Imagine a world where everyone spoke the same language. There would be no need for Google Translate, translators, or subtitles. There might be less diversity around the world as the lines between cultures blurred. One unified government might rule the world instead of 195 countries having their own governments. Missionaries would not need to devote years to language learning. In fact, most people would have access to the gospel because there would be no need to translate the gospel into the 6,500 languages that currently exist in the world.
We know from scripture that there was a time in history before Genesis 11 when humans did speak only one language. But man’s heart was wicked. Scripture says that the inhabitants of the earth built a tall tower in hopes of reaching the heavens and making a name for themselves. God intervened, displaying his sovereignty, and chose to put further limitations upon man by scattering the nations and confusing their languages.
In numerous countries around the world, natives speak many languages simply to survive. It does not suffice to speak one language when multiple dialects are spoken in businesses, schools, and marketplaces. But, because the English language is so prevalent, most Americans only speak one language. This leads us to a question: “Is it necessary for American missionaries to invest money, time, and years into learning a local language, especially in countries where some English is spoken or in big cities where more people know English?” The short answer is yes.
“Missionaries spend years learning local languages to ensure that the people with whom they share the gospel are unrestricted in understanding it.”
It is necessary for us to invest in language learning because of the term heart language. A heart language is the language that someone speaks the most freely and is usually the one they grew up speaking in their home. It is the language that they communicate in with the most ease and the one that connects to their hearts and understanding the quickest.
For example, I speak two languages fluently. I speak two more on an intermediate level. But at the end of the day, my heart language is English. I am most comfortable reading the Bible and worshiping God in English. My heart connects to Scripture and responds without restrictions in worship through my mother tongue.
Missionaries spend years learning local languages to ensure that the people with whom they share the gospel are similarly unrestricted in understanding it. When they hear the gospel in their heart language, they can more fully understand God’s Word and have the opportunity to respond to it.
A Catalyst for Missions
Simple comprehension of the term heart language might be ample enough reason for missionaries to invest so much time and effort into language learning. But there are further reasons that such an emphasis is placed on verbal communication.
There is much at play when someone enters a new culture. Those from the host culture are sometimes skeptical of the clothes, looks, and habits of a foreigner. They might even have preconceptions about the worker’s lifestyle and religion. Because of these preconceptions, it is crucial for the missionary to show respect and humility when entering their culture. Missionaries should apologize when they commit a social faux pas and be quick to laugh at their mistakes.
When a local sees a missionary putting in the effort to learn their language, it often breaks down barriers. It communicates that the missionary is not there to change the culture or impose their views. They are not simply transient—here for a few weeks, only to leave soon. It communicates commitment and respect. It opens doors.
Locals may feel awkward or uncomfortable around a strange-looking person who can hardly communicate, but once language growth starts, it creates an avenue for exchange. People are often readier to invite you into their home when they know you value their culture. It can bring them great joy and pleasure to see you enjoying and appreciating their culture. They become more willing to share and be shared with.
Worth the Investment
Learning the heart language of a people is vital to the spread of the gospel, which means missionaries spend one to four years in intense language learning. They become lifelong learners because once full-time language ends, the process does not stop. For some, it means learning multiple languages. Sometimes the people they are reaching speak a different language than the host country.
“Language learning is hard work, but it is worth the joy of sharing the truth of the gospel and seeing your friend understand and be convicted by this truth.”
Language learning means hours of rewiring your brain. It means needing more sleep because your brain muscle is being stretched in ways that it never has before. It entails countless mistakes and a daily—sometimes hourly—dose of humility. You find yourself saying things like “You have a beautiful month,” when you really intended to compliment a new friend’s hair. Sometimes it even means accidentally using profanity because two words are almost pronounced the same except for one slight movement of the tongue.
And yet, despite coming to terms with sounding like a toddler in your new context, there are great joys in the journey. Nothing rivals the feeling of being understood—of the smile on a friend’s face when they see you and can communicate with you. Language learning is hard work, but it is worth the joy of sharing the truth of the gospel and seeing your friend understand and be convicted by this truth.
A fellow teammate recently put it to me this way: we get to be a part of God’s redemptive work to make right all sin, including the sin that led to Babel. After man attempted to build a tower reaching into the sky, God had to punish the sin of man. The consequence of this sin was to bring confusion and to make communication among men chaos.
And yet, because of his great mercy, God sent Christ so that all might know and have a relationship with him. He allows us to fight again the chaos. He gives us the ability and means to learn languages, in order that all might hear and know him. He is the redeemer. And this, in turn, makes language learning worth it. The Father’s glory among the nations is worth it.
Allison Watts grew up in Brazil as a missionary kid. She and her husband now live in North Africa and the Middle East, where they are currently in the throes of language learning. Every day is an adventure.