Eight Ways Missionaries Can Improve their Language Ability

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

In my previous posts (part 1, part 2), I talked about why long-term missionaries should not minister through translation, and why some missionaries fail to learn the local language.  This post will focus on what missionaries can do if they want to learn the language well for long-term ministry effectiveness (and for their own mental, emotional, and spiritual health).

New Missionaries, Just Do Language Study. Period.

Above all else, new missionaries must resist the temptation to take on formal ministry responsibilities too quickly.  By all means, hang out with your neighbors and share the Gospel as you are able, but avoid running the church’s English program or preaching on a regular basis.  Above all, prioritize language early on.  For the first year, just study the language.  That’s it.  Seriously.  After that, get a tutor or some other local language helper to help you study part-time.  After a year of full-time language study, you can start to do some ministry but there is still a long way to go.  The second and third years on the field will probably focus heavily on language study as well, even as you start to lead Bible studies, run kids clubs, and pray with people in the local language.

Team Leaders, Let Your New Missionaries Just Do Language Study.  Period.

And for missionary team leaders who are in charge of new missionaries, I want to plead with you to give them time!  Lots of time!  Don’t plug them into the English program right away or ask them to preach through translation because you need an extra hand on deck.  On the one hand, I don’t want to say, “Never have them do anything.”  But on the other hand, please be extremely vigilant to help them protect their time.  When other people (both missionaries and local Christians) invite them to help with this or that, tell your new missionaries to say “No.”  Let them use you as their excuse, “My team leader said I can’t”.  Protect them and their time for language study.  It may be tempting to pull them into all sorts of ministry responsibilities early on, but you’ll be shooting them in the foot for the long-term.  If you give them the time they need for language study now, in the end you’ll have a much happier and productive missionary on your team in the years to come.

Long-Term Missionaries, Don’t Give Up!

For missionaries who have been in the field for a long-time but still have low-level language ability, the thought of trying to significantly improve your language can be discouraging.  “I’ve tried but I think this is as good as I’m ever going to get.”  I can understand how you would feel like that but I believe there are some things that can be done to keep progressing in language, in both big and small ways.  Here are some suggestions:

1. Prioritize & Strategize

Unless you decide that improving your language is a priority, it is not going to happen.  Make a decision to formally study everyday, even if it is just 15 minutes or a few lines or paragraphs in the Bible or the local newspaper.  Doing something, anything, is better than doing nothing.  And if there are down times during the year that are less busy with other responsibilities, plan ahead and make those into concentrated periods of more intensive language study.

2. Listen, Listen, Listen.

If you’ve been around a language that you don’t understand very well for years on end, you’ve probably learned to tune it out when local people are speaking, especially if they are not speaking to you directly.  Instead of tuning out, make a conscious decision to tune in, listen for words and phrases and piece together as much as you can.  You’ll learn new words and expressions and start to hear things that you never heard before because you got into the habit of tuning out.  Maybe you find it too tiring to tune in all the time, but at least tune in sometimes, even if just for 10 minutes.  Going on informal trips with groups of local people (shopping, hanging out, eating, etc) can be great occasions to simply watch and listen.

3. Be Curious

Unless you are out in the jungle, written language is probably all around you, so be curious.  Try to read the road signs, product labels, and other bits of language that pop up in the course of daily life.  At one point, there was a sign that I passed on my bicycle everyday and I tried to make out a bit more of it each time I passed until I finally figured out that it meant “Traffic circle ahead.”  When you encounter a word or phrase you don’t know, write it down on your phone or a little notepad and ask a local friend later on what it means and look it up in a dictionary.

4. Find Local Friends Who Will Be Honest With You

Other countries may be different, but in Thailand, many local people are too polite to correct foreigners when they mispeak.  It is part of saving face and maintaining social harmony.  But if you can find a local friend that is willing to give you honest feedback on your errors, then you’ve found a great treasure.  It may take some convincing (and a great amount on intentionality on your part) but there are such language helpers out there who will kindly and patiently help you improve.  But if you find such a friend, be prepared to graciously eat humble pie - often.  Don’t try to explain what you thought you understood or why it doesn’t make sense that such-and-such a word is used like that.  Otherwise, you won’t get any more helpful feedback.

5. Get Out Of Foreign Ghettos

It is so much easier to spend time with people who share the same language and culture (or to go online with those who do), but your language will never improve if you live in an expat neighborhood, always go to expat shops, and only spend time with people (expats or local) who speak your native language.  Move into a neighborhood where there are few to no expats.  Go shopping and do your errands in places where you will be forced to learn the local language in order to get stuff done.

6. Stop Traveling So Much

For various reasons, some missionaries always seem to be traveling to this country or that country, or taking short trips back to their home country.  Stop it.  I don’t say that to condemn people who need to travel for necessary ministry responsibilities or visa renewals, but I think there is a lot of unnecessary missionary travel that goes on.  If there is anything you can do to just stay put for months or years at a time, then do it.  Once you have reached a higher level of proficiency, more travel may be prudent.  But when you are still building your foundation in the language, frequent travel interrupts the language learning process, and you may even regress. Language improvement comes as you are immersed in the local language and culture, building relationships with those around you.

7. Use The Local Language When You Don't Need To

Depending upon where you live, there may be enough local folks who speak your language such that you don’t need to speak theirs in order to get your basic tasks done.  You may have become so accustomed to doing this that it will be awkward and inefficient to begin trying to use the local language with them.  Do it anyhow.  It will be hard, but it will open doors for conversations and relationships that were not there before.  Maybe your local friend doesn’t want to speak the local language with you but keep at it, explaining to them your desire to learn their language.

Use the local language (at least sometimes) with your spouse or housemate, even though you can both function better in your native tongue.  It is probably too unnatural to do this all the time, but if you are both committed to using the local language here and there, even when no one else is around, it will help you when you are out and about with local folks.

8. Use The Local Language When Locals are Around

If you are with your fellow countrymen and want speak English, or German, or Chinese together, then go for it.  But if you are in a mixed group of foreigners and locals, then use the local language even when speaking to a person who speaks your own native language.  This will not only help improve your language, but will keep the locals from feeling excluded from the conversation.  If you want to build friendships (and practice your language) with local folks, you need to accommodate to them as much as possible.  That includes using the local language when you are with them, even if you are not talking directly to them. I wouldn’t want to make this a hard and fast rule, but as a guideline, it will be helpful for your language learning, for your ministry, and for your relationships in the long-term.

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