The task of learning a new language has been compared to a canary trying to drink from a fire hydrant! The flood of strange sounds, together with a new culture, can be very overwhelming to the newly arrived missionary. Even familiar sounds are often placed in strange combinations that his mouth has never pronounced. Nevertheless, effective communication demands that he learn a new language, maybe more than one, and that he learn it well.

Understanding how something functions—a machine for example—makes it easier to use. This is certainly true of languages. No language consists of sounds thrown together in a chaotic manner; they all have order or structure. In other words, a language has systems. Just as an automobile has an electrical system, a fuel system, a power train system, a cooling system, and so on, languages also have systems. A mechanic can isolate and fix a problem in our car because he understands how all these systems are designed to function. A linguist discovers and describes the systems of a language. This science of Descriptive Linguistics has been used by some for many years but very rarely by Baptist missionaries. We have erroneously believed that Bible training, spirituality, and the call of God are all that a missionary needs for successful ministry. Yes, the right message is vital, but before he can deliver it, he must learn the language and culture. Let’s consider the value of linguistic training before language learning.

The first system of a language is the sound system. The missionary trained in linguistics first discovers exactly which sounds are found in his new language. There are literally hundreds of possible sounds, and he is trained to recognize and reproduce any one of them. He can also describe each sound with a symbol. Fortunately, he will encounter only a limited number of sounds in any   language. This linguistic skill is called “phonetics” and within a few days, this missionary has discovered all the sounds. (Students at BBTI spend five or six hours a day, five days a week, for nearly seven weeks learning to use this phonetic tool). His second linguistic skill is “phonemics.” This study enables him to discover the distinguishing sounds of a language in order to give it an alphabet that has one consistent symbol for each of these sounds. (English would be much easier to learn to read if the letter “a” didn’t symbolize three or more meaningful sounds.)

The second system of a language is its grammar, or how words and sentences are formed.  Words are made up of meaningful parts called morphemes, and the linguistic tool called “morphology” is used to study them. In English, prefixes and suffixes are added to roots. Some languages, like Hebrew, even have infixes which split the root, inserting an affix into the middle of it.  Just as there are a limited number of sounds in a language, there are a limited number of morphemes. The word “reoccurring” has three morphemes: the root “occur,” the prefix re-  meaning  “again,” and the suffix -ing denoting a continuous action. In new words, such as “reworking,” we only have to learn the meaning of the root because we already know the meaning of the affixes. (We must also learn the correct order of the affixes.) Some languages have words with four or five prefixes and that many suffixes. They can say an entire sentence with one word. Understanding the morphology of a language makes it predictable and much less intimidating. “Syntax” is the linguistic tool used to analyze how a language functions on the phrase and sentence level. “Bill John hit” does not  make much sense in English, but that is a proper word order for some languages.

Another very important aspect of language is the supra-segmental features such as stress, tone, pauses, and rhythm. The placement of stress can  change meaning. (The city will not perMIT me to build without a PERmit.) Wrong placement can make a word unintelligible. (Put the emPHAsis on the right sylLAble.) The placement of pauses can also change meaning. (The teacher said the student is stupid, contrasts with “The teacher,” said the student, “is stupid.”) No language can be spoken without tone. The untrained missionary will have a tendency to use his English tone patterns on the new language, making him sound like a foreigner.

Culture is another vital ingredient of language that can overwhelm the missionary, making him feel like the little canary drinking from the fire hydrant. Word meaning depends on a people’s cultural experiences.  The missionary not only finds new sounds, but he also deals with totally new patterns of thought. Just as linguistic training gives him an advantage in becoming bilingual, preparation in cultural anthropology prepares him to become bicultural. Linguistics and cultural anthropology are only part of our nine-month Advanced Missionary Training (AMT).

Overwhelmed missionaries are very often overcome by language and culture shock. Like the canary, they may drown. Bypassing AMT gets the missionary on the field more quickly, but is it wise?