Your first week is a blur of meetings with new co-workers, navigating your local community, and kicking the effects of jetlag. And then, at the beginning of week two you make the journey to the language center for your first day of language learning.
While you voice your expectation that you will be a slow learner, internally you wonder if you will discover yourself to be some kind of secret language-learning savant. Fast-forward six months: you’re still speaking like a four-year-old and the frustration is growing inside of you. Your passion to share the gospel is what brought you to the field in the first place, but your ability to share anything more than some rote phrases and memorized bible verses makes meaningful evangelism all but impossible.
At the same time, you have met a cadre of a few English-speaking national friends whose company you enjoy and whose cultural translation has been invaluable for you. They are even willing to talk to you about spiritual things. You begin to think, maybe your time investing in language learning is just a distraction from the good ministry that you can be doing right now in English with these guys.
In fact, you rationalize, isn’t the whole idea of a world full of different languages part of the curse of Babel? Could it be that we are letting a curse prove to be the tool of the enemy to distract us from the kingdom work of sharing the gospel? Before we take this line of thought as gospel truth, let’s inspect a couple of relevant biblical texts before arguing for the persistent value of language learning.
Babel and Beyond
It is true that Genesis 11 teaches that the proliferation of languages is connected to God’s punishment of sinful human hubris. In fact, that confusion you are feeling in the middle of your language lessons has a precedent in the very language of Genesis 11:9 which concludes the Babel account, “Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.”
Lest we view the variety of languages as an ever-cursed aspect of human existence, however, we need to flip to the New Testament and consider what it has to say about language. In Acts 2, the famous scene at the feast of Pentecost, we see Babel undone. Luke records that in Jerusalem there were “devout men from every nation under heaven.” In other words, though Babel resulted in the dispersal of people into the nations of the earth, Pentecost offers a return to a common location.
Then, as Peter rises to speak the message of the gospel, miraculously, “each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” Babel multiplied confusion, but Pentecost produces understanding. But don’t miss this important detail: Babel’s curse was to multiply language and bring confusion. Pentecost’s solution was to utilize those multiple languages as vehicles for communicating clarity. Luke doesn’t tell us that everyone was made to understand Peter’s language. Rather, each person heard Peter’s message in their own language.
More than a Reversal
The implications of this account mean that God has not merely undone the effects of Babel. Instead, Pentecost takes what was once considered cursed and reappropriates it for mission. Think about it: if everyone was simply made to understand Peter’s language they would have received the message, but it would have been implied that it was a foreign message belonging to Peter and in Jerusalem where this miracle occurred.
Instead, hearing this message in their own language, the audience receives it with a sense of familiarity, recognizing it as a gospel meant for them. Furthermore, it is a message that by its very linguistic form lends itself to being shared back home among their neighbors and friends. In terms of global missions, Pentecost capitalizes on what Babel confused.
The Missional Strategy of Local Language Learning
While frustration about the slowness of language learning might cause us to seek solutions that get us doing “real ministry” faster, we must consider the long-term value of this plodding work. Today, as at Pentecost, our non-Christian neighbors need not only to understand the truth of the gospel, but also to recognize that it is for them and their people. Using the local language to present biblical truth is a key aspect of communicating the fact that this message is at home in their context. While I would never want to encourage someone to pass up the opportunity to share the gospel in any language at any time, I do hope that we never let go of the strategic value of learning language as missionaries seeking to demonstrate that the gospel is for everyone.
These are certainly not the only reasons for pursuing language learning in missions. Practically speaking, language learning can help a missionary avoid accidental miscommunication of key ideas that are otherwise lost in translation. Furthermore, knowing the local language well allows the inclusion of theological nuance necessary for faithful discipling. And since understanding the culture is key to communication, one can hardly be said to understand a culture without knowing the heart-language its people use to describe their wishes, worries, and world.
Each of these reasons probably deserves its own article. So for the present, I simply want to recognize that part of the beauty of Pentecost is that those gathered in Jerusalem received a message intended to go to the ends of the earth. Packaged in the language their friends and family spoke, this gospel came to them ready to be proclaimed in the tongues of people for whom it was intended. Today, as we learn local languages, we communicate more than just the gospel: we communicate that the gospel is for the people among whom we’ve come to live.
Editor’s Note: Matt presented a talk on this topic at Cedarville University in January 2021. You can listen here.