As far as the overseas situation is concerned, compensation along several lines may be possible: (1) change of assignment or location, although this would be a risky venture on the basis of our data alone; (2) special efforts to procure the best materials available prior to the period of overseas study; (3) the opportunity for language study might be changed or upgraded in various ways tending to reduce the degree of difficulty; (4) a. change of role might be indicated in some cases, especially in giving a heavier assignment to those with potential in excess of difficulty; (5) a change of community might be warranted in some instances in order to give the missionary fuller exposure to the language and culture.
If our experience with this method of evaluation continues to be favorable, we think that it might be wise to develop it along the following lines.
First of all, we are now in the process of developing national linguistic profiles giving difficulty ratings of all languages considered critical in the church and its mission of the world. This represents a considerable undertaking and expenditure of time and energy. However, we are pressing on with this and making various contacts to determine the feasibility and ways and means of certifying measurements.
Second, we are considering the development of a list of countries with a difficulty-rating for each in which a number of factors stemming primarily from multilingualism axe factored out and evaluated. We are also anxious to isolate any of the significant variables in missionary allocation which may have been overlooked so far.
It is our hope that this model will provide a useful, if somewhat tentative; analysis for missionary and sponsor. We encourage those who have special interests and/or experiences in these areas to share their reactions to these ideas.
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