Elliot Martin, 2019 Graduate
One of the biggest lessons I learned from my internship in Mayotte is the importance of language learning. Without first learning someone’s language, you cannot serve them well. In Duane Elmer’s book Cross-Cultural Servanthood, Elmer describes servanthood with a set of steps. He says, “You can’t serve someone you do not understand… You can’t understand others until you have learned about, from and with them… You can’t learn important information from someone until there is trust in the relationship… To build trust others must know that you accept and value them as people… Before you can communicate acceptance, people must experience your openness.” Openness, acceptance, trust, learning, understanding, then service. You may not agree with Elmer’s steps to servanthood, but you can read his book to hear his arguments. What I want to say, or rather ask, is how many of those steps can you do well if you can’t communicate deeply with someone?
I’ll use a story as an anecdote. Towards the end of my internship, I went to a Christian doctor’s house where his family was having a prayer meeting with other French Christians in his village. As people came into the house, I would greet them with the simple phrases I knew how to speak in French (“My name is Elliott.”, “How are you?”, “What’s your name?”, “I can only speak a little bit of French.”, etc.). I couldn’t say a ton, but I think they understood me, and I understood some, but not all, of what they said. Then, the doctor gave a brief lesson from the Bible. I understood even less. Then, we prayed. Here, I became a little proud of my French ability – I shared a prayer request and prayed in French. Some of the people even said “amen,” so it must have at least made some sense. But, then came the worst part. When we finished praying, all of them started asking me questions in French. “Why are you in Mayotte?” “Do you have a girlfriend?” “Are you getting married?” “How many kids do you want?” Yes, they asked all of those questions and more.
I’ll let you guess how I answered those questions with my very limited vocabulary. Here’s my point: to some of the questions, I gave simpler answers than I would have typically given because I couldn’t fully explain the answers to those questions. I gave simplified answers rather than trying to explain the whole truth. And, I could tell other people did the same thing to me when they realized I didn’t speak French well. That’s not openness, but it makes sense. Why would I expect people to spend the time explaining personal or detailed information to me when they aren’t sure if I am understanding everything in the way intended for me to understand it? And to go down Elmer’s list, why should I expect people to accept me when I might not be giving them the whole truth because I don’t know how to explain all the details? How do you build trust with someone when you can only communicate with them on a shallow level? Can I really learn about someone if they don’t speak to me in the same way as they speak to the people they talk to every day? How much understanding can happen if they are explaining ideas in one language and I am trying to think about those ideas in a language that may not be able to literally translate the thoughts word for word? And if I perceive who they are, what they want, or where they are coming from even slightly differently than the way they are meaning to communicate those things, how could that affect the way I serve them?
The encouraging part is that many people do take the time to understand a language so well that they can think or even sound like a local. I can think of plenty of examples of international students that speak just as well as (maybe even better than!) most native English speakers. Communicating deeply, clearly, and precisely is essential to service. And getting to that point is doable. It just might take a little more than “I’ll figure it out once I get there.”
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.