Four Reasons Missionaries Fail to Learn the Language

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

In my first post, I gave a number of reasons why doing long-term ministry through translation is a bad idea.  Most missionaries would agree with me in principle, but in reality some of them have a low proficiency in the local language after years of being on the field.  Why does this happen?

1. Over-Spiritualizing

Sometimes there is the temptation to over-spiritualize God’s ability to work in spite of weakness.  Many will say, “My language isn’t very good, but God will use me anyhow.”  There’s a lot of truth in that statement, and I would encourage new missionaries and short-termers do their best with what they’ve got, and to trust the results to God.  But if you are saying that same thing after being on the field for 10 years, there may be a problem. 

God does work supernaturally in many ways and on many occasions, but the fact of the matter is that God usually uses natural means to accomplish his will.  We can’t count on Pentecost happening everyday.   God is sovereign but He still expects us to use the means and resources that he’s given us in order to carry out His Sovereign Will.  That means many long hours and years of language study, both formal and informal.

2. Impatient to Begin Ministry

After spending many years preparing for the mission field, most new missionaries arrive with the feeling that they can finally begin the ministry that God has called them to.  But, wait!  Now there is a year or two or more of language study that needs to be done!  It can be discouraging to realize that there is now yet another mountain to be climbed before you can really begin ministry. 

Impatient to “do what I’ve come here for”, some missionaries begin to take on ministry responsibilities too early.  In Thailand, it is really easy for a new missionary to plug into English teaching or other ministries that pull them away from language study.  And when one’s language ability gets to the point where they can be haltingly understood by very dedicated and sympathetic Thai listeners, it can be tempting to start leading Bible studies and preaching.  Or maybe, if one is in a big city, a new missionary gets involved with, or even leads an international fellowship or outreach ministry.  Or some, from the very beginning, start teaching through translation regularly while their ability in the local language lingers at the kindergarten level for years, or even decades.

3. Underestimating the Importance of Language Study

There are no small number of missionaries today who view language study as an unpleasant necessity to be gotten done with as quickly as possible so that they can get onto the “real work” of ministry.  So they end up adopting a minimalist, instead of a maximalist approach to language study.  Instead of asking themselves, “How can I best prepare myself to be as effective as possible in ministry?”, the question becomes “How much do I absolutely need to do before I can start doing ministry?”  And if their church or mission organization only requires six months or one year of formal language study, then that is all that they do.  

The result is that they are able to “do” ministry to a certain level, and some things do get accomplished, but they lack that deeper understanding of language, people, and culture that is needed for deep level discipleship and meaningful friendships with local people. 

4. Lack of Opportunity

Sometimes the failure to learn the local language can be laid at the feet of the missionary themselves. But at other times, they have not been able to effectively learn the language because of circumstances beyond their control.  They would really like to devote more time to language study but can’t for various reasons:

  • Their visa depends on running a business or some other practical work that leaves them little time for language study.  This is unfortunate but, in many cases, unpreventable.

  • Their church back home has unrealistic expectations of how quickly their ministry should progress.  I was told the unfortunate story of a missionary who was expected to have planted a church within two years of arriving in Thailand.  Because of the intense pressure from his home church to perform, he ended up hiring Thai Christians and did a lot through translation.

  • Their mission organization wants to maintain a English teaching program and relies on short-term missionaries (and new missionaries) to fill the slots.  Keeping the program going takes priority over setting aside sufficient time and space for new missionaries to get a proper foundation in the language during their first few years on the field.

A fellow missionary shared with me the following story:

I think my husband may have tired of language learning quickly and too soon took on significant ministry. We were assured we could get Thai classes when we first arrived at our current ministry location, but no one could produce an affordable class or any tutor whatsoever. I feel as if I'll never get to any level of fluency. The worst thing is I feel our ministry leaders misled us when we came here.  We've been in Thailand a bit over 5 years. Our first assignment was in a place where we were assured we could find a tutor, but absolutely could not find an adequate one. The tutor wanted 400 baht an hour and would only speak the super-rapid regional dialect to us and became somewhat upset when we understood nothing at all except hello. After about 5 sessions and nothing learned (except we did pick up the "sound" of the regional dialect and are often told we speak with the regional accent), what we learned during that time came from a book we had found. We did 7 months of Thai school in Bangkok, 4 hours of school a day and 8 hours of written homework a day, no time to speak Thai with the nationals, except going into and out of the building and trying to converse with the taxi drivers who soon tired of our horrible attempts. Now I realize how "Thai" our Thai national teachers were - all the writing and little speaking practice.

I really feel for missionaries like this because she really wants to learn the language but it seemed like everything was against her. Of course, it is still possible to keep learning and progressing in the language after an experience like this, but it is much harder. Once you’ve settled into a routine and learned to function at a certain level of language, it takes a huge amount of effort find the time and opportunity to focus on language study almost exclusively.

In my next post, I will focus on what new missionaries and long-time missionaries can do to improve their language ability, no matter what level they are at currently.

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