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.
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?