As the missionary was about to leave for the field, the board leader told him, “You have three assignments for the next couple years: 1) learn the language, 2) learn the language, and 3) learn the language.” This leader understood the importance of learning the language very well. However, if I were challenging this missionary, I would say, “Learn the language and the culture, the language and the culture, the language and the culture! Culture is the thing missionaries most often fail to understand.

Language, with its pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, is not easy to learn, but it is available; it is open. We can hear it, write it, and analyze it. People are seldom reluctant to help us learn new words or better pronunciation. They want us to learn their language; our strong accent is offensive to their ears, and even their small children have a broader vocabulary than ours! The culture, however, is a different story. It is more obscure and difficult to discover. Yes, the missionary can learn several things about the culture. He can bow when he greets a person he should respect, or he can observe that men walk in front of their wives. He can watch how the people eat and imitate them. However, culture is more than customs. It is what people believe and think. It is what they are. The words people speak reveal their culture, but we often miss it because we assume the words mean what we think they mean—what we want them to mean. For instance, the Latin American told the American, “I finally figured out what is wrong with you americanos. You think mañana means ‘tomorrow’, but it doesn’t.  It means ‘not today.’”

Many countries have language schools where the missionary can study the major language. There are no culture schools, however, and most missionaries have not been trained in culture-learning techniques. There may very well be aspects of the culture that nationals want to hide, but this is not usually the case. Their culture is so much a part of them that they take it for granted, and they have no idea how to teach it to a foreigner. Could you teach our American culture to a foreigner?  Why do we laugh at some things we hear, blush at some things, and get angry about other things? Why do we work hard at some things and are lazy at other times? We do what our culture expects of us. All people groups teach their culture to their children because they want the children to be one of them. If the missionary observes how and what they teach, he will be well on his way to understanding the people. For instance, for which offenses do they most severely punish their children, and which do they overlook?  This may give a clue to their value system. What are the characteristics of the heroes in the stories they tell their young? If the missionary could sit around a native’s house and simply observe, he would see and hear the culture being taught to the next generation. Can you imagine his next prayer letter?

“Dear Churches, I spent the last month sitting in the kitchen at the neighbor’s house. I didn’t preach, baptize, or even tell them the gospel; I just sat there and watched…” Now that would sound good, wouldn’t it? Maybe the missionary should go out and work beside the men for a month or two. His letter might read: “Dear Churches, this month I have chopped cotton, hoed corn, cut firewood, and I put a roof on a house.” The churches would probably cut off his support and give it to a “better” missionary.

As the missionary observes the people, however, he must avoid the tendency to interpret what he sees and hears according to his culture. For instance, he learns that a girl is expected to remain a virgin until marriage. He may mistakenly interpret this to mean that immorality is a bad thing. It may simply be a matter of economics; a virgin might bring a higher bride price.

We expect bilingualism from our missionaries, but why do we settle for less than biculturalism from them? (And if we fail in the culture, we do not really learn the language; we only think we do.)  One reason we fail to gain cultural fluency is that we begin by assuming the wrong role. We are teachers when we should be learners. We go to college to become teachers and to learn what to teach. We consider ourselves teachers, and we tell the churches that we are teachers. They send us to the heathen to teach them. We learn some language, translate our thinking into the native words, and we teach. Even though we are speaking words in their language, they may have little idea what we are saying, and we are probably violating cultural norms right and left.

The missionary may call himself a teacher, but he doesn’t have the ear of the listeners until he learns to think and express himself according their norms. This requires that he   displays a humble attitude and a sincere interest in what people think and believe. A willingness to admit that his way is not always the only way is a big step toward gaining the respect of the people. Eventually, he can leave the learner role and be accepted as a teacher. Time spent learning the culture is as essential as time invested in language studies; both should be done simultaneously.