Language Tutors Teach Us More Than Just Language

One of the first things that missionaries will need to do once they arrive on the mission field is to do language learning.  It is rather obvious that if one is going to hope to minister to people of a different culture that learning the language of those people is necessary to be able to communicate with them and so be able to minister to them.

There are a number of ways in which a person can go about learning another language.  In our western culture, it is quite common for us to attend lectures and have a professor teach a large class of students who are all learning this new language.  On the other hand, some people prefer to learn the language on their own at home and listen to audio lessons and study a book.

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On the mission field though, it is much more common to have a native speaker work closely with one person, or perhaps as many as five people.  The students/missionaries will need to memorize new vocabulary and important grammar rules, just like in our classroom model, but much more time is usually spent on practical language production.

We have found over the years that this tutor/learner model has helped greatly to equip missionaries to become actively engaged in the new language faster than the traditional classroom teacher/student model.  And as a side benefit, the missionaries have also often become good friends with their tutors.  Listen to the story of one missionary as he tells us about his language learning experience.

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Jeffrey…He was the meek and ever smiling teacher/tutor.  He was so kind and patient with us in our drills.  Patient to try to answer our questions and patient to wait for us to catch up on our lessons after being out with sick children.  His favorite saying was “Bwana anaweza” (God is able).  He said it and meant it. 

As we got to know Jeffrey, he began to share more about his life.  His dad died when he was young so he was raised by his older brothers who were very harsh with him.  He had worked hard to be educated through form 4 (equivalent of about high school sophomores) and was desiring to go back for more school to become a teacher. 

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Jeffrey seemed to reflect the light and love of Jesus.  He invited us to his church.  He felt a little ashamed because they didn’t have a building.  When we went, we found a building made of sticks for walls but a full tin roof.  The words of the sermon and songs were Swahili, but the passion for the word and praising God reached beyond Swahili.  Jeffrey led most of the songs from his seat and he sang amazingly well.

Jeffrey was blessed to have a bicycle.  He lived a couple of miles from campus.  Every day the students had a 2 and a half hour break for lunch but our teachers had preparation sessions during that time.  So many days he didn’t have the time to go home for food or the money to get something on campus so he would just wait until afternoon tea break and eat as much as possible then.  He didn’t complain, he was just thankful for the snack. 

Jeffrey did a great job of teaching us the language.  But we believe that the most important lesson that he taught us was this, “Bwana anaweza.”  God is able to do more than we could ask or think.  He is able to take us frail humans and take care of us and use us for His glory.  He does it every day with Jeffrey. 

In this young man, of about 20 years, God exhibits that He is able to salvage the life of a boy raised in poverty within a hateful environment, in a country that is not the “land of opportunity”.  Yet each day Jeffrey shares the love of Jesus with others through his patience, kindness, smiles, songs and words about the Lord.  We pray that God will continue to bless Jeffrey with hope and someday the education and career that he desires.

                                

This story brings back many memories for me of the early years that our family spent in our village in Papua New Guinea.  There were a few men living there who were truly gifted in their language, not only just as native speakers, but as someone who had a natural gift to be able to help us to learn to speak their language.

We did not have any textbooks as we learned the village language, since their language had never been written down before.  Instead, we would carefully write down on paper the words that we heard, and then we would practice over and over again with our language helper until we would get it right.

Our language tutors were also so loving and patient with us.  And many of them became our best friends in the village during the time that we lived there.  They knew that we had come to learn their language in order to translate the Bible into their language.  And they so wanted this to happen, that they patiently helped us so that we could communicate with them, but not just our words, God’s Words.  What a joy to live among and to serve these wonderful people.

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