Living in a foreign country where you don’t know the language is like trying to communicate with someone when you are both underwater—you’re unable to make yourself understood and unable to understand the person communicating with you. It is difficult to acquire skills, move ahead, or to make progress. But in many places around the world, if you can speak English, chances are good that you can rise above the waterline into the open air.
Living in Babel
Europe is one place where this is a pressing reality for millions. Many of the West Africans living in Paris, for example, and even Parisians themselves, desperately want to learn English as a second language.
The migration crisis in Europe, caused largely by people trying to escape countries affected by wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and South Sudan, is not getting any better. People arrive on a daily basis wanting to claim asylum. But they aren’t the only ones taking chances, literally risking their lives, to come to Europe. Others come because they are unable to find employment in their country and unable to provide for their families. They are seeking a better life, trying to acquire new skills, and trying to find work.
Even for people who are originally from Europe, the ability to speak English is often a prerequisite for integrating into the workforce. In France, for example, in order to be considered for jobs in hotels, restaurants, and fields related to tourism or international business, a high score on an English proficiency test is required. In most cases, not being able to speak English is the obstacle that prevents people from securing a respectable and good-paying job.
Many who live in Europe are able to participate in government-funded English courses. Or they have the ability to attend free courses offered by approved associations. But others find it difficult to attend the programs or struggle to find classes near their residences. Another problem students encounter is the lack of opportunities they have to practice the English they are learning. Courses equip students with basic vocabulary and grammar, but this is rarely sufficient in providing the experience and confidence they need to be able to freely express themselves.
For Ibrahima,* a West African man living in Paris, learning English may be the key that opens the door to find stable work in Europe. Ibrahima came to France five years ago because he couldn’t find a job in his home country in order to adequately provide for his family. He is an economic migrant—a man pushed out of his country by a job market built upon the foundations of corruption, status, and privilege.
Ibrahima is business minded and smart. In order to sell to more tourists, he speaks Italian, Spanish, French, and even greets tourists in Korean—and those languages don’t even include his mother tongue. Ibrahima believes if he could speak English proficiently, he would find a better job in Europe or, better yet, be able to return to his home country and improve his chances of getting a job with the networks, skills, and know-how he acquired in the West.
Ibrahima currently works ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week, selling souvenirs to tourists who pass by the Eiffel Tower. He doesn’t have time to attend many of the free English classes offered by the French government or by the many associations operating in Paris (and many will not accept him because of his immigration status). His situation, however, does not prevent him from trying to learn as much English as he can.
Ibrahima is unable to attend classes, so I go to him and help set up his phone with English language-learning applications and photos of narratives and exercises from a French/English language learning workbook. Weekly visits and conversations in English, Bible stories in English, and English songs give him the practice he needs while also introducing him to the gospel.
And that is where teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) ministries come in. There is a great opportunity for all types of English speakers—students, teachers, retirees—to help missionaries and churches who currently offer English classes as part of their strategy to share the gospel. Teaching English, facilitating discussion groups, organizing language exchanges, or hosting multiday English language intensives creates excellent opportunities to develop friendships and to enter into gospel conversations with many who still have not heard the good news.
Can You Help?
Have you ever considered your ability to speak English as a gift God has given you to share the gospel? As our world becomes more globalized, people from all nations are traversing the globe. And in many parts of the world, the English language is becoming the one common denominator that can unite us.
In many cases, it is not necessary for English speakers to hold a Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certification in order to work alongside churches or missionaries using ESL as an outreach tool. If you want to learn more about teaching English cross-culturally, resources are available.
- Send Relief, a component of the North American Mission Board’s focus on compassion ministry, offers free ESL resources (including a guide for teaching church-based ESL ministries and information on teaching English as a foreign language).
- Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures has helpful tips for understanding how people from other cultures think and behave.
- The Culture Map will help you decode cultural differences in everyday conversations, business transactions, or in any other multicultural environment.
IMB teams throughout the world incorporate ESL classes into the work to meet tangible needs and create opportunities to share the gospel. Short-term volunteers are vital to this work because they increase the breadth and depth of our outreach. Prayerfully consider joining a team on mission by teaching ESL.
Carson West and his family lived in Africa before moving to Paris to work among the diaspora of Sub-Saharan Africa. They have served with IMB for four years.