Grammar and Theology
One of my favourite places in the world is the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Taking a safari drive through Kruger is an amazing experience and those who have some knowledge for spotting animals will tell you that the trick is to DRIVE SLOW. It’s much easier to see through the trees and bush when driving slowly. Not only do you see better and hear better, but you don’t spook the animals when speeding through like a maniac. Another trick is to stay in the park for a couple of days. Take early drives, late drives, again and again. This will give you the best chance of spotting some amazing animals and birds. When you simply drive as fast as the speed limit allows you, trying to check all the “spot this animal” boxes you might see a thing or two but you will never actually see. One example is when we drove past a family of hyenas. We spotted a mom nursing her cubs in an empty concrete water pipe under the road. For about 20 minutes we just looked in amazement. The family was pretty well hidden from the road and if we sped past like many others we would never have spotted this happy little hyena family. Word of advice if you ever get to go to Kruger…drive slowly!
Now, why this story? Well, I have been studying Japanese for about 5 months now and just worked out that after coming to Japan I have spent over 600 hours learning the language, that excludes learning through daily life conversations. With all that learning, I still feel like I have only scratched the surface, barely made a dent in the armour. Many things I learned I have already forgotten and so I need to constantly relearn and review while filling my head with new information.
Since I am here as a supported Christian missionary there is often the temptation to think of my language learning as some kind of hurdle I have to get over quickly so I can get into the real stuff like preaching, teaching, disciplining, etc. Sometimes people have offered to pray for a miraculous acquisition of the language, something like the gift of tongues perhaps. I have prayed many times for a miraculous understanding of the language which God is, of course, able to do. However, I think there are many things God wants me to learn in the process of language learning. A hurried approach is wrong because it would be taking a shortcut, it would be like racing through Kruger without noticing all the special little things that make it a great place. I have come to realize that language learning takes time, but it is not time wasted, in fact, it is necessary.
Recently, a colleague told me about an incident that happened between Hudson Taylor and some new missionaries which encouraged me to do some further research.
“Seeking a special baptism of power, the celebrated Cambridge Seven of athletic fame in England arrived in China in 1885 to serve with the China Inland Mission. While sailing up the Han River with J. Hudson Taylor, three of them, C. T. Studd and Cecil and Arthur Polhill, put their Chinese grammar books aside and prayed for the Pentecostal gift of Mandarin and supernatural power according to Mark 16:17. Exasperated, Taylor told his starry-eyed novices: “How many and subtle are the devices of Satan to keep the Chinese ignorant of the gospel. If I could put the Chinese language into your brains by one wave of the hand I would not do it.”17 Taylor emphasized not only that such presumption would delay their mastery of the language and keep the Chinese from hearing the Gospel even longer but also that effective communication in Mandarin required more than just an ability to speak the words. Criticized as an idle fanatic, Studd wrote home that he and his companions finally returned to their books”.
Full article available here: http://www.internationalbulletin.org/issues/2001-03/2001-03-118-mcgee.pdf
Taylor understood that learning a language is so much more than simply knowing the words. You must know the heart of the people. This has encouraged me to reflect upon my own language learning and develop some reasons why language learning for missionaries SHOULD take time. Here’s my list!
It is good to be humbled
I came to Japan with a little bit of pride. I did not know it at the time but it was there. I have a Masters degree in theology, I have experience as a preacher and a pastor. Surely, I will lead a successful ministry in Japan. Well…5 months down the line and I am still sucking at Japanese. I realize that I’m not so great after all. Not being able to read my post, not being able to have significant conversations in Japanese, and panicking every time I have to go to the dentist or ask for something at the bank is all very humbling. It is through this humbling experience that I have renewed my thoughts about depending on God for everything.
Jesus did it
Jesus was not in a hurry to start his earthly ministry. It is good to be reminded of that because often missionaries think learning the language and culture is simply a hurdle to quickly get over so I can get to more important things. There is the temptation to drive fast or take shortcuts when it comes to learning. Or perhaps the temptation to learn the bare minimum and jump into ministry from there. Missionaries with those ideas should reflect on the fact that Jesus only started his public ministry around age 30. What did he do before then? According to Luke 2:40, 51-52 Jesus grew…He grew in wisdom, stature and in favour with men. In his humanity, Jesus studied the Scriptures and learned about carpentry. From childhood, he had to learn how to use language and interact with the culture of his day. Although Jesus was and is fully God he became human to identify with us and take our place on the cross. For 30 years Jesus grew in wisdom, statue and favour before the time was right for him to begin his public ministry. Since Jesus spent 30 years humbling himself and learning is it not ludicrous for missionaries to think that they can get by with only a couple of months of training?
Learning Japanese is more than just learning words
Language is merely the skin of a culture that covers their worldview, values, beliefs, and customs. Language is the flower that is seen above the surface but it is the root of culture that gives this language flower life. Learning this takes a lifetime of immersion into a new culture. Japanese, for example, is a difficult language not simply because of kanji or grammar but because of the culture that influences so much of the language. Polite vs Casual speech needs to be considered. Silence vs Speaking must be considered. There are certain phrases that are appropriate for some situations but not for others. All of these are important to remember.
It sends a message to those you minister to
New OMF missionaries typically spend 4 years in training during their first term on the field. It sends a message to the Japanese that we love their culture, we love their language, we want to understand them, we want to hear their heartbeat. Of course, our desire is to share the good news of Jesus Christ in all its fullness but we want them to see that it is THEIR good news, not OUR news imposed on them. It takes patience, time and wisdom to teach the Bible in a way that the Japanese can see and understand that this message is for them, in their language, meeting their needs.
Learning a language IS ministry
Language learning is not a stepping stone to ministry, it IS ministry. I hope the 4 points above makes that clear. Before, I prayed and hoped that our supporters will be patient with us as we learn in order to minister later. Now I pray and hope our supporters will understand that our learning IS ministry. It is part of God’s overall plan for us being here and should be done with zeal and enthusiasm. Language learning also opens up opportunities for us to talk to Japanese and have conversations that would not otherwise be possible. Moreover, there is some ministry that we can do in Japanese, without even using Japanese. For example, we attend a bi-weekly calligraphy class attended by elderly Japanese. Last week we baked a cake for them…well, Aven did😊. The cake was a hit and we could feel how we were drawn closer into the group after that small gesture. In Japan, groups are formed over time and newcomers need to break into the group slowly. Gift giving is the most natural way to do this, we learnt this through immersion in the culture. We make many mistakes, we are corrected, laughed at, but also appreciated by the Japanese who still look at us as oddballs but accept us anyway. Praise God for that.
So, maybe you in a place where you are frustrated with learning or preparation for something that you want to do. Remember, God is in the process, not just the result. Also, thank you to our prayer and financial partners who see the grand purpose of God’s mission in Japan. You encourage us greatly.