by John Mustol
The ultimate purpose of cross-cultural missions is to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people in a culturally appropriate and contextually acceptable way.
My wife, Elizabeth, our two small children, and I served as medical missionaries in an African country from 1984 to 1993. I, a physician, and my wife, a nurse, worked with a team of missionaries in a small rural hospital. The public language or “external language” was French, which was superimposed on a complex local “heart” language of the people among whom we were working. Our mission agency sent us to Canada where we learned French, then to Belgium for six months of tropical medicine school. After that, we went on to our post. At the end of our nine years of work, although we were both fairly fluent in French, neither of us had more than a rudimentary knowledge of the “heart” language of the people, and were effectively unable to function in it, let alone communicate the gospel or discuss deeper spiritual issues. Our term of service was characterized by multiple attempts and failures to learn the local language. There were a number of reasons for this. In my own case I can identify the following factors as being significant:
1. Arrogance and cultural presuppositions.
2. Fatigue. After learning French, I was tired of language study. At the beginning of our term, when I should have focused on language, I simply found it very difficult to apply myself to the task.
3. I plunged too quickly into the medical work. As many missionaries know, medical work can be demanding; but, in my case, a Western, materialistic, rationalistic mindset and the tyranny of the urgent tended to relegate language study to a lower priority.
4. I tended to fall back on using an interpreter to get along with French.
5. I had an academic mindset and was ill-equipped to approach an unwritten language among a people who knew nothing of grammar—verb conjugations, noun cases and the like.
6. There was an ethos within the missionary team which was critical of its host culture and, thus, tended to devalue language learning.
7. Lack of preparation and leadership by mission leaders. My language failure was my own, but I think I might have done better had wiser and more experienced leaders stepped forward, confronted me with certain truths and held me accountable. My arrogant attitude and individualism would have made this difficult; nevertheless, someone should have had the courage to do it. Many other missionaries I worked with and spoke to had similar problems and were learning local languages very slowly if at all.
Now, belatedly, after several years of reflection, I have recently researched this issue of language learning in a multilingual context. Many excellent people have written extensively on the subject of missionary language learning, and I do not presume to make any contribution there. But I have found very little published on the subject of how to approach a multilingual context such as we faced in our mission endeavor. Such multilingual contexts are not uncommon. Moreover, I found no published data revealing what was actually going on in missionary language learning around the world. Of the approaches discussed below, who is using what approach? How are these various approaches working? What works and what doesn’t? How are national pastors and church leaders handling this issue?
The ultimate purpose of cross-cultural missions is to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people in a culturally appropriate and contextually acceptable way. Obviously learning the people’s heart language is a key element in this enterprise (Larson, 77). In our location, as in many areas of the world, there are “multiple language” or multilingual contexts consisting of the language(s) of the local people group(s), what are called “heart” or “internal” languages, plus an “external language” (“trade language” or “language of wider communication”) (Brewster 2002). This “external language” functions as a public language used on documents, in business and with the government, and is superimposed on or functions alongside the local language(s) of the people group(s) with whom the missionary works (Smalley 1994, 482). Sometimes there may be more than one of these “external languages” used.
There were two languages in the country where we worked, but in some areas of the world there are three or more languages spoken in a given locality and context (McKinney 1990, 282). In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, French is the external language, but there are over 250 local languages spoken by the various people groups in the country (Deer 1975, 87). As was the case with us, missionaries being sent to these multilingual contexts have frequently been required to learn the external language first, often in a European or Western country, before going to their place of ministry to begin study of the local language and culture. Such has been the policy for many mission agencies. Some have argued that this is an inversion of priorities. This is a complex issue, but I think it is a legitimate question to ask. Which language takes priority?
There is a suggestion in the literature that language learning by missionaries in all contexts may not be as good as we think. In 1975, Donald Deer discussed the state of language learning among missionaries in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and observed that few of the missionaries had learned even one of the Zairian languages (1975, 93). In 1982 the Brewsters found that, “maybe five percent, at most ten percent, of all Protestant missionaries in Hong Kong are able to minister in Cantonese” (1982, 160). Of course, they all spoke English. McKinney, in 1990 found in her study among the Bajju of northern Nigeria, Hausa, the external language was used preferentially in churches, instead of Jju, the local language. As a result a significant portion (twenty-one percent) of Bajju Christians lacked knowledge of Jesus (McKinney 1990, 281). In 1994, Smalley decried the lack of mission efforts in language learning, especially the heart languages of the people groups (1994, 487). Moreover, there are little if any published data on missionaries’ performance in learning languages. These observations suggest language learning may be more of a problem than is generally realized, and the effectiveness of missionaries may be severely compromised as a result.
Language learning is difficult for all but the most gifted (Brewster and Brewster 1980, 203). A number of factors affect language learning by missionaries. These are well treated in the literature and include: cultural issues and understandings (or misunderstandings); the personality, spiritual development and abilities of the missionary; “language learning fatigue,” as occurred in our case; the mission agency, its policies and procedures; the missionaries’ specific job; family situation; urgency of needs; stress; and pastoral care. These factors obviously should be considered in addressing a multiple language context.
Alternative Approaches to Language Learning in Multilingual Contexts
There are many ways to address a multilingual context depending on the local situation, the missionary’s job description, the philosophy of the mission agency, the personality of the individual missionary and many other things. I list a few general approaches here in which there are many variations. This list is not meant to be complete. The idea is not to say this is the only way to do it, but to stimulate reflection and dialogue on this very important and apparently neglected issue.
1. Learn the external language first followed by the local heart language. This is the traditional approach in which the missionary learns the external language either in a European country or in the target country, but removed from his/her people group. It seems to me that if this approach is taken, every effort must be made to learn the external language in the target country and not in a European country. This at least removes some of the liabilities of this method, such as having to adjust to another culture.
2. Learn the local heart language first, then the external language. There are many variations of this, but again, the external language should be learned in the target country if possible.
3. Learn the local heart language and not learn the external language. One variation of this in a team context is to designate certain members of the team to learn the external language, handle relations with the authorities, and so forth. This has the disadvantage of potentially generating interpersonal difficulties among missionaries, and it may be difficult for the missionary who does not know the external language to obtain visas and take care of other business with the authorities.
4. Learn the external language first, but closely supervise the missionary in learning and studying the local heart language and culture. This has the disadvantage of placing a greater burden on the missionary managers. It seems to me that it would be important to build an ethos within the mission agency that learning heart languages is of great importance. Proper supervision and accountability of the missionary would be crucial in all approaches, but especially in this one. David Oltrogge remarked, “Anything that would circumvent the learning of the local language should be jettisoned” (2002).
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES
From Smalley (1994, 484), McKinney (280) and Brewster a list of advantages and disadvantages of learning the external language first can be produced. These are summarized below.
Learning the external language first:
1. The missionary can communicate with a broader range of people.
2. The external language is often used in government.
3. The missionary may more easily locate language helpers who know both the heart language and the external language.
4. This may provide access to language learning materials for the heart language.
1. It takes months to move beyond mere survival in any language. If one has learned the external language, then moves directly into another language without frequent opportunities to use the external language, that hard earned fluency in the external language may be lost.
2. It is far too easy to establish a pattern of talking to people in the external language and avoid switching to the heart language when that is more difficult.
3. One who has spent months or years studying the external language may be so tired of the process that they have little energy or enthusiasm to embark on another language right away.1
4. The mission agency often seems to treat the external language as the “real language” of the country (especially if it is a European, widely known language), allowing a year or more for learning it, but then allowing only weeks or a few months to learn the heart language.
5. The missionary may develop an academic approach which may not be appropriate for an unwritten indigenous tongue.
6. An outsider mentality may develop.
7. If the missionary learns the external language in Europe or some country other than the target country, he/she is required to learn and adapt to yet another culture in which he/she will not be working.
8. Segments of the population who are monolingual may be neglected, in evangelism, teaching and worship.
Smalley lists some advantages of learning the local heart language first (1994, 485-7):
- The missionary may develop dependence on locals, which promotes relationships and interdependence.
- The missionary may more readily develop a student mentality, respecting the local culture leading to a deeper sense of humility. That is to say, they may more readily respect and submit to learning from the host people.
- The missionary is being asked first and foremost to study and learn that which is most important.
From the above it seems that, in most contexts, learning the local heart language before learning the external language is the best approach. Since the goal ought to be to serve, love and respect the target people group to the utmost and to communicate the gospel in a culturally appropriate and contextually acceptable way, it seems that learning their heart language and culture should take priority. As Smalley says, “To speak a local language… is to say, ‘I want to talk to you where you live, the way you are, where your feelings are. I want to be allowed into your life’” (1994, 484). I might add that learning their language is an enormous act of honor and respect to the people and their culture. Arguably, learning the local heart language is the single greatest thing missionaries can do to gain credibility and find their way into the hearts of the people. On the other hand, I recognize that every context is different, and although the vision of bringing the gospel to the people in their heart language in a culturally appropriate way should be the principal goal, some situations may require organizing language learning differently in order to achieve that goal. I, who failed in language learning, do not presume to dictate answers to this issue. There are many who are much more skilled and knowledgeable than I who can do that. But, so that others might not fail as I did, may I submit an appeal for appropriate screening; preparation and training of missionaries in language and culture learning; the use of the best linguistic knowledge and techniques; and adequate ongoing leadership, supervision and accountability of the missionary in the field. If I had it to do over again, I would seek to ignore the external language and spend at least the first two years with my host people group studying language and culture, shedding my presuppositions, listening, observing, praying, and listening some more. In spite of Western commitment to values of individualism and personal autonomy, does not the importance of this enterprise suggest that we approach it with some urgency and discipline?
In research for this article, I found no published data revealing what was actually going on in missionary language learning around the world. Of approaches like those discussed above, who is using what approach? How are these various approaches working? How are national pastors and church leaders handling this issue? Do women do better than men or vice versa? How do married people with children do compared to singles, and what are some practical helps for them? How does language learning failure affect missionary attrition?2 Where are some statistics? It seems to me that this issue of language learning is immensely important, but perhaps mission agencies are not giving it the attention it deserves. Was my language failure rare or common? If so, how common? Would it not be good to gather some data on this and publish it, so the issue is out in the open and can be discussed? It may be that missionaries are actually doing well, and mission agencies know how their workers are performing in language learning. My experience and the comments above by Deer, the Brewsters, McKinney and Smalley suggest otherwise. In any case, I think this kind of dialogue may uncover strengths and weaknesses in missionary language learning practices and provide valuable information to mission leaders and managers in setting policies, training and supervising their workers. I would like to end with a fitting statement from William Smalley. He observes that the master himself, who worked and taught in a multilingual context, did not learn the external language first:
Jesus himself grew up speaking Aramaic, which ranked below Hebrew, Greek and Latin in his day. We understand he also knew Hebrew, because he read it aloud in the synagogue. Quite likely he knew Greek. Unlike his modern English-speaking missionary followers, therefore, Jesus worked up from the bottom of the language hierarchy, not down from the top. As missionaries we cannot be incarnated as native speakers of languages all over the world, but our inculturation can start by learning some of them. (Smalley 1994, 488)
In God’s plan of the incarnation, Jesus learned the heart language of the people first. By God’s grace, may we all be imitators of Christ and, using the best methods possible, seek to follow in his footsteps.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank David P. Rising and Peter Larson for their wonderful help in preparing this paper.
1. In personal communication, Greg Holden spoke of a “fatigue factor.” Each person has a certain amount of language learning energy. This may be expended on the external language to the detriment of learning the heart language.
2. In Taylor (1997) language learning was far down a list of causes of missionary attrition. “Poor cultural adaptation” was higher, but it is not clear what role language plays in this. Moreover, the categories were somewhat vague and the study’s methodology allowed for some questioning of the data. It would have been wonderful indeed if they had included numbers about who had learned the heart language and/or the external language, when they had learned it, and how this affected their ministry. It remains unclear what role language issues play in missionary attrition.
Brewster, E. Thomas, and Elizabeth A. Brewster. 1976. Language Acquisition Made Practical: Field Methods for Langauge Learners. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Lingua House.
_____. 1980. “Language Learning Midwifery.” Missiology: An International Review 8:2 (April): 203-209.
_____. 1982. Bonding and the Missionary Task: Establishing a Sense of Belonging. Pasadena, Calif.: Lingua House.
_____. 1982. “Language Learning Is Communication—Is Ministry!” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 6:4 (October): 160-64.
Brewster, Tom and Betty Sue Brewster, eds. 1986. Community is My Language Classroom! Pasadena, Calif.: Lingua House Ministries.
Deer, Donald S. 1975. “The Missionary Language Learning Problem.” Missiology: An International Review 3:1 (January): 87-102.
Larson, Donald N. 1977. “Missionary Preparation: Confrontng the Presupposi-tional Barriers.” Missiology: An International Review 5:1 (January).
McKinney, Carol V. 1990. “Which Language: Trade or Minority?” Missiology: An International Review 18:3 (July): 279-90.
Oltrogge, David. 2002. Personal Communication. Summer Institute of Lingusitics. April 14. .
Smalley, William A. 1994. “Missionary Language Learning in a World Hierarchy of Languages.” Missiology: An International Review 22:4 (October): 481-88.
———, ed. 1984. Readings in Missionary Anthropology II: Enlarged Edition. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Taylor, William D., ed. 1997. Too Valuable Too Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition. Pasadena: William Carey Library.
John Mustol, M.D., is a graduate of Wake Forest University School of Medicine. He is currently retired from medicine and attending Bethel Theological Seminary, San Diego, Calif. He and his wife Elizabeth have two sons.
STEPS TO MORE EFFECTIVE MISSIONARY LANGUAGE AND CULTURE LEARNING
Having worked for thirty-three years with a wide variety of missionary language learners and sending agencies, I agree with John Mustol that many missionaries are deficient in language skills and this renders them far less effective than they could be. Many agencies acknowledge that large numbers of their overseas personnel do not have adequate skills in the languages in which they work. Yet these same agencies often lack the expertise they need to make much-needed changes in on-field language and culture learning.
I have found that the agencies having the greatest success in this area have wrestled seriously with a variety of questions such as these: What policies and procedures are needed to help missionaries learn languages and cultures well enough to minister effectively? What type of prefield preparation promotes more efficient, more effective language and culture learning? What types of on-field learning programs work well for different types of learners? How can on-field language coaches help new and continuing learners? How can we hold learners accountable and measure progress? How can we determine when a missionary is ready to engage in full-time ministry? What can we do to ensure that missionaries stay motivated for lifelong learning? What should we require for short-termers, older learners, mothers with young children and those with learning disabilities?
What have we learned from agencies that are doing it right? Let me note a few of the most significant results:
1. They value high levels of competence in the language and culture. The administrators have come to see that their job is to do everything they can to ensure that their missionaries develop the level of competence they need to function in a new culture and minister effectively. Consequently, new personnel don’t question the language learning requirements.
2. They establish effective policies. Their well-designed and clearly stated policies contribute significantly to raising the level of language and culture proficiency of on-field missionaries. They avoid weak, inconsistent and frequently changing policies because they know these contribute to lack of motivation and low levels of language ability, ultimately resulting in personnel unable to handle (well) their full range of responsibilities.
3. They require a prefield second language acquisition course for all career missionaries who need to learn a new language and culture. They know that prefield preparation in language acquisition skills and intercultural communication can make a significant difference in how quickly and how well a newcomer can learn the language and culture. They know that in the long run when well-prepared missionaries are sent out they save both time and money.
4. They try to make realistic field assignments based on a range of learner variables. They gather a large amount of initial information about each prefield candidate: age, aptitude, past language and culture learning experiences (good and bad), motivation and willingness to learn one or more new languages, work habits, learning style. Those less likely to be competent learners are assigned to fields or ministries that demand less proficiency.
5. They require differing degrees of proficiency depending on ministry assignment and individual factors. Realizing that missionaries involved in church planting or teaching require greater language skills than those in a support capacity, they determine the level of proficiency needed for each assignment and then adjust the language requirement to fit the assignment. Likewise, they don’t exempt whole categories of personnel from language learning (e.g., short-termers, mothers with small children, older workers, those with disabilities) but instead may adjust the required level of competence for these individuals.
6. They give learners adequate opportunity for learning. They view language and culture learning as the first stage of effective ministry, and this requires twenty-five to thirty hours per week of focus on language learning and building meaningful relationships with native speakers of their new language. They don’t shortchange learners by rushing them into their ministries before they are ready.
7. They provide someone to mentor new learners. They have found that one of the most effective means of providing encouragement, motivation, guidance and accountability is through trained on-field coaches (coordinators, facilitators) who help new learners not only to enjoy the learning process but also to achieve a higher level of proficiency than they dreamed possible.
Lonna Dickerson is the director of the Institute for Cross-Cultural Training, Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College, which sponsors Language Coach Workshops and pre-field Second Language Acquisition courses. E-mail: Lonna.J.Dickerson@wheaton.edu; Web site: www.wheaton.edu/bgc/icct/.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 74-83. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.