When we came back to our passport country on home assignment, people were curious.
“If Ugandans speak English, why do you spend so much effort on learning Luganda?”
It’s a great question. And honestly, a lot of global workers didn’t share the priority I personally felt for this.
Also honestly? It dawned on me that languages came easily to me. But there was a richness I gained that made anyone’s effort worth it.
I was welcomed into more intimate relationships.
As I learned to converse more adeptly–and by adept, I mean like a toddler says, “I SIT!”, or maybe as smoothly as a pirate with a peg leg runs a 5K–I noticed a curious thing: People responded like flowers opening around me.
I mean, they lit up. It was like suddenly I was welcomed to a more inner circle.
But language learning accomplished even more.
I took on the posture of a learner, rather than the lofty teacher–both in their eyes, and my own.
Every person on the social ladder now had something to teach me. And I had a way to laugh at myself.
Learning a language means choosing a posture of humility and understanding. It communicates, “I care about you enough to understand how your heart speaks.”
“The greatest missionary is the Bible in the mother tongue.”
This is a famous quote by Wycliffe founder Cam Townsend. In 1917, selling Spanish Bibles in Guatemala, a Cakchiquel Indian asked, “If your God is so great, why doesn’t He speak my language?”
Cameron spent the next 10 years translating the New Testament into Cakchiquel, and later began Wycliffe Bible Translators.
Around the world, people use different languages for different functions. In Senegal, the national language of French is used for business, but in their homes, many might use Wolof to converse. So even if you speak French, you may not speaking the language they dream in; the language in which they talk to their children or their spouse.
But this also affects the language in which people feel comfortable enough to read. In this fascinating article from The Gospel Coalition about heart-languages, an East African pastor explains,
It’s one thing to speak a language, it’s another to learn enough to confidently read a book in a language. At the end of the day, their first language is not English.
As Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
To paraphrase a wall hanging I saw at a missions organization, “In what language would Jesus speak to a people group?
I gathered indispensable knowledge about the culture itself.
In Luganda, there is no word for adoption; no word for sock. There is no word for left or right. To the chagrin of feminists around the world, the word “to marry” literally means “to find someone to cook for you”.
The Buganda greet using the literal translation of “Well done”–even before someone has done something. This is a culture that values appreciation and esteeming one another.
Their names do not adapt their parents’ surnames, but rather a clan name. The surname is expressed first, because someone’s family identity trumps individual identity. (See The Cultural Iceberg and Identity: Collectivist vs. Individualistic Societies.)
Also interestingly, there are, count ’em, ten classes of nouns. This is a culture that has a great deal of hierarchy. And there are definite ways to speak with manners and respect, because the Buganda are a respectful people with important social constructs.
As this video from TED Talks communicates, words tell us about how a culture views time, what they value, and even their distinct strengths. (Also see “How the Language We Speak Affects the Way We Think”).
“If I could put the Chinese language into your brains by one wave of the hand…”
This blogger quotes Hudson Taylor as he responded to three new missionaries who’d “put their Chinese grammar books aside and prayed for the Pentecostal gift of Mandarin and supernatural power according to Mark 16:17.” Hudson commented,
How many and subtle are the devices of Satan to keep the Chinese ignorant of the gospel. If I could put the Chinese language into your brains by one wave of the hand I would not do it.
The blogger, a missionary to Japan, explains,
Language is about a deep understanding of the root culture—where the language comes from, why they choose the phrases they do, what is left unsaid. When it comes to Japan, it’s every bit as much about when or what not to speak as it is about what you say.
Taylor knew that if his new missionary brothers didn’t take the time and put in the hard work to learn the language, they would never understand the heart of the Chinese. Furthermore, they would never be forced to humble themselves in the same way that Christ did.
Practically speaking, this means your spouse and kids need to learn the language, too. (Click here for an Open Letter to the Spouse Who Doesn’t Feel as “Called”.)
Language learning is necessary to get to the heart of a people.
On his 75th birthday, Cam Townsend reflected, “Out there are 2,000 tribes who still don’t have the Bible! I believe God is going to help us reach them all. Don’t you?”
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and senior editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International.
Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) releases October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.