Today I thought I’d write a short post about language acquisition. Whether you are learning Japanese, Portuguese, or Luganda for the sake of the gospel you are on an amazing journey of faith and humility! I have a friend who is about to embark on the lifelong journey of learning Japanese (she and her husband will be career missionaries) and it’s quite daunting for her.
I once read a very short but interesting article comparing learning Chinese vs. Japanese – what has stuck with me is the chart:
I would say it seems fairly accurate to me. Initially, Japanese pronunciation seems quite manageable, even easy (not like those tonal languages). However, it gets super difficult when you actually aim to sound like a native with the correct intonation…those Japanese r’s can be tricky! I have observed that even veteran missionaries of 20+ years simply cannot pronounce Japanese very well, but Japanese people are so incredibly gracious that it almost doesn’t matter. Also, the grammar concepts do get much easier over time, but during the first few years it can feel like climbing Mt. Everest! The thing about Japanese is that if you can just manage stick with it and not give up (perseverance) you will definitely see major improvement over time.
This afternoon I was looking at a neat website of missionaries in Latin America who were sharing very embarrassing stories of major language bloopers. My favorite funny story: “In wanting to describe the change he had experienced when he accepted Christ about 20 years before, he said instead that he had experienced a great menopause in his life 20 years before.”
Another missionary shared, “Most of my spiritual gifts are wrapped up in my ability to speak (teaching, exhortation), so initially not being able to speak the language caused a bit of an identity crisis. It was good, though, and forced me to rediscover my value and identity in Jesus, and not in my gifts or abilities.”
“The best part of learning a new language is that it allows you to enter into the inner-circle of culture. You catch nuances, ideas, dreams, foundations, and cultural challenges that you could have never gotten through a translation. It is also a key medium to building meaningful relationships, which is pretty vital to longevity on the mission field.”
I really appreciated this comment because when you first arrive on the field and cannot speak very well, you might be tempted to despair. I have a missionary friend who I (secretly) watched go through this process firsthand. In his home country, he was a successful pastor and extremely verbal – once he arrived in Japan I observed that it seemed to be big struggle for him to adjust to his new identity during his “silent period.” He compared and often commented on the Japanese abilities of missionaries around him, including myself. Thankfully, he speaks much better Japanese now, but I remember his early days.
In closing, I would like to share a message of encouragement from John Piper for new missionaries or missionaries struggling to learn a foreign language for the sake of the gospel.