A well-known credit card company advises us, “Don’t leave home without it!” Leaving home without something means we are going ill-prepared. A missionary, of all people, should never do this. That is because he carries a message that must be understood by a people who have never heard it before and who may never hear it from anyone else. He must not fail to deliver this message clearly. He must speak it, using sounds that he has never spoken before. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a small device (perhaps a computer chip implanted in his neck) that could connect his brain to his speech organs, causing him to flawlessly produce the sounds of the native language? Now that would be something he would not want to leave home without!
Although no such technology exists, there is a tried and proven linguistic skill that the missionary can learn and take with him to accomplish this marvelous function. This skill is Articulatory Phonetics. It cannot be purchased, but it can be learned. No one argues the value of speaking a new language accurately in its grammar, its pronunciation, and its inseparable culture. The better we speak, the better we communicate. Why, then, do 99.9% of our Bible-believing missionaries leave home without this basic language-learning skill? Here are a few answers: 1) They do not know that such training is available. 2) If they have heard of linguistics, they do not understand how it relates to the missionary. 3) They are in a hurry and decide that the benefits of pre-field preparation are not worth the time it requires. 4) They don’t realize that failure to prepare is often preparation for failure. 5) They may think that the missionary theory classes taken in Bible college and a foreign language school are all they need. (Though a good language school can really help, many missionaries pass the course with an A but leave sounding like a tourist from Toronto.)
Articulatory Phonetics deals with human speech sounds. Speech is really quite simple; it consists of only one ingredient—air. But there are scores of ways to modify this air, producing literally hundreds of distinct sounds. The English-speaking missionary without an understanding of phonetics is limited to the forty-four sounds of English. His new language will have its own set of sounds that are very different. The missionary phonetician can do four things: recognize, record, reproduce, and recall any sound that any human being can pronounce. When he hears the first word of the new language, he begins to recognize the exact sounds and distinguish them from other similar sounds. For instance, do you know that when we say words such as “eye,” “arm,” “inch,” or “us,” we actually begin these words with a consonant? It is called an “initial glottal stop.” The vocal cords begin closed, and the air builds up behind them. When we say the word, the air (a voiceless consonant) is released before the vowel. We do not hear this consonant, so it is irrelevant in English words. Not so in some languages. In a language of the Solomon Islands, that little sound can make a big difference. The initial glottal stop before “ai” means “woman”, and “ai” without it means “tree.” The sound that is inaudible to us, they hear clearly. The missionary phonetician can recognize this sound and hundreds of others.
An untrained missionary has twenty- six English letters to work with; the trained one, using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), has hundreds of symbols with which to record all the sounds he hears. Every sound has its symbol. He can also reproduce all the sounds because he understands what the native speaker is doing to produce them. The BBTI graduate has spent 150 literal classroom hours learning and practicing these sounds and many additional hours listening to recordings outside of class. Finally, he can recall the sounds. Having accurately heard the sounds and recorded them, he can reproduce the sounds (even after a long period of time) exactly as he heard them by reading his phonetic transcription. Phonetic skill is so valuable in preventing miscommunication that, I think you will agree, the missionary should not leave home without it!
There are three possible undesirable results of poor pronunciation: 1) the word will make no sense at all, 2) the word will mean something other than what is intended, or 3) the speaker will have a strange accent. An English speaker without phonetic training normally makes seven errors when pronouncing the vowels and consonants (not to mention mistakes in tone and stress) in the simple Spanish phrase “tu pelo” (your hair). But by knowing and applying phonetic principles, he sounds like a native, not a gringo from Greenville.
No missionary should attempt to learn a new language without first studying phonetics. In other words, don’t leave home without it!