Why is it important for missionaries to learn local languages?

Brits aren’t renowned for our language skills. It’s all too easy to go abroad and rely on people speaking English.

In cross-cultural work, though, language learning is often essential. This can be a daunting prospect for new workers starting to serve overseas.

To find out what it’s like to be in a new country learning a new language, we caught up with Charlotte*, an OMF worker in Thailand. She’s been there just under a year now, and shared some helpful insights into the value of language learning and how to approach it.

Understanding culture
Learning a language, particularly as an adult, is hard work. It can take years of practice, and even then you’re unlikely to ever reach true native-level skills. 

So why put yourself through it?
‘I really feel the value of not only learning the language, but going deeper in my culture,’ says Charlotte. Engaging with her language teachers helps her to do this.

For example, she once noticed her teacher always had a toothbrush and toothpaste in her drawer. Curious, Charlotte asked someone why and they explained, ‘Hygiene is a huge thing in Thailand.’ 

This means brushing your teeth every time you have lunch or dinner, and before you go to a prayer meeting. And for dairy-lovers, whose sweat smells unpleasant to Thai people, it’s even a case of making sure you change your clothes if you’re going somewhere else.

Although Charlotte doesn’t necessarily need to learn Thai for her role supporting new and current OMF workers, doing so helps her better understand local people and respectfully engage with them. This builds trust relationships, leading to opportunities to share life and share the gospel in a way people can relate to. Love of God and love of people is the ultimate motivation behind it all.

Building character
Language learning doesn’t just help us learn about a new culture, but also about ourselves. 

‘My shortcomings are significant,’ says Charlotte, and they’re often exposed in language lessons. For example, she says, ‘I certainly get really angry when I can’t make the right pronunciation’.

Having previously learned a new language in another country, it’s also tempting to think, ‘I’ve gone through language school before and I should be able to pick this up.’ It’s a frustrating and humbling experience to start from scratch.

But in the midst of all this, Charlotte sees God at work. 

‘It’s a sanctification process. As you learn a language, God will strip things off you that you didn’t know were there.’

This process provides an opportunity to grow and be distinctive. ‘Even though you can’t say one sentence, your deeds, your attitude, your manners will come out. And people will see there’s something different about you.’

Adjusting your attitude
A Bible passage which has helped Charlotte through this experience is Philippians 2:3-5: ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…’

Through her language learning and the shortcomings it exposes, she asks herself, ‘How can I be imitating Christ?’ 

For her, it’s a question of attitude. 

‘I’m a guest here. I want to honour them. I want to value what they value and appreciate what they appreciate. So, because I’m a guest, it’s never my right to impose my thoughts or my values.’

The key thing, Charlotte says, is to come as a learner: ‘Even if I have the language right 10 years down the line, there is still so much I could be learning in Thailand. I will always be a learner.’

One day at a time
As we round off our Zoom call, I ask Charlotte what advice she has for anyone considering going to East Asia and learning a language there. 

‘Take one day at a time and keep going even when it’s tough. Start with basic greetings, simple phrases. Celebrate the small things – even if it’s just three new words that day – and be patient with yourself. Don’t compare with someone else – we all learn at different speeds. Come with that attitude of wanting to learn, be curious about other people’s culture. Pray and invite others to pray for you.  

‘Ask yourself where your heart is too. You’re coming to serve, and God will teach you a lot of things through that.’

Dan Reid
OMF (UK) Media Intern

How to pray for language learners

  • New workers to come as learners, with open minds to how God wants to use them, listening to what he’s teaching them
  • Perseverance and diligence in learning
  • Teachers who don’t know Jesus, that God will reveal himself to them through their students
  • Christian teachers to be encouraged by their students