When I was growing up I was a pretty shy kid. I remember in early high school waiting for the minutes of the school day to tick away in hopes that I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone. I’m not sure where this anxiety or anti-socialism came from but it was pretty real. Once I left the classroom and headed for the track and the roads as a runner however, I became a pretty cocky, talkative guy. So those two worlds were as weird for me as I was trying to figure out life.

Through the years, I think I have battled social pressure to say the right thing at the right time. Can I tell a funny joke, a story, say something sarcastic? What if what I say is stupid and everyone else looks at me funny or has no response whatsoever? I think this is one of the reasons why students in high school and college don’t ask enough questions. There is a lot of peer pressure and image faking out that we do. I still feel this from time to time if I’m in the room with folks from my own culture where the social rules are generally the same. Sometimes we grow out of it and become comfortable in our own skin. Sometimes we don’t.

And then I made the choice to live cross-culturally. . .

There are definitely expectations, rules, and norms but often the missionary or cross-cultural worker is pretty slow to figure these things out. Compound that with an inability to understand sarcasm in a language or be the guy that says the most clever thing. In the end what do you have? Simple communication. That’s it. People talking to one another, trying to be friendly, and often times going deep into a person’s heart language and connecting at a deep level.

As we learn Narnian, conversations become deeper and deeper all the time. Last week I was able to tell the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to a group of friends. I talked to a tutor this week about the lifestyles of my grandparents and the family drama that they had. Daily I talk to Harry (a made up name), the corner shop owner I keep referring to, about international news. Korea boat sinkings, crazy people murdering one another, world geography . . . and then today the honor killing that recently took place by a woman’s family in Pakistan. There is never a moment for either of us where we are thinking, “Hmmm. . . I wonder if I should or should not talk about this. Will my friend think I’m strange?” We simply don’t have the cultural depth to process all that crap on the fly. So we communicate. We hang out with each other, relax, and become friends.

Learning another language is far more than understanding grammar constructions, putting a sentence together, or becoming confident in listening to native speakers talk. Reading, listening, speaking, understanding – yes, all these things happen but that isn’t the sum of learning a different language. You basically strip down to nothing and enter a new culture as a little baby. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day that moved to a country in Eurasia recently. He said he went out to the road to buy something one time when he first arrived and took all the money out of his pockets. He had no idea how much the purchase should be, how much money he had in his hands – he knew nothing really. He was at the mercy of the seller. And, so many situations are like this as you enter into a brand new culture. Tom and Elizabeth Brewster wrote a book titled Bonding and the Missionary Task 30 years ago that compares the new language learner as an infant that is in desperate need of bonding with their mother. If that bonding process doesn’t take place, they will never grow and develop into maturity.

I’m not sure where I am in the whole language learning process. We were around the Narnian language for 5 years in the US as we worked with refugees who were brand new to the country and spoke this language on a continual basis. Starting in February of 2012, after many years of hearing the language and having a several hundred vocabulary word base, we started meeting with a tutor using the Growing Participation Approach as advocated by Greg Thompson. Our language tutor/nurturer was one of our best friends and we met with her 2 hours a day twice a week and it really pulled us along. Until we moved to Narnia, we had not realized what kind of foundation this had given us. Further, the 5 years of working with the group of people we currently live with helped to throw away all the social anxiety that we may have felt initially as we moved.

In October, we began meeting with separate tutors 5 days a week 3 hours a day and have been doing that consistently ever since. The tutors began polishing our very terrible sentences and I (won’t speak for Janessa here) am at the place where I can talk about anything to anyone. I guess it is a certain level of fluency. We made a very strong decision not to get involved in an international English-speaking church or to hang out with expats and English speakers much. We found a community with few to no expats and put our hand to the plow. Other than chatting with each other and family on Skype, we operate inNarnian. It has been very, very lonely at times but we’re glad we are where we are. Still so, so long to go. I still struggle a lot with understanding native to native speech, but on the fly I can understand and communicate most things. I still feel very rigid and like I’m starting an old pick-up sometimes when I speak and I hope that eventually goes away. But I have never had this social pressure in Narnaian to be clever, say something amusing, or try to fake people out. I’m just too stupid to do so at this point. And that baby-like mindset and necessity of bonding has stripped all that away.

I share all that just to give a bit of an update on language, but also to muse over the challenge of being authentic as we communicate with folks in our own culture. We simply are people. Just people. And we want to get to one another don’t we? And if we’re Christ-followers we want to communicate the best news on the planet that Jesus is alive and giving an invitation to follow Him. So why don’t we do that? Why don’t we just talk and listen to each other and communicate the story of Christ in our relationships?

Maybe I’m being overly simplistic. But maybe I’m not. It isn’t exactly easy to humble yourself to the point of being like a baby and babbling a load of garbage/gibberish out that makes sense to no one in your neighborhood. I know that we can’t rid ourselves of our cultural knowledge and expectations in our own culture, but I want to continue to take what I’ve learned in language development into all my relationships. We’re just people. We need each other. And we all need Jesus. Let’s talk about that with one another and learn to serve together in God’s Kingdom. At the end of the day, that is all we’re doing out here.

I constantly meditate on Christ’s example of making himself nothing, becoming the very nature of a servant and going to the cross (Philippians 2). Christ could have chosen to make an entrance in so many different ways – something powerful, something flashy, something quick. He chose a long, slow path of becoming a baby being born into a refugee family. One day I will do a PhD on bonding, the incarnation, and how all of this precedes community transformation. Learning and growing together. . . one day. J

Thanks for letting me ramble on about language. It is kind of our world at the moment and we’re thankful for God’s grace in the midst of it.

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