Language Learning: Why to Speak their Heart-Language, Part II

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Missed Part I? Grab it here.

My husband and I sat with a friend who’d spent years in Japan as a businessman. (He helped me with Go. Serve. Love’s post, Unreached People Group Focus: Japanese.)

We spoke of the culture of conformity of the Japanese. And my friend related a proverb–loosely translated, “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down.”

What a Culture Repeats. and What we Learn

I find a culture’s proverbs fascinating.

I recall a proverb from Luganda, a tribal language of Uganda. It regarded the importance of drinking while one is near the well. In my understanding, this advised one to take advantage of opportunities in front of you, particularly financially.

I considered the ways politicians would fill their pockets while in office. And I understood how proverbs could shape–or express–culture. And in language learning, how they could be critical for true understanding.

Think of American proverbs representing Western culture:

“The early bird catches the worm.”

“God helps those who help themselves.”

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” (Pretty different from that Japanese nail, right?)

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

“I Understand How Your Mind and Heart Work”

Our conversation turned to the importance of language learning to fully understand a culture, even if that culture speaks yours as a second or third language.

My friend wisely pointed out how Jesus spoke in parables. I thought, too, of Paul at Mars Hill, drawing in his audience’s own poets and philosophers.

“Parables don’t make sense to the culture until you know what matters to the culture,” my friend said.

It’s true. Unless I understand a culture’s stories, proverbs, lifestyle, and ways of thinking–it’s hard to speak in parables their hearts understand.

It’s hard to speak effectively until I’ve invested time to understand their language: the words they have or don’t, their expressions, their idioms.

Not everything translates smoothly into English.

In fact, when it’s translated into English, it also translates into some of my language’s values and ways of communicating. Right? 

(Humor, coincidentally, is one of the last and most nuanced forms of communication. It’s based on an intricate level of cultural understanding.

Action movies were easy to enjoy with Africans. But we found that comedies rarely translated, even to an English-speaking nation. They laughed at parts we found sad; we guffawed at “funny” parts, and they gawked at us.)


The Stories We Tell

In cultural and language learning, the stories cultures tell–and those they don’t–hold a great deal of meaning. (Don’t miss one of Go. Serve. Love’s best series ever: What Lies Beneath: Recognizing Cultural “Icebergs”.)

A tribe in the Brazilian rainforest wouldn’t very much enjoy our stories of getting stuck on an elevator in Manhattan. But they might find an agricultural parable fascinating.

A self-deprecating story might not make sense to a Japanese. But for an American, it might be endearing and approachable.

Imagine how stories have altered you: Everything from the parable of the soils, to The Lord of the Rings, to Schindler’s List, to that story your dad forgets he’s told you 37 times.

Even Wikipedia will tell you cultures use stories are “shared as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation or instilling moral values.” Don’t miss this post from on various cultures’ means of storytelling.

To be an effective global worker is to be an effective learner and listener. It’s to spend time studying long before we spend time sermonizing.

Learn the heart language of your people group–and their anecdotes, their proverbs, their heroes, their imagery.

Like Jesus–and with Jesus: Capture their hearts.

Grab Part I here.

Like this post? You might like

The Cultural Iceberg: What You Need to Know about Cross-cultural Communication

Entering into a Cultural “Marriage”: Do I Need to Like the People I Serve?

What Lies Beneath: Recognizing Cultural “Icebergs”

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