The Language Barrier

by David Morgan
Posted on 1st February 2011

I never met a language I did not like! So says Carol Orwig, leader of the Language and Culture Acquisition course at Wycliffe Bible Translators' European Training Programme. I just love the openness and delight in 'the other' that this statement suggests.

Ability to speak another person's language is one of the essentials for successful communication. We know that learning the language and culture of a community we seek to live in, or be part of in some way, is integral to mission: it flows from the principles of the Word becoming flesh. Indeed it flows from creation itself, inasmuch as God made mankind in His own image, with capacity for words and speech and great diversity. And yet how many, old and young, stepping out, from these island shores into cross-cultural mission, sigh with relief when they find they are going to a place where English is understood, where English is taught in schools and the fear of finding oneself in a hubhub of incomprehensible sounds is diminished.

Whether because of our island location, our imperial history or because we shelter under the wing of American cultural domination of much of the world, Brits do not have a great reputation as language learners.

quoteopen language learning goes hand in hand with cross-cultural mission quoteclose

Nonetheless the fact is that language learning goes hand in hand with cross-cultural mission. In fact, because engagement in language learning obliges you to approach others with the vulnerability of a stuttering, helpless two year old, it arguably puts you in a much healthier place for ministry of any kind, in contrast to the know-it-all, who has nothing to learn.

To put it bluntly, the main reason why Brits don't take to language learning in greater numbers is down to attitude. They don't have to, they are happy to let others learn their language, and it makes socio-economic sense, if you think about it. Trouble is, it doesn't make missiological sense!

But the good news is that there are a host of helps on hand to assist those wanting to adjust that attitude problem and take language learning more seriously, whether they are from Britain or anywhere else. In Wycliffe Bible Translators we have a long heritage of taking language learning seriously, however difficult or obscure that language might at first appear. If a small child can learn it, so can you! And what's more, we are passionate about making available to others the insights we have gained! Those insights are particularly pertinent where there is no course book and no language school available to the new language learner.

An older generation might have learnt by heart dialogues to be practised here, there and everywhere. Excellent for getting around the community, if you feel able to do that, but this approach failed to exploit the brain's stunning capacity to associate language with meaning!

These days we recommend the learner to start by concentrating on relating to just one or two native speakers, aiming to help them understand your needs as a language learner and involving them in activities that help you learn. An activity that helps the learner associate (and learn) meaning in language may be as simple as the well tried 'O'Grady says' type of activity. In more adventurous mode, it may be the construction of a small obstacle course where the blind-folded language learner responds to commands from the native speaker to stand on the chair, crawl under the table, avoid the waste bin in front of you etc. This can be hilarious fun as well as a good learning time, engaging both mind and body in the process!

Using a book of pictures with the native speaker can also be highly productive as a language learning tool. It may be a simple photo album of family and friends that you have, although to be most effective you need to include pictures of people doing things. In the early days of language learning, you would not be using the 'What is this person doing?' type of question, but rather responding to 'Point to the lady who is holding the child', 'Show me a picture of your grandfather'.

Language learning also places emphasis on memorization techniques, not the learning of dialogues but the memorization of vocabulary. These days there is plenty of software around that can help with this challenge.

Our language learning courses famously make use of phonetics, the science that attempts to capture all the sounds that the human vocal apparatus can produce and put them in symbolic form. This attention to minute detail that phonetics goes into can, at first, appear quite arcane. But some familiarity with phonetics provides the learner with essential help in becoming alert to the significance of vital 'small differences' of length or stress or tone or tongue position. It also boosts confidence that you can make the required sound and gives a methodology to discern the difference and to practise it.

quoteopen You can never successfully learn a language divorced from its culture. Language is an expression of culture quoteclose

Another crucial aspect of language learning today is to link language learning with culture learning. You can never successfully learn a language divorced from its culture. Language is an expression of culture. There are simple observation techniques or check lists to perform that can assist the learner in this process.

Redcliffe College is partnering with Wycliffe Bible Translators to provide training for Bible Translation and related ministries.

The courses are taught in partnership with Wycliffe and SIL International. They fulfil the initial training requirements of these organisations for those planning to work in language-related roles. They are also appropriate for anyone wishing to gain a linguistic understanding of how language works in order to serve more effectively across cultures.

May God keep us always learning!

David Morgan worked for 16 years in Central Africa with Wycliffe Bible Translators and for 10 years headed up Wycliffe's European Training Programme at Horsleys Green near High Wycombe. He is married to Sharon and they have two children.