One of the assignments of my internship with Team Arequipa this summer was to do a project related to missions in an area of my own interest. I chose to survey missionaries from around the world with some questions related to language acquisition. My objective was to understand how missionaries learn new languages and the specific ways in which ministry goals and cultural adaptation are contingent upon language acquisition. I sent out my ten-question survey through SurveyMonkey to as many missionary contacts that I and my mentors for this project could think of. A mix of 26 short-term and long-term missionaries from 11 different countries and territories shared their cross-cultural experiences as it related to language learning as well as cultural/ministerial goals. I explain some of my most interesting findings in this article.
What is the dominant language of this country?
Respondents to the survey reported Spanish (69%), English (12%), Portuguese (8%), Thai (8%), and French (4%) as the dominant languages of their respective countries with Spanish proving to be the most common language reported. As a result, a majority of the responses below may be a better reflection of the experiences of missionaries in Spanish-speaking countries.
How long have you lived in this country?
It is interesting to note that over ¾ of the responses are from missionaries who have served in their respective locations for three or more years.
If you and/or a team created a time commitment to live in this country, did you meet that goal? Why or why not?
A majority of the missionaries surveyed had set some goal and were currently in the process of meeting it, had met it, and a few had even exceeded it. Those who did not reach their time commitment attributed their early leave to: lack of receptivity of locals, family needs, logistics, and war in the country they were serving in. Regardless of the time commitment reported by each missionary, uncontrollable internal and external factors such as emergency child-care needs or political instability often determined each one’s ability to achieve that goal.
Did you study this language in any length prior to serving within the location? *If you answer "yes", how long?
What stood out as interesting was that nearly three quarters of the missionaries (73%) who responded spent some amount of time studying the native language of their mission site prior to their arrival, and of these, 31% spent more than one year building their language skill prior to arrival. The stats above seem to show an importance placed on pre-arrival language acquisition among a majority of these particular missionaries.
How did your study of the language affect your ability to communicate effectively in this culture?
For respondents whose mission site spoke a language other than their own, they expressed the importance of language learning before and/or during their arrival in order to gain basic language skills (i.e. pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar). The benefit of having open-ended responses to this specific question enabled missionaries to comment on how language study impacted their emotional state during the learning process. Several reported a growth in personal confidence as one could express himself/herself in greater depth which is an important tool to build stronger bonds with the native people.
What additional factors have contributed to your ability to communicate in that country?
Common responses: cultural learning seminars, attending cross-cultural worship services, language immersion practices like reading/translating literature, and even watching Latin American soap operas. The responses I got to this question seem to show that the use of various media is key to building a greater understanding of the culture as a whole.
What factors posed challenges to your ability to communicate in that country? Why?
Common responses: lack of knowledgeable tutors, household communication in family’s native tongue, as well as a lack of nonverbal understanding, different dialects, different meaning of words, rates of speech, jargon, idioms, etc. Cultural differences such as how one interprets honesty between cultures and pace of rural life versus pace of urban life contributed to the difficulty of adjustment. Differences in societal expectations were also commonly reported as barriers to communication between the foreign missionaries and local people.
What are/were some of your cultural learning objectives while living in this country?
Common responses: understanding and appreciating cultural worldviews through study of history, language, local religion, concept of time, analyzing social relations between people/God/institutions, and discovering how to best contextualize and present the Gospel. Overall, the results showed a strong focus on understanding cultural values like hospitality, politeness, and humor, most of which move toward achieving relational goals.
One response to this question that I really like is to “learn not only the language but lifestyle practices…words don't matter when actions are a barrier.”
What are/were some of your ministry objectives?
Some of the recurring ministry objectives among responses received were: establish native people group-led churches, build local friendships with both non-Christians and Christians alike, disciple believers, evangelize, participate in small Bible studies, educational classes, sports ministries, Sunday worship groups within local communities, and to also help assist other team members with their practical needs like babysitting. Therefore, the ability to operate various types of ministries in a foreign context requires knowledge of cultural norms, gender roles, religious beliefs of locals, and much more to determine what type of ministries will best succeed.
I found one response particularly poignant: “Help them where they have need and desire.”
Surveying over two dozen missionaries on the role that language learning plays in missions confirmed what I learned first-hand during my internship: cultural adaptation is no small task! Learning a language is a long and tedious yet essential step to the cultural learning process that is necessary to adjust culturally and minister effectively. Studying Spanish for five months and spending two of those months in Peru has taught me that learning a language is more than memorizing vocabulary and practicing grammar, it involves knowing the context and culture of the people around me. In order to further these language learning skills, as of this upcoming school year I will continue studying Spanish at my university.
Due to the limited amount of questions that I was able to ask in the amount of time I was able to do so, this survey did not dig deeper into many of the concepts of language learning. Looking back, I wish I would have included a question in the survey about the reasons a specific time commitment was chosen by the missionaries and what resources were available to the missionaries to help them learn these foreign languages.
Overall, I learned that to be a student of culture means to be willing to invest vast amounts of time in a people by studying their language, their culture, and their worldview. To be a student of culture is to take a fundamental step toward ministering incarnationally as Jesus did.