Language learning is difficult. A certain percentage of the population physically doesn’t have the wiring to learn another language. Missionaries sometimes have many responsibilities other than language learning that can crowd it out. Also, language learning gets more and more difficult as we age. It is unusual for someone over 40 to become fluent in a new language. It is also unusual for someone who has lived in a new culture for more than a few years to make vast improvements in their language proficiency.
Some church mission teams recognize that a missionary they financially sponsor and who has been on the field for several years, just can’t communicate fluently at a level where he can share the gospel or teach a basic Bible study.
What should we do?
There are some key ministry assignments overseas that do not require a high level of proficiency in the local language. It is possible for a missionary to be effective though he doesn’t know the local language fluently. Examples include English language teachers, providing missionary support, or being a pastor of an international church. Have a conversation with the missionary who can’t get the language to determine if he has an assignment that does not require high proficiency in the local language.
If his assignment does require high proficiency and he doesn’t know the language, find out what happened. Was there a special assignment that distracted the missionary from language learning? Did he not use effective language learning methods? Help the missionary to get back on track, but it is appropriate to warn him that the church’s ongoing support may be contingent on his learning language in the next year or two. If he doesn’t learn it early in his missionary career, history tells us that he never will.
Stewarding financial resources is an important role in your church. Avoid the error of funding missionaries when they can’t get the language.
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