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How to Learn a Language and a Culture

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Cultural Role and Language Proficiency

Host People's Perception
Language and Personality
Work in Orientation
Dynamic and Relational Approach
Relational Skills


Some people have an idea of missionaries as cultural imperialists who work through translators without any real idea of what the people are like or believe.  Maybe some are.

But on the whole, I've found missionaries to be more culturally aware, linguistically competent and anthropologically trained than other foreigners working outside their home country.  In addition, most missionaries really love the people they work with for themselves, and develop deep personal relationships with them.  That is, they become accepted and trusted as insiders, not outsiders.

The steps of preparation they go through are useful for any persons entering a foreign culture and language.  Practical steps can be taken by anyone entering another culture for whatever purposes, to learn, from the local people, how to relate to the local people and to learn to communicate with them in their worldview.  In this article I will outline steps of preparation and approaches for developing an acceptable role in your new target culture.

Role in Society

The matter in focus here is the function of language in the role the foreigner is developing in the society.  In fact, most foreigners have a focus on the money they can make, the dissertation they will write, or other motivations.

The more oriented toward a change in the society a foreigner's goal is, the more critical it is to understand the way the people think and make decisions.  The deepest decisions are made in the deepest recesses of the psyche, in terms of the mother tongue and worldview.

What we are concerned with is becoming a member of the society before trying to accept the responsibility of being an agent for change in the society.  The foreigner, missionary or otherwise, who wishes to foster some kind of change must first gain an acceptance in the society.  The language aspect is important, because the way we speak determines to a large degree how people perceive us, what place we will have in that society.

Missionaries come to a new country for the purpose of making some contribution, of fostering change in certain areas of life.  But change imposed from the outside is not usually as effective as change fostered from within.  And change in behavior (to fit the formal requirements) may not indicate a change in belief.

In addition, the outsider does not initially know the procedures and social mechanisms for change in the new society.  Thus the most effective initial role for any foreigner (who expects to stay very long) is the role of learner.

Host People's Perception

The foreigner is going to be limited to the host people's perception of who he is.  That means what they require of a foreigner may be different from the foreigner's expectations.  Missionaries, who wish to make contact with people at the deepest part of their being, where life decisions are made, may have a greater challenge than others, to know the worldview and learn the language and understand decision-making formats of the target culture.  Let me address some comments to missionaries.  Others are free to listen in!  Much of it will apply to you.

Role Deprivation.  The role they are able or willing to give the newcomer may not match the one he or she wants.  Will the newcomer know how to deal with that role deprivation? This will be especially acute during the early stages of language learning.  The ultimate implication is that he or she will actually have to be a different person in the host people's world than in the world he or she came from.

When we first arrive, and for some time afterwards, we cannot talk so we cannot express our ideas.  Thus we are going to be (to the local people) a person of limited education, of limited social status at first.  This can bring frustration.  But frustration can be diminished if the learner understands that this is normal, and is aided in using this frustration as a positive opportunity to adjust expectations and develop the learner role, to accept that it is all right to be limited, and to work systematically to overcome those limitations.

Foreign Status.  On the other hand, in today's world, with international travel, movies and broader awareness of other cultures, there is a sort of acceptance, or tolerance, for a foreigner in many cultures.  There is an acceptance of the symbols of status that go along with the trappings of modern life.  There is a separate category for the person who owns an automobile, for instance, whether the person is a foreigner or a local.

This can provide status for the Westerner who comes to a Third-World country, and moves around the major routes in a Peugeot.  It will also carry judgemental baggage in the host culture.  This person may be judged by different standards than whether he or she can speak the local language.

This presents a problem that may go even deeper than the simple cultural and linguistic ignorance mentioned earlier.  The "Peugeot missionary" in Africa may have accepted a status or role in the society that will actually hinder assimilation into the society and even learning of the language.

The projected image or role, or the perceived role imposed upon the missionary by the local people, may be so at variance with the missionary's self-concept or desired role that the missionary is actually kept outside the cultural network.  This may be a more acute problem for a religious worker than for someone in business or aid work, whose work may be more technical and involve less interaction with the local people.

Active Learners Active learners will accept the limitations of language and cultural ignorance as a positive opportunity.  Language learners should foster the learner role as a positive opportunity to develop personal ability in language and social interaction.  They do not have to talk like professors or pastors -- they can do that later.  Colleagues more experienced in the culture should help new people to feel good about themselves in this learner role.

The learner who persists in making it clear that he or she wants to really become a part of the people's life and identity can succeed.  This means being a real learner then earning a valid role within the society, not accepting the deceptive and cheap status provided by money and goods, or a vehicle.

Language and Personality

All these personality factors are closely related to and largely dependent on the language skills a person has at a given time: who he is in society, how he appears to the host people, what he can do and how he relates to people.  At this point the orientation program must help newcomers become active learners.  This should enable them to accept that role and the limitations it implies, but help them to develop as far as possible their ability to change.

As the learner progresses, the learner aspect of his or her identity becomes a smaller and smaller portion of their social role.  But in order to make good progress, the learner role must be maximized from the beginning. The orientation program should include certain components that would help the language learner participate more meaningfully in community situations, to understand basic matters of daily living, buying and selling, and events like worship and family meals that illustrate the social depth of the people and their self-identity.

Particularly religious workers will need to learn to pray and worship in local terms, as part of their learning, before they attempt to take charge of anything.  These normal life activities then become a part of the learning and foster the development of the learner role in a natural social context.

True cultural orientation is a development of a new version of the personality, appropriate to the new cultural setting and worldview.  Otherwise, real interpersonal communication will be limited and frustrations will be many.

Work in Orientation

Things aren't done in the new culture the way they were "back home."  Orientation should foster an understanding of ministry or other technical work as it is carried out in the local context, particularly to learn major differences from the foreigner's home culture.  For instance, in a program design for a mission agency in Rwanda, I suggested an introduction to the "Counseil Protestant" (Council of Evangelical Churches).  This would provide an indigenous point of reference, along with other specific areas and activities of ministry in the country and of the host denomination in that country.

This would gradually enable new missionaries to understand what a Christian person has to be in that country, how one may be involved in Christian ministry there and what life involves there.  In addition, orientation should include experience and actual involvement in work activities, but as learning opportunities.

Dynamic and Relational Approach

It is at this point that American Christian workers may discover their weakest link, and their greatesdt limitation in crossing the worldview gap.  Effective missionary orientation programs train their candidates in pre-field or in-culture ortientation programs.  All Westerners need preparation to relate and communicate in the world's dominant dynamic and relational cultures.

In reality, the same applies to any westerner with a contemporary rationalist concept of an ordered universe.  A weakness in our western worldview assumptions makes us think that problems of communication or cultural change are primarily informational.  Facts and objective reality leds to abstract thinking.  This is foreign to most dynamic, relational cultures of the world.

This shows up in the approach to what evangelical Christians call "witness."  Americans, I have said, think of decision-making as based on information.  Americans benevolently -- and somewhat naively in the face of the evidence of recent decades -- believe that people will "do the right thing" if they just have enough information, and the right information.

Failure and the Worldview Gap

Thus the idea is that we can help people in "underprivileged" countries by teaching the way things really are, and give them new programs and techniques that will fix their problem.  But most Western "experts" or project workers don't try to understand how people already think the world works.  There is usually a great conceptul gap (difference in worldviews) that causes most projects to fail in the long run.

"Members" of the Western worldview think of the world as an objective external, organized reality, that we can explore, analyze and learn about.  Then when we learn enough, we can manipulate our situation, our environment, and the external realities of the world around us, even the unseen world.  This is often how Western Christians see the practice of prayer -- a practical way to change objective reality.  (They don't realize this is quite different from the older European Christian view of prayer as meditation and "listening.")  This is a foreign concept to major segments of the human population worlwide.

So Westerners will focus on information in their attempts to make things better.  This will not connect very deeply with the concepts of oral and relational cultures, with their dynamic concept of interaction with the unseen powers of the universe.

Facts or Focus -- Knowing or Refocusing

Evangelical Christians, as "members" of that Western philosophical worldview, tend to think that "witnessing" (or "giving your testimony") means giving out certain objective facts.  Ironically, this is a view derived from the scientific rationalist worldview. This leads them to think in terms of a pattern of communicating information and and eliciting a decision based on that information.  I do not think that is particularly biblical.  Doesn't the word "testimony" means telling what you saw, heard or experienced?

This radical rationalist, informational approach overlooks the basic point that the Good News is dealing with restoring relationships, not just learning information. It is not primarily an intellectual process.  The more radical "evangelical" approaches, strangely, focus on knowledge of facts, and agreement to them! This same Western worldview limitation affects all westerners entering a foreign culture, whatever their agenda or intentions!

There are ways we can help newcomers to share part of their life, to build relationships with people and tell the story of what has happened to them.  They can begin to do this before they gain the linguistic ability to speak in conceptual, abstract terms in the new language.  This applies to any cross-cultural worker who wants to be effective at any significant level among the core people at the heart of a culture.


For their part, Christian agencies should know that a "personal Christian testimony" does not necessarily enable you to convey theological information, but it does enable you to tell who you are -- tell your story.  If you are an avid Chrisian believer, this will include what God has done for you.

Telling stories is a common feature of all human cultures.  It is the primary way of conceptualizing, envisioning and communicating significant concepts or practices in the oral, relational cultures so prominent even today across our globe!

Relational Skills

Newcomers to a culture will want to be able to tell their story and listen to the personal stories of the local people. This will build credibilty and elicit trust. New missionaries, for instance, who are willing to build relationships and tell their story about what they feel God has done for them will be less dependent on language skills and more dependent upon relational (relationship) skills.

Sharing technical concept and abstract information, like western theological information, is really a second level, not a first level, communication.  Concepts and interpretation come after experience and practical expression.  In most cases, trying ot explain the technical conepts, theories, etc., is both harder and less effective.

For instance, convincing someone that unseen little beings inside your blood cause illness ("germ theory" of illness) is harder than providing a practical cure.  If you feel called to convince people that AIDS is not caused by curses and evil spirits, you take a double job.  It might be more effective to indicate practical ways to prevent spread.

Language will give you many clues to the worldview behind the scenes. Building relationahships will convey more practical results than trying to teach new information.  If language skills (and communication of information) can be based on relational skills (building individual personal relationships and gaining acceptance in the community), the psychological tensions can be greatly diminished and the new personnel can more easily and quickly assimilate the culture, and thus more quickly and naturally make a real contribution in their new setting of ministry.  This should be a major goal of any cultural orientation program.

Also related:
What is Worldview?       What is a People Group?
Culture, Learning and Communication     Multi-Cultural People Groups
How to Do Research on the Web        Cities and People Groups
Learning as Culture        Storytelling for Learning and Teaching
Stories and Storytelling: Reclaiming our Oral Heritage


Series Posted 06 July 2000
This article updated and expanded 07 September 2006
Last edited 13 September 2006

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Email: researchguy@iname.com

Copyright © 2000, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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