Over the past twenty-two years we have welcomed over two thousand students, most of them missionary candidates, to "our" language school in the southern suburbs of Paris, and we are often asked to what extent the Christian worker needs to be fluent in a given language - in our case, French.
The easy, and often right, answer is of course to suggest that the learner should aim at absolute accuracy, and that just as spiritual perfection is the aim of the Christian life, linguistic perfection should be his aim in mastering the language he will use to communicate the Gospel. We usually point out that although perfection needs to be the aim in both cases, one should not be too despondent when falling somewhat short of the aim! It is also true that someone with a less than perfect grasp of the language, but a heart for the people, will communicate the gospel far better than a brilliant linguist who lacks love for the people he is called to reach. That, of course, is no excuse for sloppy language learning, but is an even more important factor than purely language skills.
What is fluency?
So how fluent do you really need to be? It depends so much on the ministry to which you are called. In normal circumstances a pastor called to minister to a church and to evangelise in the native language of a country needs absolute fluency (which may not always mean 100% grammatical accuracy or a flawless accent), with in addition to the knowledge of the language the ability to catch all sorts of literary or topical allusions, "in" jokes, and to make the appropriate response. Such fluency is prepared for in his initial study, but is built on through years of experience in the country, gleaning his information on the world around not primarily from the BBC or CNN, but from the media of the host country. That in itself presupposes that he will become familiar with these media and reasonably comfortable with them during the initial period of language study, which demands quite a high level of comprehension from the outset.
... and the missionary spouse?
Another important point is the language level of the spouse, especially in the case of a wife (or husband in some cases) whose main task is to raise the children. Her level needs to be similar to that of her husband, since in the normal course of his work he will always be in situations when he will be called on to use and develop his use of the language. The homemaker however, especially when the children are not yet of school age, may have to be much more assertive in getting out and seeking opportunities to develop her language skills. If her initial level in the language does not give her enough confidence, she may well retreat into her shell and feel very ill at ease and critical of the host country. We have known several cases of this happening and a promising ministry coming to a sudden end because the spouse did not see how important it was to be at ease in the language in her role of "missionary wife".
How about support workers and short-termers?
Those who are sent to the mission as short-term "support workers" (teachers of missionary children, office staff who will largely be working in their native tongue, ...) obviously do not need the same level of fluency as the "front line" workers, but here too they need at least "survival" knowledge of the target language or languages so that they are not a burden on the other workers in everyday situations, and also for their own security and appreciation of the host country. It seems such a pity when such workers have no direct contact with any local inhabitants except those who speak their language, and most of us have seen people's attitudes change when we have just been able to say a few words in the local language. I can still see the transformation in a Hungarian border official's face when my wife and I said "köszönöm ("Thank you") as he handed us our passports back, and the twenty or so words in a Cameroonian language I learned when visiting the country for a month opened doors into people's hearts and home in a spectacular way. The people concerned could all speak French - but a few words in the "heart language" made such a difference, even though they knew that I only knew those few words.
So how fluent do you need to be? It depends on your ministry and on your language ability, but "going the second (linguistic) mile" and learning that extra little bit is always a wise investment!