Last night I was talking with a dear friend who, after years of preparation and training, has finally moved his family to Southeast Asia. They are several months into language school, making strides but also feeling discouraged. I remember those days well. There is a very real temptation to feel useless, to take shortcuts, or to pursue a different strategy.
The Value of Language Learning for Missions
Many gospel workers who have used a translator have wondered about the best use of their gifts. Wouldn’t it be better to jump straight into ministry rather than spend years in dedicated language learning? However, in spite of the pain and humility of stumbling along—understanding only about 20% of what’s going on around you and expressing yourself like a four-year-old—I think the sacrifices of deep investment in language fluency are more than worth it. Here are several reasons why.
1 . Investment in Language Learning for Missions Demonstrates Love
Investing deeply in the language shows local friends and neighbors that you value them and their culture. As a foreigner moving into a new culture, there are myriad things that mark you out as different and separate. Many cultures show warm hospitality to outsiders and welcome newcomers, but even then, you are being welcomed as an outsider, not an insider. Additionally, many of our habits and preferences mark us out as different and threaten to separate us from those to whom we have come to show love.
Investing in the language is a surefire way to show your friends and neighbors that you really love and value them and their culture. And this is a gift that keeps on giving as you go. As a newcomer, you can show this love and care with a handful of helpful phrases and gestures. People see that you are making an effort.
However, if after six months your vocabulary is still limited to phrases like “Hello, my name is Clyde” and “What is this?” you have shown your hosts that you don’t truly value their language and culture. If, on the other hand, you continue to invest in the language and progress in proficiency, you will be invited ever deeper into the hearts of those whom you have come to serve. This gives a real depth and richness to fellowship and relationships. Most importantly, people are likely to be more receptive to the good news of Jesus if it is coming from someone who has demonstrated love and care for them.
2. Understanding Culture Involves Understanding Language
There are many things we can learn simply by living amidst people and observing and interacting with them. However, we can never fully understand the culture without also understanding the language.
Language is shaped by the culture; it gives expression to what people need and values. But language also shapes the culture. That is, the needs and values that shape the language end up producing cultural patterns. These patterns then give quick and easy expression to certain ideas while other ideas will be comparatively harder to express with precision.
An example may be helpful here. The people among whom we work value family deeply. This value is evident by the many family words they use. In English, if I say “uncle,” that could be my mother’s older brother, mother’s younger brother, mother’s older sister’s husband, mother’s younger sister’s husband—and the same for my father’s side. I would call all of them “uncle.” The language here, on the other hand, has eight different words to describe those relationships! And eight words for “aunt.” And many other similarly precise familial words.
The value of family and community expresses itself in a dizzying variety of expressions, which is necessary when compound families live together! By learning the language deeply, you not only acquire the ability to communicate broadly but also to gain insight into their values and patterns of thinking.
3. Our Mission Requires Words
The task Jesus has given us involves teaching and discipleship (Matthew 28:19–20). As he sends us into the world, his commission is to make disciples, teaching them all that he commands. This commission is broad, and our ability to communicate should be as well.
To be able to teach with depth, we need to be able to speak with clarity in the local language. This means more than being able to relate to people. We need to be able to clearly communicate complex concepts that are central to the gospel message, such as substitutionary atonement or propitiation.
Even in English, a language that has the benefit of centuries of Christian thought, these are complex ideas and largely unfamiliar words. The challenge only grows among a people where there has been little to no Christian influence and you are borrowing pagan religious terminology. The need for care and precision in your communication necessitates learning the local language deeply.
4. Longevity is Critical
A final reason language proficiency is important is somewhat practical—longevity. Language proficiency allows people to see you as an insider, and it helps you to feel at home. If every interaction you have all day every day reminds people that you are an outsider—and reminds you that this place is not your earthly home—it will be difficult to endure for very long. Language proficiency does the opposite. Every interaction has the potential to deepen relationships and identify you with the people to whom you minister.
The reasons for deep commitment to language learning and fluency are myriad, but as with any good thing, the price is high. It may take years, and it will certainly require a lot of God-given humility. If you are already working in or considering cross-cultural ministry, I want to encourage you to press in and press on in the great task of language learning for the glory of God. He is worthy!
 When it comes to expressing ideas, some are comparatively more difficult to express with precision.