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In the absolute sense, we will never be fluent in Thai, at least not in the way that a native speaker is fluent. However, for practical purposes, both of us can hold our own in most conversations in Thai, although we often don’t get 100% of everything that is being said. We can read and write Thai although admittedly much slower than we can read and write English. The Thai language has its own alphabet and is read left to right.
We can share the Gospel in Thai and Karl regularly teaches and preaches in Thai although it will take a long long time before we are anywhere near a native speaker. Thai is a tonal language and that presents an ever present pronunciation challenge for us.
We have both completed OMF's Thai language curriculum which is one year of full-time language study, followed by two years of part-time language study. But language study is never really over and we will always be learning and growing in our ability to speak and understand Thai.
I have been studying Latin with my kids for the past several months and it has been a lot of fun. However, some people might wonder how useful it is. With that doubt in mind, I wanted to share an incredible story that a Korean friend recently brought to my attention. For who knows if your study of Latin might come in handy for such a time as this...
"To sum it up..., several high court officials made a plot to kill ALL missionaries and Christians in Korea (their plan was to go in effect on Dec. 1st, 1900). Missionary Horace G. Underwood got a hold of their scheme before it became official and sent a telegram in LATIN (so that no Korean would understand the content) to fellow missionary Avison to alert him of the seriousness of the situation.
Avison then relayed the information to missionary Allen--who was/had been King GoJong's personal physician at the court. Allen immediately sought after the King's attendance; which resulted in King GoJong making a decree throughout the land ordering all plots against Christians to stop.
Literally, thousands of lives were saved with the help of a Latin message sent that day."
Nearly all missionaries need to learn at least one foreign language (sometimes more) and I thought the following list reposted by a missionary friend was a good reminded of what it takes. If you see characteristics that you have on the list, be encouraged. If you see characteristics on the list that you don't have, don't worry. Some things can be worked on, and some things can be done without, but you can still learn a language effectively.
Before I started learning Thai, I was asked if I was musical. I said "No" and there was an audible "Oh" at the other end of the phone. The veteran missionary went on to explain that Thai is tonal and that musical people do better at learning Thai. So, that was depressing. Later on, someone told me that out of 66 million Thai people who speak Thai fluently, not all of them are musically gifted. That was encouraging.
Taken from Rawlangs Blog, this is a slide from Professor Ghil'ad Zuckermann on what makes a good language learner. What would you add?Posted by Memrise on Tuesday, May 26, 2015
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Dear Friends & Family,Ho, Ho, Ho. The Thai malls are fully stocked with lights, trees, and Santa hats (for purely commercial reasons, of course), which reminds people that Christmas is coming up some time soon, even if they don’t know which day it is or what Christmas is really about. But the secular PR that Christmas gets provides an opportunity for churches throughout Thailand to take advantage of people’s natural curiosity about this “foreign” holiday and turn it into an opportunity to share about Jesus. As you can see from the calendar below, we have lots of Christmas events coming up this month. Some we are only participating in, some we are leading. All the lessons at kids club in Nong Doan this month focus on Christmas and we’ll have our big Christmas celebration with the kids on Friday Dec 18th. I’ve ordered Thai-English illustrated storybooks about “Jesus is born” to give the children as a special gift. On Saturday morning Dec 19th, we’ll take the kids club Christmas program and do it for the children in our neighborhood. Please pray especially for both of these Christmas events for children - for our own planning, and for sufficient Thai helpers.
Dear Friends & Family,The most enjoyable aspect of ministry this past month has been our evangelistic kids club in Nong Doan. As we’ve begun to go through major Old Testament stories, starting with creation and the fall, it is exciting to know that some of the foundations of a Biblical worldview are being absorbed into these young minds. While it is an evangelistic ENGLISH kids club, our focus is on the Bible stories and the whole thing is rather English-lite. Each week, we introduce some English vocabulary that corresponds to the Bible story (i.e. “flood” “boat” and “die” for Noah’s ark), practicing that vocab, and using it in a game. But the Bible story is always told in Thai with review in simple English later on. Every other week, Thai student worker Tam joins us for kids club and does a superb job telling the Bible story and interacting with the kids. We need more like him. On the weeks that Tam is not available, I (Karl) tell the story in Thai but it doesn’t compare with an active engaging Thai storyteller like Tam. Tam is also an up and coming preacher. I’d love to have him on a church planting team at some point down the road. It has also been great to have short-termer Brent and missionary friend Chris coming to help with the kids club. We haven’t gotten much help from the PhraBaht church so it is great to have some guys that I can rely upon.
Dear Friends & Family,The beginning of July saw the start of two new evangelistic efforts in Nong Doan. Every Wednesday afternoon, Karl is teaching English and Bible to students at Anubaan Nong Doan Elementary School. The school called him up to come teach English, and Karl negotiated with them to teach for free as long as he could use Bible stories as part of the curriculum. During every class hour, Karl will teach just English for 50 minutes and then gets the last 10 minutes of class to tell a Bible story in Thai. The first week, first through third graders heard about how God created the world. Next up will be the creation of man and the fall.
For many missionaries, the road to the mission field is a long one. From the time that they first decide to go, to the time that they actually go, it can be many years. There have been applications, candidate courses, church visits, theological studies, support raising, and a thousand other things to be done before they can finally leave.
But that day does come. And it is fantastic. You are finally there! After so much preparation and waiting, it is time to begin the ministry that you’ve been dreaming of.
First comes language study. After all the hurdles that it has taken to get to the mission field, it feels like once you get there, it is time to begin what you’ve always wanted to do. But you can’t. Alas, there is more waiting to do before you get good enough in the local language to say the things that you’ve so desperately wanted to say to the people that you’ve come to serve. But for the moment, you are in no condition to serve anyone because you don’t even know where to pay your electric bill or ask for simple items at the store. But that’s okay, because as you buckle down into language study, your ability to fend for yourself grows by leaps and bounds each day. Everything you are learning is immediately applicable to daily life. Numbers. Colors. Weather. Food. Directions. Months of the year. Past, present, and future tense. You are barely a few months into language study and you can do so much already. Okay, so you can’t share the Gospel yet but, you just wait! At this rate, I’ll be preaching in the streets a year from now.
But a funny thing happened on the way to fluency.
Dear Friends & Family,Merry Christmas! Thank you for your prayers for all of us. We are feeling strong and are working very hard with the Christmas outreaches and school programs scheduled for this month. Thank you also for the gifts and cards you have sent us.Here in Thailand, Christmas is not a time for family gatherings and celebrations, but a time of vigorous outreaches. If you look at our calendar, we have 10 outreach events for this month. It takes quite a bit of time to prepare and organize these events, but we praise God for opening such opportunities and for providing people and resources for them to be possible. Please pray earnestly for us and for all our brothers and sisters in Thailand who are also doing numerous other outreaches. Pray that God would be pleased to use these outreaches to
Dear Friends & Family,Thank you for praying for us during the Christmas season. It was a very busy time and when we finally finished our last outreach at Nong Doan High School on Dec 30th, we were exhausted. However, we praise God for the many opportunities to get the Gospel out. We were able to get into all three public schools (two elementary, one high school) in Nong Doan and share something about Christmas with the students. This was a great blessing and opportunity, and not without a certain irony since Christ is virtually banned in American schools yet the doors are open to share Christ in public schools in Thailand, a very Buddhist nation.
Dear Friends & Family,Thank you for for your continued prayers. We ourselves could be more faithful in prayer so you could pray for us in that respect. Karl has taken PhraBaht church members out to Nong Doan a few times already, part of our plan to do Bible study, prayer, handing out tracts, and visitation in Nong Doan every other Sunday afternoon. Each time we go is a bit different, and not all the same people go each time, but we are hoping that doing this regularly will create a greater culture of evangelism within the church and a greater understanding and application of the Gospel in the lives of the church members. One of the challenges of “doing” evangelism like this is that some people might get the impression that evangelism is merely an event, something that you “do” and then are done with, rather than a constant desire to love and share the Gospel with the people in your life - at home, at work, at school, in your neighborhood. Although I don’t have any
Dear Friends & Family,Thank you for for your continued prayers. We press on in all our responsibilities and we appreciate your pressing on in prayer for us. Our big news is that Sun is pregnant again, about 17 weeks as of this writing. Due date September 21st. We are excited about the prospect of a new little one but also a bit anxious as Sun’s previous two pregnancies ended in miscarriage (at 4 months and 2 months, respectively). Thus, we hold on to the fact that God is sovereign and God is good, praying that God will graciously give us another child to be with us for many years to come but also trusting that if He doesn’t, then it is good and He will strengthen us for whatever is ahead. In the meantime, Sun has been exhausted for the past few months, eating every 2-3 hours, yet only nauseous on occasion. Karl has been trying to take care of her and Joshua, while Joshua has been pretty self-focused as can be expected of any toddler. It is fun, however, to watch him to look into Mommy’s bellybutton to see if he can see the new baby.
After more than 8 years in Thailand, I would like to think that I speak and understand Thai at a fairly high level. I can usually teach and preach in Thai, and carry on conversations without major problems. My language is not perfect, of course, and I can’t speak or understand 100% of what I would like to. But in general, my Thai language ability seems to function okay for what I need to do.
But sometimes it all falls apart. I can’t find the right word. I stumble over what I want to say. Someone tells me something and I can only guess what they are trying to communicate. And it always hits me by surprise. Why is it that normally I do okay, but today my language ability has regressed about 5 years? I’ve had this experience many times. Seemingly out of nowhere, my language ability disintegrates before my eyes. But I’ve learned to not get too discouraged by my bad language days.
Because that’s just what it is: a single day.
One of the major goals that many new missionaries want to achieve is learning how to preach in another language. But as many missionaries can testify, learning how to engage in small talk and buy things at the market is totally different than standing up to preach. Public speaking can be intimidating your own language, never mind somebody else’s.
But even when you can preach confidently in your own language, the reality of preaching in a second language enforces a certain humility upon the preacher. You can never be 100% sure that what is coming out of your mouth is exactly what you want to say, or whether your listeners are understanding the point you are trying to make. If they aren’t getting it, is it a content issue or a language issue? Preaching in a second language is fraught with the potential for irrecoverable pronunciation errors and poor word choices. At the very least, the range and depth of what you are able to express in a second language is somewhat less than what you’d be able to do in your native language. And even if your language is decent, do you understand the culture? In addition to an intimate acquaintance with the Bible, ability and fluency in both language and culture are essential for preaching cross-culturally in a second language. But for newer missionaries (or even more seasoned missionaries), knowledge of both language and culture are a work in progress.
From time to time, future missionaries who are preparing to come out to Thailand ask me for advice about Thai language study options. In this post, I want to give an overview of what is out there, together with links that will with help you do further research about where to study.
If you are looking for a formal Thai language school, you will most likely need to go to either Bangkok or Chiang Mai. You can find someone to try to tutor you privately anywhere in the country, but the quality will varying widely and you may not get the type of teaching you are looking for. To get a solid foundation in Thai, you need to learn the tonal and pronunciation system, as well as the writing system, all of which need concerted time and effort. Thai is not like some European languages that you can pick up as you go.
This past May marked the end of my first year of teaching seminary in Thailand, so I thought it would be a good time to step back and reflect, and to dispel a persistent misconception.And if anyone reading this is considering teaching seminary classes in a second-language, perhaps this brief account of my experience might give them some idea of what they would be in for.
When other foreigners learn that I teach seminary in Thailand, and that I teach it in Thai (not English), they are often very impressed.Overly impressed, I would say. The reality is much less impressive and I feel much less competent and qualified than many seem to think I am.
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.
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?
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.
I love the Gospel. And I want to see any missionary loves the Gospel succeed in what they do. But it saddens me when I hear about missionaries who have a lot to offer but are held back by poor language skills. I am not talking about new missionaries who are just starting their language study. I am talking about missionaries who have been on the field for YEARS.In this first post (see part 2, part 3), I want to explain why this is a problem. It should go without saying that missionaries not being able to speak the local language is a problem but there seem to be churches back home and mission leaders on the field who do not help missionaries to give sufficiently high priority to language study, and therefore handicap their long-term effectiveness.
At the end of his classic work, “The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches”, veteran missionary John Nevius has a chapter of advice to new missionaries, including many relevant comments on language study and the timing of beginning the work of ministry. Here’s some excerpts:
Avoiding Distraction from Language Study“It may well be a matter of congratulation that the newly arrived missionary is exempt for the first year or two from the pressure and responsibility of deciding the many questions of mission policy upon which he must form an opinion at a later period. Whatever department of work he may devote himself to in the future, there is no room for doubt that his first duty is to give his time and energies to the thorough acquisition of the language as a necessary prerequisite to usefulness in work of any kind. For this it is of the greatest advantage to be free, as far as possible, from cares and interruptions of every description.” (p.83)