by E. Thomas Brewster and Elizabeth S. Brewster
Learning how to learn a language is one of the major components of the Agape intensive training that every new member attends before going to the field.
"I’ve never been so fulfilled in all my life."
These words from a missionary language-learner? Yes, a learner with multiplied ministry opportunities.
He was one of eleven people with the Agape Movement who were allotted three months for language learning in Cochabamba, Bolivia. (After this initial language focus, they were prepared to continue learning Spanish while carrying out their vocational and ministry assignments -some were to teach in a school for handicapped children in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and the others were to serve as medical personnel for a clinic in Cali, Colombia). As language-learning consultants we were asked to accompany them for these three months.
The Agape Movement of Campus Crusade sends vocationally and spiritually trained people who desire to share Christ through their skills. Their appointments are usually for two years of service. This allows little, if any, time for language school, yet in many countries Agape members need to be able to use another language. Agape has responded to this need by teaching members how to learn a language.
Learning how to learn a language is one of the major components of the Agape intensive training that every new member attends before going to the field. In the training the members study phonetics and learn to use a methodology called a "daily learning cycle." The daily learning cycle consists of four parts: (1) prepare the new language material for the day; (2) practice it with a helper and tape recorder to gain fluency and accuracy; (3) spend time with as many people as possible to communicate the new language material; (4) evaluate by wrapping up the day’s activities, organizing material, and planning for the next day’s learning cycle. Agape trainees refine their language learning skills during two weeks of involvement in Tijuana, Mexico.
There has been a very positive acceptance o£ this approach to language-learners. These opportunities were what prompted him to develop relationships with people and become involved in the new community right from the outset. The learner who was mentioned above commented that in North America much of our life style causes us to be so busy that we really don’t have time for people. But, as a practicing language-learner, his major responsibility was to spend time talking and sharing with people. He and the others of the team found this to be very rewarding.
A result of this involvement with people in the community was that ministry opportunities developed – even for these new language learners. These opportunities were what prompted him to tell us, "I have never been so fulfilled in all my life."
(One career missionary observing this approach to languagelearning remarked, "My job is evangelism and church planting, yet each of these learners spends more time involved with people during any given day than I do in a week." He observed that he was always "busy," yet to accomplish his ministry goals he needed to be spending more time involved with people.)
Before the team went to Cochabamba, the Lord had led them to trust him for the opportunity to live with Bolivian families. On the second day there one team member learned to say something like this: "We will be learning Spanish for about three months here in Cochabamba. We hope to locate a Bolivian family to live with. Do you know of a possible family?"
She and her husband and two little girls then began riding the city buses. She would say her "text" to everyone on a bus, then they would get off and board another one. One man responded and invited them to his home. They visited that evening with his family and the next day (the third day in Bolivia) they moved in. In less than two weeks all of us were living in Bolivian homes, eating with the families and sharing in family life. Warm bonds developed as each became a "member" o£ his adopted family. In almost all of these homes, one or more family members trusted Christ during the three months.
During the second week the team members learned to say something like: "Every day I learn to say something new and I’ll need to practice it by talking with people. May I come by and say to you the new things I learn each day?"
In this way each one developed a aommuniry of interested people for his communication time. These people welcomed his daily visit. They effected the learner to come by each day and they expected to give him correction and help as needed. Warm relationships were developed with these regular daily listeners. Each learner also made a daily habit of talking with as many new people as possible in the community.
During the fifth and sixth weeks the team members began learning to tell a story about their own personal relationship with God. This "story-telling evangelism" developed progressively. Each learner planned the total story he wanted to be able to tell in new language, and then subdivided it into manageable daily segments. In communication time he would tell as much of his story as he knew, and then he would say, "That’s all I know today; I’ll tell you more tomorrow." One girl shared her story with a young man and then asked him if he wanted to invite Christ into his life. He responded affirmatively and she found herself in the awkward position of having to say, "That’s all I know today." She encouraged him to wait there while she ran home to get her husband who knew more Spanish than she. He came and led the fellow to Christ.
In fact, over 30 people came to know Christ as a result of the involvement ministry that these new language-learners were able to develop during those three months. Many of these were either members o£ the families with whom we were living, or were on a route of regular listeners. In both cases, as a result of the personal relationships that they had developed, they were able to follow up and disciple the new believers. Little wonder that this was a fulfilling experience for these new language learners.
The learning cycle methodology used by Agape members has been developed over recent years at the missionary orientation program of the Toronto Institute of Linguistics. The methodology was first described in the book, Becoming Bilingual, by Donald N. Larson and William A. Smalley (William Carey Library, 1972), and more recently it has been detailed in our book, Language Acquisition Made Practical (1976).1 Missionary candidates can receive training in how to learn a language at the Toronto Institute of Linguistics which is held each June. (The Summer Institute of Linguistics and Missionary Internship also offer courses using this methodology.)
In our own language and culture acquisition courses (at the School of World Mission of Fuller Seminary) students have the responsibility of locating one or more speakers of the language of their interest. The Los Angeles area is blessed with a large number of ethnic communities. In a recent course with approximately 40 students, 15 different languages were being learned by members of the class – Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Samoan, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Thai, and Tiv. The students learn how to learn in the classroom and they put it into practice by being involved in these language communities.
The missionary language learner who is following the learning cycle as described in our book can successfully tackle any of the world’s 5,000 languages. He does this by capitalizing on the best resource for language-learning: the native speakers themselves. He must be motivated to learn and be disciplined in consistently implementing each part of the learning cycle – language learning and ministry benefits come only as the learner consistently puts the methodology into practice. Although he does not need recourse to the classroom or to grammars or other books about the language, he can use these to his best advantage.
This article suggests an alternative approach to missionary language-learning – a strategy that emphasizes knowing how to learn, and also emphasizes being consistently involved in communication with people right from the beginning. Why is it important for the learner to know how to learn? Too often the new missionary completes language study and then his language skills settle on a plateau or even retrogress. The learner who knows how to learn can continue learning even after formal language study is over (and can also tackle a new language if necessary).
The Agape team members took up their vocational responsibilities at the end of their third month in Latin America. All of these responsibilities had to be carried out in Spanish. Since they knew how to learn, they have been able to continue developing their Spanish proficiency while fulfilling their vocational and ministry responsibilities.
Why be involved? Typically, the language student learns grammar rules and vocabulary lists rather than learning to communicate with people. Even if the school or program is a good one, the student is almost always isolated from ministry and communication opportunities while studying. The new missionary’s year of language study often robs him of the enthusiasm, excitement and zeal for God that he first brought to the field. His vision and expectation are no longer the same as when God placed his call on his life.
The Agape team’s experience in Bolivia demonstrated the value of new language-learners being independently involved with people in the community. Their skill in using Spanish progressed as they responded daily to their communication needs. And, even more significant, as they enjoyed spending informal communication time with people they found that involvement also resulted in many ministry opportunities. Even the first few months of language-learning can be very fulfilling for the person who knows how to learn and who is involved with people.
1. Language Acquisition Made Practical, which is becoming known by its acronym LAMP – is designed as a field methods book for language-learners. It is being widely used even by missionaries who have not been through a formal training or language orientation program. The publisher is Lingua House, 915 W. Jackson, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80907. A demonstration tape is also available A LAMP with tape is X613.00, postpaid.
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