Seems that I’ve been talking to a lot of people about language learning lately. So thought I’d try to assemble some of those conversations into a blog post. I live in one of the mission fields where the vast majority of missionaries do not learn to speak the native language. There are at least a few factors that contribute to this situation:
1. Chinese is especially hard. Some people don’t start to learn because they’ve heard how rough it is. Many others quit prematurely. It’s also not uncommon to hear missionaries say they’re too old or too dumb to learn it.
2. English speakers are prevalent. It’s not hard to fill your hours working with people who speak conversational English. Though far and away the minority of Chinese, they are usually numerous enough to satisfy a missionary’s appetite for personal ministry.
3. China attracts a different kind of missionary. The most common form of missions in China is tent-making, usually teaching English. It’s surely not surprising that English teachers rarely get around to learning Chinese. Another common form of missionary work in China might be called ‘facilitation.’ It consists of helping existing Christian works in the country, often by supplementing theological education. As work like this can often be done exceptionally well through translation, those in this category do not usually feel compelled to learn the language.
But here are a few reasons I would implore an aspiring missionary to learn Chinese:
1. Understanding your surroundings
Those who don’t speak the language are constantly asking in confusion, ‘What’s going on?’ It is therefore no great shock to me to discover that, generally, the amount of danger a missionary perceives himself to be in is inversely proportional to his ability in the language! In other words, missionaries who don’t understand the language are more scared than those who do! This only makes sense. A blind man fears the edge of a cliff more than the man who sees.
More dangerously, those who don’t understand the language are more gullible (that’s not a slam, just a fact – I too am more gullible than a native Chinese speaker!). They are more likely to believe things for which there is no logical ground. A brother recently regaled me with the stories his ‘contacts’ had told him over his years of visiting China. He was shocked to discover that I didn’t buy any of it. If you don’t speak the language, your judgments about what is happening around you are simply unreliable! I suspect that the credulity of foreigners in China is partly due to the mystique of Asian culture. ‘Tis a mystique for which there can be no better cure than a couple years hard labor in language school!
2. Broadening your audience
In spite of all the interest in learning English, there is still only a sliver of the population that is conversant. But that must be narrowed further. You will be limited to dealing with those few who speak it well enough to talk about abstractions – a fairly advanced level of language ability. Meaning, it’s one thing to be able to say in English what you did after school yesterday. It’s quite another to explain in English your view on the meaning of life! Very few people speak English well enough to, for instance, understand the categories of the Gospel. But what happens when you learn Chinese? Suddenly, everyone around you is a suitable target for ministry! Your field grows from less than one percent of the population to one hundred percent (or very near it!). To any missionary, such a development cannot be seen as being a marginal improvement!
3. Interacting meaningfully with others
Well, some are still not ready to enroll in language school. For they have still a trick up their sleeve: translators. There are men who, all by the mediation of translators, have built up churches in China. I thank God for them and do not disparage their labor at all. But I do suggest that newcomers not take that path. I do wonder what those men might have accomplished were they armed with the power of language. I do maintain most certainly that they do not have the kind of relationships with Chinese people that a language-learner does (I do not doubt they’d protest, but they have stood on only one side of the fence). The ability to speak a language is a prerequisite for deeply meaningful relationships to form. Will you talk to a young couple about their marriage problems through a translator? Will you lovingly correct a rookie pastor through a translator? Will you navigate a Buddhist’s objections to the Gospel via translation? You may try, but it will be weaker, blunter, slower, and more imprecise than the Chinese speaker.
So, you protest, weaker it may be, but how much weaker? I think you’d be surprised. Speaking to a Chinese person in Chinese adds something intangible to the conversation. Because I’m a foreigner, anyone who comes to our church wants to speak to me in English. I understand why – they’ve worked hard to learn as much English as they have and feel some pride in their English ability. I don’t ask them to switch to Chinese, I just speak Chinese myself. And they invariably tap out and switch. If we talk about anything of substance at all, even the best of English speakers almost unconsciously revert to their mother tongue… and away we fly!
You won’t get a lot of appreciation for learning Chinese. In fact, if you’re any good at it, people stop complimenting you! They take it for granted that you can communicate. But your reward is heightened intimacy in all your relationships. You become an insider.
4. Connecting in preaching
This is, of course, related to the previous point. But it is such a huge asset to the missionary, it’s worth putting in a separate category. I find it peculiar that while in America proclamation ministry is experiencing a surge in popularity, in overseas ministry it has sagged to what is possibly an all-time low. Missionaries in China generally have no interest in establishing a decades-long ministry of teaching. I do not suggest that such a ministry should somehow take the place of a missionary’s planting of new churches. Rather, I confess that I am incredulous that so many are persuaded that these two things can be separated! I do not know how, in other words, we expect to plant churches, convince unbelievers, feed disciples, and train national pastors without a steady stream of robust teaching!
But if you desire to have such a ministry, is not translation a viable option? Certainly you may try. But know that something is always lost in translation. And what is lost is usually the power. I am not here speaking of the worst of translators, but of the best. Even exceptionally skilled translators can be no substitute for truly ‘incarnated’ preaching, any more than the most advanced of life support systems can be thought a good substitute for working organs. A God who can’t speak the local dialect is considerably less glorious and doesn’t seize the heart as forcefully.
5. Modeling a love for Scripture
In a place like China, missionaries will always fight the notion that Christianity is a Western faith. New believers regularly suspect (after an attempt or two to read the Chinese Bible for themselves) that the Bible must be more entertaining or interesting in English! And who are you to tell them it’s not? But when you love the Chinese Bible, read the Chinese Bible, memorize the Chinese Bible, prepare lessons from the Chinese Bible, foam at the mouth as you teach from the Chinese Bible, they’ll start to get the hint that there’s something to this Word after all! How else will you raise a generation of Bible-centered Chinese believers? It’s not enough to teach them how to fish, you have to teach them to fish in their own pond! When you model this love for them, it will engender in their hearts a passion for faithfully interpreting the Word themselves!
6. Setting yourself apart
One of the best reasons I can think of to learn Chinese is that so few do it! And that means you’re going to attract some attention! In China, at least in most second tier cities, a foreigner who can speak Chinese with any level of comfort is a freak of nature. The average Chinese person has never interacted with a foreigner who spoke their language well (compare this with America, where most all have had conversations with many people for whom English is a second language). So when you do interact with them, you’ve really got their attention! They want to know why you learned it. They want to know what you’re doing here. They want to know what you think about China. If you can’t find the way from there, maybe missions isn’t really your thing!
Now, if you disagree with any of these points, simply ask anyone who has learned the language how it compares to not knowing the language. As always, I have no desire to deny anyone a part to play in Chinese missions. But I would encourage everyone, no matter how old they are, how inadequate they feel, or how long they’ve already been in China, to start learning the language. We do not need more deaf and mute missionaries in China. The kind of missionary most needed is the talking kind.