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.


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?


Who Are ‘People’? In-Group, Out-Group

Ellie RunningMy daughter tells me that she doesn’t like people which sounds kinda harsh for a three-year-old.

The thing is Ellie is a super relational and fun-loving girl. But she says, she doesn’t like people. On the surface, one might wonder what caused her to be so jaded. Or does she really not like people. Well, she says so, but she loves those days when she gets to see her friends/cousins. She calls her closest friends cousins.


I have to wonder about my girl. She is super cute, loving and sensitive as all get out. Yet, she tells me that she doesn’t want to be with ‘people’. This most often comes out when we are at the park. Recently, I took her to the park to play on the slide, the swings and the sand. She was in heaven when she arrived to find the park empty. She had all of the apparatuses  to herself. Oh boy!! This was a good day for a little girl who doesn’t like sharing, most especially sharing with those she doesn’t know well.

Soon her joy took a sharp turn downward. She cried out to me, Daddy, people are coming. This was followed by, I don’t like people.

On the surface, this sounds pretty bad. More than bad. Shouldn’t we inherently like people? I exude an outgoing nature hoping it will infectiously rub off on my sweet girl.

It hasn’t.

She still says, I don’t like people.

Not only that, she reiterates it again and again. She even said it that one day at the park several times in earshot of the toddler and his mom playing at the little playground.

Where does this dread of others come from?

Upon reflection, one must look a few layers below the surface to see what is happening. What is causing her to verbally, overtly talk about not wanting others to be with her. By others, she uses the word people. First, let me define ‘people’. In our preschooler’s mind, ‘people’ are those people who she doesn’t know—the stranger.

This started about a year ago as she was on one of her 50+ flights by the age of three. Our veteran traveler patiently waited for the loads of passengers ahead of us to deplane. She stated, Daddy, the people aren’t going yet. From that point on, people meant strangers. People could be singular for a person she did not know or plural for the crowds of people at a ballgame, airport, or conference.

Now, let’s dig a little further down to another layer. This little girl spent the first two years of her life growing up in Thailand, and my wife and I are still amazed at how much Thai culture we still see in her. She displays more Thai than we ever would have believed.

Let me explain a moment. In America, we live in an individualist society which believes the individual can influence the group. In other parts of the world, people live in what is called a collectivist society. In this, they believe the group helps shape the individual for the better.

In this in-group type of culture, those on the in are deeply loyal to one another, caring for each other, and protective of the group. They are suspicious of others, and essentially ignore those not in their group. It is almost as though those on the outside do not even enter their radar. This is overly simplifying the cultural difference, but it helps give a sketch of how American culture differs from a culture in Asia at one level.

Now if we add in one more little nugget about the development of a worldview, I think we begin to understand what is going on a little more. Sociologists claim that a child will have developed 80% of their worldview by the age of four. That is pretty incredible to think how much an environment, especially a home shapes a child.

But this makes sense. If Ellie had one of her friends with her at the park, she would play nonstop with her playmates. She loves playdates, church services with friends, or other interactions with her little friends. She is super awesome around those she has welcomed into her group/family. Did I mention she calls her closest friends cousins. That happened in Thai culture all the time with our friends. Their close friends, especially from their home village would often be called cousin even if there was no blood relation. It is cool to see how she displays Thai culture, no matter how subtle.

Even when it makes me ponder if she might have anti-social tendencies. She doesn’t. It just comes out similar to how her Thai friends behave. Our precious girl makes it clear she doesn’t want to play with others—‘people’ at her park. She claims it even if it’s not hers.

Child playing with globe,isolated on a white background.

I used to keep hoping her shyness or antisocialness was a phase she would outgrow. Perhaps, it is more of a cultural understanding that she learned while living on the mission field.  And this settles my soul to know she has been shaped by the life we brought her into.


What are some traits your little ones may have picked up from the environment they grew up in?

A Story About Worldview

As I am studying a class on intercultural ministry, I came across this great example of seeing life through a different world view.

Worldview simply means the way we see the world. Some people see things black and white, while others see things more grey. Places in the world have an honor and shame based culture, while other places live fear based always trying to appease the spirits.

Here is the example from a view years ago, but still makes the point clearly.

A medical missionary working in India wanted to demonstrate the benefits of modern surgery to people who had had minimal contact with western technology.  He invited a young Indian to be present in the operating room while he removed a large goiter from the young Indian’s aunt.

Immediately following the surgery, the nephew hurried home and recounted the proceedings to the village elders.  This is the account of the Indian nephew…:

“I was taken to the temple of healing where, after being gowned in holy white robes and my face and head covered, I was led to the Holy of Holies and seated in a corner.”

“The presence of the gods in the sanctuary was so overpowering that not only I but everyone entering hid his face and covered his head.  The doctor Sahib came into the holy of holies and washed his unclean hands for many minutes in a ritual of purification.  Between washings he anointed his hands with oil.”

 “Then there came into the room a priestess who sat at the head of the sacrificial altar and invoked the blessings of the gods.”


“After this she breathed upon my aunt and caused her to fall into a deep sleep.

 “When my aunt was deep in slumber, the Doctor Sahib slit her throat from ear to ear as a sacrificial gesture, trying to appease the gods with her blood.  He and his assistant priests wrestled with the evil spirits for a long time.  The strain of battle was so great that the Sahib’s forehead became wet with perspiration and a priestess mopped his brow many times.  Finally the evil spirits were overcome and so they rushed from the neck of my aunt, leaving her no longer possessed.”

(Health, The Bible and The Church Daniel Fountain, Billy Graham Centre, 1989,23 24)

When we minister in another culture, we need to know where the people are coming from. If we want to communicate anything to them, we need to know how they will receive what we say.

A favorite story here in Bangkok tells of when the people living at Our Home Chapel heard a sound in the kitchen in the middle of the night. The westerners thought there was a burglar, while the Thai people thought it was a ghost.

Some people see things influenced through the spiritual world, while others look at things purely from the scientific vantage point. How would you communicate what happens in the above situation?

 The second thing I see in this story is how God’s good news crosses all barriers and cultural differences.

What are some examples of worldview that show a difference in how we see the world we live in?