Language Is The Key To Understanding Culture

Recently, I was teaching my class on multi-cultural evangelism when we came to the section on Contextualization.

I could get into this murky, and yet fascinating topic of contextualization for days and days, but here we were taking a helicopter level overview as we scanned the topic.

Now, how does language factor into understanding the culture. Can’t you just read all the best books out there to know the culture, what not to do to easily offend the host culture? Can’t you just talk to people to find out what all the new things and customs you are observing mean? Surely, there are plenty of English speakers in most countries to let you get by at this.

And yes, you can skate by with a basic knowledge of the culture. But language matters so much. Language matters for communication. We know it is important to speak to people at a heart level. We can’t do that even if they learn English really well. Language communicates love. As we attempt to learn the language of the host culture, we demonstrate great love to want to know their language. But these are issues of cross-cultural communication.

How does language matter for contextualization?

It should be self-evident that we need to know the culture to the best of our ability if we are going to contextualize the faith into a new place, shouldn’t it. But still, so many missionaries resist language learning.

Again, language is the key to unlocking the mystery of cultural differences.

If we want to establish Christianity as a natural, indigenous practice within a given culture, we first must learn the culture. And learning the language provides a pathway to deeper understandings of the culture. So I am giving yet another reason to go for it. Language pays off with great dividends even as it slows one down in the beginning.

Let me give an example, which comes from the most simple of devices used every day…the clock.

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The clock, What? … wait a minute, you need to know language to know what the clock says? Isn’t that universal.

Wait, wait. That is what I am trying to say. We must leave all assumptions behind as we learn language and culture. They go hand-in-hand.

In Thailand, they tell time very differently than we do. And we did not understand this immediately, because telling time comes a few lessons after learning the alphabet and basic survival words like where is the bathroom.

As we talked to our friends who had nominal English skills, we began learning about their life, their routines and their patterns. Often, our conversations were quite basic, like when did you go to bed last night, when did you wake up, and what did you do today?

We were always shocked when we frequently heard young people telling us they went to bed so late at 5 o’clock. We thought, whaaaaat? This cannot be. That is late indeed, but why are so many people getting so little sleep.

We racked our brains for weeks, thinking something is off. Maybe Thai people really only need three hours of sleep and when they only get two, they struggle. We just did not see what we did not see until we knew more about the language.

And sometimes, you just don’t see what you don’t see until it smacks you in the face. And that just takes time as you learn a culture, a people, a language.

The light bulb went off when we came to the lesson on telling time a couple of months into Thai lessons. Without getting too technical, the way Thai people tell time is completely different than the West tells time. Rather than the military clock or the 12-hour am and pm clock, Thai people break their day into six hour increments—essentially: morning, afternoon, evening and early morning. 5  o’clock really meant 11 o’clock at night. Hmmm, their clock is very different than ours, we thought. But things started falling into place when we understood how they talked about the day, which was quite different than how we understood the day but similar enough. The gears turned rapidly as language began to unlock some of the mysteries we had.

Now, things started clicking. And it took many language lessons to get to an easy answer, but without language lessons, we would be dependent on others giving the answers.

Another issue for language being the key is illustrated in this post about grain jai which is the basis of much of Thai culture. This word is untranslatable into English. One must learn the concept which can only come through learning the language.

Are there times that not knowing the language matters, what if it is only youth language?

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An Example of Contextualization: A Look at Love

Let me take a side road for a moment in this ongoing discussion of Contextualization on the blog. When I sat in my MA class at Wheaton College with Dr. Moreau, my wife held down the fort with the church in Bangkok. Not only that, she was also taking care of our 16-month-old daughter and brand-new 4-month-old puppy while I spent two weeks taking intensive classes in the Chicago area. Probably not the best idea for us to get a new puppy a week before leaving, but Ellie was desperate to have a dog, and I wanted the extra protection while I was gone.

Not only was my precious wife carrying double, no triple, no triple-and-a-half load for over two weeks, Tina was left home alone on our anniversary. But she never held that against me, supporting me all along as much as any wife could do. She even sent me love notes every hour, scheduled on our Mail Chimp service used for newsletters. I kept getting emails from her throughout class wondering what she was doing up so late. Finally it sunk in when I kept getting Mail Chimp alerts. Mailchimp wasn’t sending me some update about their service or promotion for something new…my wife had a well-crafted and perfectly executed way to show me her love and devotion. I want to share one such letter here that perfectly illustrates contextualization.

Andy,

I hope your enjoying your class today. I was thinking about contextualization and how our lives, our love, themselves became contextualized when we moved to Thailand. No longer could we hold hands or show affection in public after we moved here. It didn’t change our love, just our expression of it. I think the Gospel is the same way. The message, the content, shouldn’t change when we bring it from one country to another but how it is expressed changes. The same base is there but superficially things have changed. Anyways, just a thought…

Love and kisses,

Your wife

Succinct and to the point…We cherish even little trips out of the country for a visa run where we can hold hands again. No holding hands in Bangkok also means no pecks on the cheek, no smooches in public, no arms around the waist…no public displays of any kind. Yet we love each other more now than ever even if some of the forms have changed in how we express and communicate our love.

Shouldn’t the love story of God with his people be able to transcend culture while at the same time inculcating itself within each and every people group?

What word picture would you use to describe contextualization?