Today I was reading a blog by a long-term missionary to Mexico. He found that speaking Spanish wasn’t enough in the region he was working in: “In several towns in the state of Yucatán, many still speak the traditional indigenous language which has changed only slightly from the time of the pyramid builders of Chichen Itza to the present. Others are bilingual, having learned Spanish in school, but clearly function better in their native language.”

His response to this dilemma was to learn Mayan! I was deeply impressed that this American missionary has so diligently applied himself to learn Mayan even though he could probably function with Spanish alone. Here are some of his thoughts about why it was important for him to learn the native language:

“So how do we respond to this fact [that Spanish wasn’t enough]? Well, we could rely upon those who are bilingual to translate for us, hoping that they will correctly interpret the meaning of our message. But what does this teach the Maya speakers? I feel it teaches them that the gospel is something foreign. Something that requires special abilities in order to understand, and that salvation is reserved for those who earn it by learning this foreign system. I don’t believe that our God is like that.”

“Understanding this, if we are to “come near” as Christ’s ambassadors and show the Maya that this message is in fact for them, that Christ came to save every, tribe, tongue and nation, then we in turn should take the steps to learn to share this salvation in their native tongue.”

“So here I am again learning anew how to function in another language, struggling to come up with the words to respond to the teacher. However, when I consider what Christ did for us, coming to us as a baby, unable to speak, to function on His own, in order to live among us, I say that my struggle is worth it if it allows me to live among this people and reveal to them the God that we serve, the God who came near.”

Amen, I couldn’t say this better myself! I found myself thinking, “Yes! Exactly, that’s right!” as I was reading his words. His words really spoke to me and gave me encouragement to press on in my ninth year of Japanese language studies. If this guy can learn Mayan, I can persevere with my Japanese! Sometimes I am really tempted with a “why bother” attitude: Why am I killing myself to learn Japanese? Why do I keep practicing my kanji strokes over and over until my hand is cramped? Why am I studying Japanese for two hours a day when I could be reading or doing something more “useful”? Why do I review vocabulary day after day and make up homemade index cards full of words that I so quickly forget? To reveal God to the Japanese!

I think the words of this missionary to Mexico are particularly applicable to missionaries in Japan. I seldom, if ever, come across American missionaries who have a superior grasp of the Japanese language. It’s almost like an epidemic among American missionaries – I’d like to call it “Japanese language dysfunction disorder.” I have recently been in correspondence with Carol Lewis whose job is training missionaries at the WorldView Center. She mentioned in one of her articles that fewer than 30% of the American missionaries she has met have learned the language of the people they work with. Can that really be so? How utterly tragic!

Carol added, “If we want to demonstrate the humility of Christ in coming as a baby, in being squeezed into a human womb and living in a human family, then we must put ourselves in the same position as we interact with others.  If we choose not to do this then we put ourselves instead, in the power position.  We actually communicate the opposite of what Jesus demonstrated.  Can you imagine how the Japanese feel when they must speak a foreign language in order to communicate with missionaries?”

Carol posed a good question to me that has got me thinking. Why don’t missionaries learn the language of the people they called to serve? When posed with this question, “one of the presenters [at a meeting about language acquisition] said that he thought the reason most missionaries don’t learn language to a professional level, is that they will have to change.  Truly, if you are speaking another language at that level or higher, you have chosen to incorporate aspects of the culture into (not just you day to day living, but) your thinking.” Learning Japanese will totally change you; what an exciting and scary process this can be. Your mannerisms, your way of thinking, the way that you hold yourself, your gestures, your voice, your posture, and your intonation will change…and your very self.

If you are a missionary to Japan and you are facing the prospect of learning Japanese, I would implore you to take these words to heart. Pray that God will help you learn Japanese to the best of your ability, even if you are only planning to be in Japan short-term. Resist the temptation to rely on translators (for an extended length of time) or to stop studying Japanese once language school is finished. Also, try not to socialize only with other foreigners or become so busy with your “ministry” that you neglect your Japanese studies. Please don’t have the common attitude of, “I’ll get around to learning Japanese one of these days!” Believe that God is willing and able to bring you to a place where you can talk about Jesus freely in Japanese. He is more than able to do these things!