Remind Me to Learn Only One New Language at a Time

“…where I heard a language that I understood not.” –Psalm 81:5

When we were students at Baptist Bible Translators Institute, we studied dozens of different languages. From Albanian to Zapotec, we listened to, mimicked, wrote, and analyzed their sound patterns, their tones, and their rhythms. Several times, as we were being swamped by learning all the possible stops, fricatives, nasals, and affricates, we were calmly assured by our instructors: “When you get to the field, you only have to learn one language and the sounds associated with that one language.”

So when we moved in among the Kamea a few years ago, our thought was that we would only have to learn Kamea (an unwritten dialect). Then my son announced that he was leaving early on furlough, and that we would be holding the fort until he and his family returned in a year or so. Suddenly, Lena and I realized that now we also needed to learn the trade language, Melanesian Pidgin, to function outside of our tribe.

Since Pidgin is a written language, largely based on English, we thought, “This won’t be too bad. We can use written and audio Pidgin materials and lessons, and we should be proficient in no time at all.” Famous last words.

I developed study cards for both Kamea and Pidgin. When we flew out for supplies, I bought Pidgin story books to supplement our self-taught Pidgin language course. Only a few of our contacts in the jungle speak English, so we were forced to use Pidgin and Kamea to communicate. Then it happened; we were mixing all three languages! There were days where we seemed to be making some progress, and the sentences, childish as they were, really flowed. The next day, we would slaughter the language so badly that people even cocked their heads like a dog hearing a strange sound for the first time.

Communication is so vital to us in our daily lives; but how often we take it for granted when we live among those who speak our native tongue. Find yourself placed among those of a “strange speech,” and you long for the ability to communicate your thoughts clearly and powerfully. For any missionary who has to cross language and culture barriers to perform his ministry, there should be a team of prayer warriors back home holding the ropes for him. Few things feel more isolating than an inability to communicate with or to understand what is being said by those around you.

A missionary friend in Hungary reminded me that, “The Lord GOD hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary:” (Isaiah 50:4) Of course, that’s easy for him to say; he had already learned to speak Russian before beginning his language studies in Hungary!

The truths of God’s Word are the most important things to be communicated. Pray for those who must learn a new language in order to carry on their ministry. It is hard to tell people about the love of God while their heads are cocked at an angle!

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