Archive for June, 2014

Language Learning and the Task of Missions

When I started this blog, I warned that it would be both a platform to share our journey in Narnia as well as write on issues pertaining to theology, missions, and international development. I have been feeling the knack to take a swing at some thoughts on language learning as it pertains to the missionary task. Since this is what we have been giving our lives fully to over the last year or so (and part time for a couple years prior to that) I feel like it is fresh on my mind and maybe worth a read. Maybe not, but we’ll see where this goes.

Starting with the Basics

The goal for every cross-cultural worker whether they are doing health care work, church planting, Bible translation, media ministry, , or anything in between is to take the Gospel where it has never been before and see lives and communities transformed by Jesus. (Mat. 28:18-20, Rms. 15:20). The very essence of being an apostle/missionary necessitates crossing a cultural barrier and primarily focusing on where the church is not. This is not to say that many of the activities that international workers find themselves doing are not important to the missionary task. But orphanage work, teaching in Bible schools, pastoring international churches, media support ministries and the like did not drive the missionary movement nor get us to the place we are today. Men and women for centuries now have realized that communities and groups of people are living in situations where they have absolutely no access to the Gospel and so they get to them. They bring the realities of the Kingdom to a certain place. All the other things that happen (schools, training centers, media creation, rehabilitation drug places) are a result of the Gospel being taken to the unreached.

I’m sure we could fight over my narrow definition of missions or where it starts but I believe this is biblically what an apostle has been sent to do. Now, by virtue of where the missionary goes he is often put into a situation where he needs to learn another language to be able to communicate to the very people he or she serves. Without the ability to communicate you have few relationships, you never really “live” in your new society, and most importantly you are never able to teach and demonstrate the very Kingdom God has called you to announce.

Entering Into Your New Culture After Rallying Supporters Around You

So many of you know the drill. God speaks to people about taking His message to the ends of the earth. Sometimes He calls to a very specific context, sometimes to a people group, sometimes where the need is greatest. In the end, the mission agency and missionary agree to commit, often times, a big chunk of their lives to a particular context and people group.

The next phase is either to find a job in the country where they will serve or do a lot of fundraising so they will be able to sustain themselves and do ministry over a long period of time. This can be a rather short process; at times, it can be quite long. I have heard of folks getting to the field in a matter of weeks and I have seen others raise funds for 3-4 years before arriving to the place where God has called them. For many, the calling was something God burned in their heart many years prior and on into their 30s or 40s they finally are commissioned and sent out.

By this time, hundreds of people know about the calling on the new missionary’s life. They are sending out newsletters, have met with groups of people, often have spoken in dozens of churches – their plan is well known by many. During this fundraising process, many newly appointed workers are telling supporters that their first year or two will be spent in language learning. Sometimes if probed they give details but more often than not the two words “learning language” is the full descript of the next 2 years of their lives as they come on the field.

Agencies and teams have very different approaches to how a person should or shouldn’t learn language. But often times, at least in my experience, I have seen little to know clarity of expectation for the new missionary as they go about learning language. They often land in their new country and are taken care of by other team members who speak their same language and start forming bonds with expats. The story is so typical. A couple moves from America, they begin attending an international church, they hang out with other missionaries and team members as they socialize, and then they start going to language classes 2 or 3 hours a day 5 days a week. They are bonding deeply with people from their same culture, learn to do everything in a new country from foreigners, and naturally want to be with this group of people all the time. This leaves very, very little chance of bonding with the new culture and really no chance of learning the language. 8 hours of class time pales in comparison to the thousands of hours you will get if you are able to fully enter into your new society instead of some missionary, English-speaking sub-culture.

Learning to Say “No” to Teammates and Ex-pats

Thomas and Elizabeth Brewster wrote several years back on Bonding and the Missionary Task where they compared the new missionary’s first weeks in a new country to a mother breast-feeding her baby. Without that essential time of bonding, they argue that a missionary will never fully bond with the new culture. Beyond learning to communicate, the new international workers are robbed of cultural understanding, how to take local transport in the same way as their neighbors, how to shop in a similar fashion as locals, etc. Everything has been filtered through the lens of foreigners and several months into the game it leaves the new missionary throwing their hands up in the air wondering why they have not bonded or have progressed farther in language. Language learning without bonding with a new culture is almost impossible when understood in view of bringing Kingdom transformation modeled after the incarnational life of Jesus (Jn. 1, Phil. 2).

So, those early days must be spent away from expats and foreigners if we really want to maximize our adjustment and progress in language. Brewster challenges newcomers to live in smaller villages away from the foreigner community and commit to several weeks, even months, before coming up for air. Whether that happens in the village or the city isn’t the issue really. It is a matter of putting your petal to the metal and driving hard, forming new relationships, struggling together, and coming out on the other side as a communicator in your new culture.

I’m not a linguist and I probably can’t make too many comments on methods, learning styles, or techniques. I will just comment briefly and say that the language learner must find a strategy that maximizes their learning-style and pulls them very far along in the language process. It is important for the international worker to know before coming to their new context how they best learn language and to have already thought of a strategy to see that happen. They need to commit to that strategy and when they find it going towards a dead end, they need to turn around and start driving again. Being stuck is no excuse for switching to an English-based ministry, pastoring an international church, or working with a people group other than the one God called you to. If a person just can’t learn a new language, no matter how hard they try, than obviously they need to look at other options. But I would suggest that if you have been called to serve in a country where English is rarely spoken, then you need to commit to the national language. If you can’t learn, maybe a person should explore options of serving in an English-speaking country or context rather than waste missions money, roaming around, pretending to do ministry in a half-ass manner because they can’t communicate. Language is part and parcel with the task at hand.

Personal Reflections

I was sitting in a room full of Narnian speakers a few years back in the US when I had this overwhelming feeling of misunderstanding. I knew that no one in the room worshipped the One True God and all were polytheist. My heart sank as I realized I couldn’t communicate and enjoy friendship on a deep level with my friends, nor could I tell them the most beautiful news in the universe. This came after 2 or so years of working in a cross-cultural environment in the US where several languages were being spoken. At this time, Janessa and I were focusing mostly on the narnians in our neighborhood. To that point, I had learned a few hundred vocabulary of Narnian and could say some basic greetings but that day was as if a stake was wedged in the ground. It marked me and from that day forward I made a very deliberate effort to try to learn Narnian while in the US.

Janessa and I met with a private tutor for 14 months, 2 days a week studying in 2 hour sessions. We were spending 20 hours or so a week in the Narnian community so a lot of hours were being given to this. We both were working jobs other than ministry/mission related work at that point and the immersion experience in the US is extremely difficult. But the stake was driven in the ground and we plowed forward. Over those 14 months we learned to communicate in an elementary way and our relationships deepened. In the midst of that, God called us to Narnia for the long-term to which we responded to promptly. In September of last year we moved to Narnia in response to that call.

Since moving to Narnia, we have tried hard to cut ourselves off from the expat community and international church scene. It has been lonely at times but we’ve seen ourselves progress very far in the language to where we now operate in Narnian for most of the day. Our attitude went from counting hours, class time and vocabulary words, to where we now interact all the time (still taking classes) in Narnian but have put the clock away. We don’t count and try to assess things all the time. We have entered into Narnian society to the best of our ability. It has certainly been lonely at times, especially in the early days when we were terrible communicators. But it is this grind of learning language that will allow us to thrive in this country over the long haul.

Lately, a few people (even veteran international workers) have singled me out and asked about our strategy and what we’ve done. The best I can come up with is to fully enter into your new society. Run from creating a sub-culture and cling tightly to the Narnian friends you make along the way.

We have to remember that the God who called us to this place is faithful. He wants His Gospel and glory to be seen far more than we do. But that Gospel and glory cannot be seen unless the Kingdom message is communicated and understood. Just because we learned how to buy fruit at the fruit stand or can take a taxi to our favorite restaurant means very, very little in the big scheme of things. The heart and aim is for people who have never heard this beautiful Kingdom news to hear, understand and see their entire community transformed.

We are not great language learners or linguist. But we still remember the feeling we both had in our friend’s living room back in the US and how, without language, we won’t be able to share life together in this age or the age to come. We’re hopeful that some of our mistakes and accomplishments along the way can inform and inspire those who come after us

7 How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!” – Isa. 52

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The Baby Story

Well our boy is almost 2 days old! He arrived a couple weeks early and he and Janessa are doing fantastic. I just wanted to write a quick note here filling people in on the delivery and quick process over here.

Janessa went in for a routine check-up and I stayed back for language class. I finished up class a little after 3:30pm and I got a text from Janessa saying she was bored and had been waiting forever at this check-up. This is normal Ty-Janessa text sort of stuff – things take awhile, we get bored, whatever. Our house helper and good friend was here finishing up for the day and we were having an interesting conversation when Janessa called my mobile. She was in tears and told me she had already been admitted to the hospital, had already dilated 5 centimeters, and was upset because no one was with her and she had no supplies, clothes, etc.

I hung up the phone and tried to find someone to run me to the hospital and round up a few people to help out. The original plan was for our team members from the NW of the country to fly down in a week or so and be with us for the delivery. So I called an American friend who has been very helpful the last several weeks (a missionary friend) and she hurried over to our place while I tried to have our house helper Gita back all that she could. In the meantime the load on my phone rang out so I had to run to the corner store to buy more recharge cards to load my phone and call our teammates in the NW. When I got back they had already been phoned about everything and moments later Gita and I were out the door to meet my American friend at the main intersection.

It was after 5pm when I got the call from Janessa and was around 5:50pm by the time I actually got to her room. I had to sign some documents and get a couple things approved and by this time the nurses had already broken her water and she was in labor. So Gita, our American missionary friend Tonya (a made up name), our Narnian friend who we met in the States, Devika (another fake name), and I were all there. Within half an hour or so Janessa was screaming pretty loud as the contractions became more and more painful.

Most of our interactions with staff were in the Narnaian language as English was a struggle for some of them. As interacted about most of this with Gita and Devika I was operating in Narnian. It is so interesting to see all this happening and in the process be entering fully into the life of the country God called us to serve. That is sort of a side note, but it was exhilarating to experience though it was difficult.

Nice sweet Janessa was pretty much going off on all the doctors as the pain came and went, sometimes understanding what was happening. Sometimes, not so much. She took no pain medication the entire time and screamed away. J She’d yell at a nurse or doctor telling them they are trying to hurt her. Then, when the pain would go away, she’d sweetly apologize to them. Typical Janessa isn’t it? So by 7:30 or 7:45pm she was already moved into the delivery room. She pushed 2, maybe 3, times and the boy was out! At one point Janessa was trying to figure out who her doctor was because her original doctor was not there at that time. She says in Narnian “What is your name?” But the “your name” portion of the sentence was a loud screech as the pain was so intense. That was a bit humorous and I smirked when that happened. Another nice moment was right after the head had come out. . . Tonya says “Oh, here is the head!” Janessa says, “You can already see the head?? (in total surprise). Tonya: “Yep!” Then Janessa says, “What the hell??” Oh goodness, it was hilarious. Not very many moments later the baby was being cleaned off and dress while Janessa was being stitched up.

So seriously, by 8:30pm it was all done and most of the folks with us were able to go home and get some sleep. Devika stayed the night with Janessa and I (and the new addition). The doctors, nurses, and all involved were extremely kind, helpful, and professional. We could have not asked for better people serving us and are quite thankful that we had the delivery here in Narnia. What a wonderful gift to Have Narnians serving us in this way and what a blessing to have our little boy born in this wonderful country.

So within 24 hours we were home, the baby is eating, and we’re all adjusting to this new life.

We are so so thankful to the God of the universe for keeping Janessa and the baby healthy and braining such a blessing into our lives. Countless people were praying and so many helped out Wednesday night. We had been married 14 years and 1 month at the time of the birth. That is a very long time to wait but the timing of God is perfect. We are excited to raise this little guy into being a disciple of Jesus and can’t wait to bring him to the village in a few months as we start a new life together.

Again thanks for praying and hope you enjoyed the journey with us so far. . .