Audio Transcript:

Welcome to Missions on Point, the Propempo perspective on church and missions. Thanks for listening to episode 112 of Missions on Point. We are in a series on contemporary issues in missions, and this is number 11, on language learning proficiency. There are so many jokes about Americans being poor in foreign languages. A person who speaks three languages is called trilingual. A person that speaks two languages is called bilingual. A person that speaks one language is called American.

In a country that is dominantly monolingual, Americans don't seem to have an appreciation for the effort it takes to become excellent in language proficiency in a language other than their own. Most of the world doesn't have the luxury of thinking of their language in that way because in order to do business across borders of smaller countries around the world, people have to learn different languages. If a tradesman in a open market or a town market square, a bazaar or a souk or some farmer's market, wanted to make a sale or resell goods or sell their product, they had to be able to negotiate and close the sale with people of different languages.

People around the Mediterranean were famous from centuries ago of having people who would be able to speak all the major languages around the Mediterranean. They would know at least enough to be able to negotiate a deal in Italian, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Turkish, and Arabic. It's common in Western Europe for people to have at least some proficiency in English, French, Spanish, German, and perhaps Dutch and Flemish.

Now just nudge this conversation a little bit to the present day missionary situation. Missionaries are going overseas. They're particularly strategically targeting unreached people groups, which probably means they have to learn at least one trade language or one language that is European or Western in origin as part of the major language of that country. They will probably have to learn the national language of that country and then learn a dialect or tribal language of the people that they're going to. So that's at least three languages.

Next, think about what level of proficiency the missionary needs to have in order to explain the intangible truths of repentance and faith of Jesus Christ and of the gospel and eternal values in the language that they're going to. This is not just marketplace language. In order to explain the Bible and the truths of the Bible, the missionary needs to have a level of proficiency that is far above the simple tourism marketplace language level.

Let's talk about how you measure those kinds of levels. The Interagency Language Roundtable, which has to do with the Foreign Service Institute and those that measure language proficiency for professionals, have these kinds of levels. Level zero is no competence whatsoever. Level zero plus is a memorized competence. That is, specific phrases that are necessary for life and safety may be memorized. Level one is elementary competence. This is sort of like an elementary school level of understanding and comprehension.

Level two is limited working competence. Level three is professional competence. That is, the person has enough information in a specific area of their work or life to have the vocabulary, the phraseology, the idioms that are related directly to that one particular professional area. Level four is advanced professional competence, and this means that they would have competence beyond their own single focus of their profession and be able to discuss things that are in the, we'll say, cultural and social and news world of their host country.

Level five is superior professional competence, and that is someone that would feel pretty comfortable no matter what subject is brought out, and they could adapt their vocabulary and their expressions in such a way as to have a decent conversation with someone who has advanced training or education in almost any field. What that means is, they use the right kinds of vocabulary, the right style of vocabulary if that applies, and they're able to use verb tenses and more adult and higher level grammar to express themselves and to comprehend what's being said to them.

Notice as the language learner moves up the scale, they're moving from simply good listening skills to actual reading skills and then to spoken interaction, that is, conversational kinds of skills, and spoken production, meaning that they're able to make a presentation that is well understood by the native listener. And finally, writing skills in the language that is smooth and appropriate and uses both language and grammar and expression in a way that is natural to the native speaker.

Note that language learning is not primarily an academic exercise. There is a certain amount of information and structure that can be communicated in the classroom, but the missionary needs to learn it on a natural basis, which generally requires a certain level of immersion. That is, they're living among people that are only speaking that language and not deferring or escaping to an English-speaking world.

It's also not academic in the sense that it can't just be done with a presentation from the front and reading and writing at your desk. It requires a lot of audio and verbal production. That usually implies social interaction with native speakers in order to catch the different nuances of pronunciation and pace and expression. There is another internationally accepted scale that's used by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages proficiency guidelines, and it uses three letters, A, B, C, and two levels for each one.

So A1 is just a beginner, a novice. A2 is elementary. B1 is intermediate. B2 is upper intermediate or advanced. C1 is advanced or superior, and C2 is proficient or distinguished. It should be noted that while a foreign speaker such as ourselves may study hard and have some level of giftedness in foreign language, it doesn't mean that they'll ever be as proficient as a native speaker. There will probably always be slight mispronunciations or a place where they put the emphasis on the wrong syllable, or somehow their expression or the terms they use doesn't take into account the idioms of the natural language.

Most, if not all, foreign languages have contractions like we do that are shortcuts that put a couple of words together, or they have specific idioms that have some historical reference of meaning that we just don't even understand because it doesn't make sense to us in a one-for-one translation in our head. So why is this an issue in contemporary missions? It is an issue because North American supporting constituencies need to understand that the missionary must apply significant time, focus, and effort on learning the language well, of getting to that higher level of proficiency, so that they can teach and explain and proclaim the truths of the gospel in a way that are understood clearly to the recipient native listener.

Even with hard work and a significant amount of time, often, foreign speakers never quite get the language properly. I remember sitting in a church in France listening to a long-term American missionary deliver the sermon in French and feeling like it must be painful for the French listeners to hear him. He was basically reading from a manuscript that had been checked by a French speaker, but he was so murdering the pronunciation of the language, even for me, to hear it, it was a challenge,

And then you hear of other missionaries over time that never learned the language and didn't even really try to learn the language, and they're still using translators 10, 12, 15 years into their ministry. How authentic is that? It is not acceptable. Sending churches and supporters of missionaries need to understand that this is not a pragmatic numbers game. We're not just barely learning the language enough to get by and then trying to produce numbers of contacts and gospel presentations and salvation stories.

It's about being the best possible communicator of the best possible information in the world for people to understand it, and in order for them to be able to understand it, they have to get past the view that the speaker is not perfect, but the truths that they're sharing are worth listening to. So yes, it means more time and money in hiring the right kind of training for language learning or language helpers, or the system in which the missionary follows to gain proficiency in the foreign language.

It means, very likely in today's world, that the missionary is going to have to learn more than one language. So how long does that take? It often is a direct relationship to the effort and the time and focus given by the missionary to learn the language. Things that help the missionary learn better are studying language learning techniques and/or linguistics, having studied another foreign language previously, even if it's not related to their target language. Certainly, studying the trade or national language of the country they're going into so that it has some connection or relationship to the target language they're going for. There's often a lot of vocabulary common to the neighboring languages, even if they're quite different.

Efforts that the missionary makes to study the language and learn it well to a high level of proficiency make an outstanding impression on the native listener. It shows respect. Their message is actually more believable because it is expressed in the way that a native speaker would speak it. A higher level of proficiency for the missionary means that they're going to make fewer mistakes and they're going to have more confidence in expressing themself and the message they're trying to communicate. It is not too much to say that the better the missionary is able to communicate, the more understandable he or she will be, and the more effective in communicating the message they will be.

It's inappropriate for the mission agency or the sending church or the supporting constituency of the missionary to push the missionary out of language school and force a rapid language learning and, therefore, an inefficient or ineffective language learning that then handicaps the missionary in their earliest years of service on the field. It is so much better to be patient and work with them, encourage them, support them through the tough work of language learning so that when they actually are focused more on ministry than language learning, they will be so much more effective.

It's also notable to realize that no foreigner is ever finished learning the language. Every missionary of longstanding that I've talked to has said that they're always learning new things about the language, new phrases, new cultural insights, new ways that words are used in different ways than expected, that they have to learn how that's used and what's meant by it. New idioms, new historical and cultural references that they didn't get in language school, even new forms that develop over time.

The reason that language learning proficiency is in my list of contemporary issues in missions is because too often in our day, mission agencies, field leadership, and supporters tend to want the missionary to abbreviate or short circuit their language learning proficiency and just do it for some smaller set amount of time to check the box to say that they went through the language school program, rather than test them for actual proficiency and get them to the place where they can legitimately live their life in that foreign culture and language and communicate the message of the Bible in an understandable way to the target population that they're trying to serve for the sake of the gospel and of Christ.

Friends, let's pray for the language learning of these new missionaries. Let's give them space to do it. Let's encourage them to stick with it even though it is hard and sometimes painful to follow through and study it for a year, a year and a half, two years, whatever it takes for them to get enough proficiency to actually communicate the gospel in a way that is effective. That's their reason for being there. Thanks for joining us today on Missions on Point, the Propempo perspective on church and missions. I trust that you'll find more help and resources on the website, Please prayerfully consider supporting this ministry. Now to God, be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Amen.

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