Originally all humans spoke the same language. The biblical book of Genesis says that it was only when united against God that their words were divinely confused and those who understood each other migrated together to various corners of the world. (Genesis 11: 1-9) Eons later, when the Holy Spirit arrived on the earth after Christ’s resurrection, the first Christians were overcome with great power from heaven that allowed them to speak and understand everyone’s native tongue. It is said that passersby could hear the wonders of God being declared in their own language. (Acts 2:1-12)
We are expressive beings. Made in the image of our heavenly Father, humans flourish in the capacity for sharing thought, feelings and truths that stir the soul. However, though it was God’s original plan for one united humanity of shared speech, today scores of diverse dialects exist amongst the nations. Are we saying this is a bad thing? I really don’t think so, as the Lord is master of bringing the good, the beautiful, out of unfavorable circumstances. Still, for the missionary, language can seem an impossibly tall hurdle in spreading the gospel. Which is why after confirming where God wants you to go and getting the connections in motion, it’s time to get into that country’s native tongue.
Lets start with the “why”. Honestly, the good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection is not going to seem good at all if you can’t relay it successfully to someone. If those that speak our own language still have a list of questions, what do you think of the ones who perhaps grew up in a non-Christian society? Topics like “sin” or “the trinity”, that we have heard explained countless times from the stage, can be completely lost on a foreigner. On the other hand, there may be methods of expressing what you want to say more effectively in their language that don’t exist in your own. Languages have evolved differently over the course of human history after all.
The other thing to keep in mind is how much appreciation one human being can feel for another when they realize that you took the time to learn their mother tongue. It shows them that they are not simply a number to you, just a nameless character to be brought into the church doors. I myself am renewing the efforts to learn Japanese after studying in college and a bit of slacking off in the years after. I am in no way an authority on the language, but I can truthfully tell you that I enjoy a certain warmth of human connectivity in being able to communicate in some way with friends here; whether it be about Jesus or that far off place we’d both like to travel to someday.
There was a myth that was circulating while I was in college. It went something like this; after spending a year abroad, one will be fluent in that locale’s language. I warn you, do not count on this. While it largely depends on an individual’s learning speed and study habits, a language is much more than a list of nouns, verbs and adjectives and it will take considerable time and effort to penetrate and understand things like culture and the native mentality that effects how and when to use what you’ve learned.
I suggest enrolling in a class while still in your home country. If you’re a student, why not take up the language as one of your electives or even declare it your minor, as I did? There’s also software like “Rosetta Stone” that helps with a more natural approach to picking up a language. Of course living in the country of your missions post will accelerate your learning, but there’s nothing wrong with getting a head start. Frankly, there’s no telling how busy you’ll be doing missionary work, staying fervent in prayer or working a part time job to make ends meet. So, get going on those books, visit foreign communities and marketplaces in your city or town, explore and have fun knowing you’re realizing God’s original plan of human connection.