Getting by with English

A new missionary going to a Pacific island country told me that the missionaries there get by with English. I said, “Brother, God has not called us to get by but to communicate!”

Missionaries, like anyone else, usually look for shortcuts. Let’s face it; we don’t like to do things the hard way. Learning a new language and culture is uncomfortable, frustrating, embarrassing, difficult, and it takes a lot of time. Since many people in foreign countries are learning English, doesn’t it make good sense for the missionary to avoid all the hassle of language learning and get by with English? Isn’t quicker better, especially when it comes to preaching the gospel? Wouldn’t it be wise for the English-speaking missionary to simply begin to minister in English upon arrival in his host country rather than spending untold months learning a new language? When dealing with the uneducated or older members of the group, he could hire a translator to interpret his message. The quick and easy get-by-with-English approach may appeal to many; but it might very well be the biggest mistake a missionary will ever make!

The question to ask is not how well the native person speaks English, but rather, how well English speaks to him. English is becoming a universal trade language. Some foreign countries are even conducting their education in English. But this can be deceiving. A missionary from Africa noted, “The people here learn English in school, and when they leave the school, they stop speaking it. They only speak English to foreigners when they have to.” Does the missionary want to remain a “foreigner” among them forever? A recent BBTI graduate on a short-term mission in India was told, “You aren’t a foreigner; you are one of us.” This is probably because she is trying to learn their language and culture. A missionary unwilling to give up his language in favor of the native one,  may be sending a message that he considers his language superior to theirs. This arrogant attitude, whether real or perceived, will not ingratiate him to the people.

All a missionary needs to do is listen to the people. Are they speaking to one another in English? If so, then English is their language. However, if they speak their own local language among themselves, then he should learn that language, if for no other reason than to be more accepted and respected by the people. But there is a better reason to refuse to minister in English.

The formation of a person’s worldview (his knowledge and beliefs about spiritual matters) begins at a very young age and is developed in his heart language and culture. The vocabulary he uses to discuss his beliefs is spoken in his heart language. His views and feelings abide in his mother tongue, not in the trade language, no matter how well he has learned it. When deep spiritual concepts are presented to him in a trade language, it is like eating soup with a fork or a straw. Too much is lost and not enough gets through. Misunderstanding and syncretism often occur. The missionary who cannot understand the heart language is probably unaware of this confusion. He may see some response from the people. They may attend church services and even bring the Bible he gave them. (Whether or not they read it at home is questionable, especially if it’s written in their second, third, or fourth language.)  The missionary that doesn’t know the local language doesn’t understand what the people are saying about his teaching. He knows what he has said, but what the people understand could be very different. And he remains blissfully ignorant.

If the message is as important as he says it is, and if he loves the people as much as he says he does, then the missionary should seriously consider taking the time and enduring the discomfort to learn the new language. Or, he can avoid all that and get by with English.