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How Hard Can It Really Be?

They say that anyone who ventures into the field of writing, be it in novels or short stories or whatever, should write about what he knows. Good! I’ll go along with that. You see, prior to coming here to the Home Office, I was a high school English teacher. Yes, for over 30 years I expounded on the value of English grammar, the literatures of various nations…and then moved over to do the same in Spanish, often with the same students in both languages.

Yes, I do enjoy languages. No, I’m not multilingual, but it would be fun to keep learning more and more languages. I stand in awe of those of you who are tri-, cuadri- and quintilingual.

Those who have been under my tutelage will attest to my rather strict adherence to proper grammar and punctuation. I mean, how hard can it really be to learn all the rules, the exceptions to those rules, and the exceptions to those exceptions? I can hear the groans…

Therefore, if we as native-born English speakers find our own language to be filled with potholes and trickery, I would like you to consider what it would be like for missionaries as they begin their own journey to learn not just one but at least two other languages.

But wait! One of the facets of acquiring another language to a level of fluency is an understanding of the culture that produced said language. You and I both know that just in the United States of America we have so many different American cultures, and each one of those flavors the English that is spoken there. Thankfully for all of us who travel around the USA, there is really no place where we cannot understand and be understood.

But I challenge anyone to cross the Atlantic and step on English soil or go further and stand on good Australian or New Zealand sod. The cultures are different; the vocabulary is modified; even the punctuation is different when compared with American “rules.” Yes, it is English, but can you understand them and are you being understood? How much more could you expect to find difficult issues when you are dealing with not only a different language but also a vastly different culture!

Therefore, let’s take a look at a missionary’s situation. When new missionaries arrive on their field of service, they must first learn the trade language (or language of wider communication) in order to begin to survive and then to thrive in that setting. New sounds, new mouth configurations, new syntax structure (the adjective comes AFTER the noun) and possible multiple conjugations of all verbs.

As they take this initial step, they will have teachers to help with pronunciation, a written curriculum, extra books and other forms of language help. More experienced missionaries can help with the cultural adjustments, having had to go through the same things not long before.

Then when the missionary is ready to be placed in the village where he will eventually plant a new church, he must tackle yet another culture and language. Here is the spanner that is tossed into the works: this new language most likely has never been written down! There are no dictionaries, no grammar lessons, no teachers to take them by the hand and lead them to understanding.

This is when the knight in shining armor shows up. You see, when they first began to learn the trade language, they were given a tool. This paragraph was in the last Partner to Partner, explaining the knight:

“A global team of our most experienced culture and language learning coaches are currently revising and updating the CLA program to make it even more helpful to missionaries. And they are developing a mobile app for cell phones and other devices that will sync with the missionary’s computer, facilitating the complicated tasks of CLA: taking photos and video, recording audio and documenting speech patterns and behavior. This will help missionaries plan and schedule their CLA activities, including review, and make it easier to sort through several years’ worth of information to search for insights to the people group’s beliefs and values. They just received an incremental mobile release from the app developers, and they hope to get an update of the desktop app by the time this is printed. Progress is encouraging as they keep adding features.”

That knight, that tool, that software (Stages) was to have aided their progress in learning that trade language. They became used to that as their personal assistant. Now they can pull that app back out, begin recording, taking pictures, watch mouths forming the sounds, even watching facial expressions as they learn the language.

Did you also notice that this app will help them find insights into a people group’s beliefs and values? You do know what that reveals, don’t you? Yes, the culture of the people.

As you know from previous issues of Partner to Partner, fluency is needed before translation of the Scriptures can start. Here, let me give you a little taste of what twists and turns often have to be navigated in a language to produce understood Scripture. This example comes from a people group in the Southeast Asia Mainland region.

“English speakers can refer to another person as an animal: mouse, dog, snake, butterfly or wolf are a few that pop into my head. But that’s not true in all cultures. Here, there are really only two that might ever be used — water buffalo and dog — but these are rarely used fightin’ words. Although some of their fairy tales use a rabbit as the sneaky trickster, they would never call anyone a rabbit.

“[This people group’s] word for fox is forest dog or wild dog. I was curious what might come into a person’s mind when they hear Jesus replying to the Pharisees about Herod: ‘Go tell that fox’ which we had translated as: ‘Go tell that wild dog.’ Was Jesus being extremely insulting to Herod? Why did he call him that? Does it show Herod’s reputation? That’s what comes to my mind because we have that saying sly like a fox.

“I asked around, and here are three comments:

  1. It means Herod is a very fierce, mean man — like a wild dog. (A dog without an owner)
  2. It means Herod can’t be trusted. You can trust a tame dog, but not a wild one.
  3. It was meant to insult him, but it was softened by using ‘wild.’ And He didn’t say it directly to him.

“In the end, our team decided we could use wild dog. Herod wasn’t a man to be trusted; he was mean. But of course, Jesus was not anxious about him.”

And here is another example to contemplate.

“Take…the account of God using Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt in Exodus 7-13. Again and again, the Bible talks about Pharaoh’s heart being hard. We all have a good understanding about what this means in English, but how do you communicate this in another language? Are there different words for heart? The blood pump organ is straightforward, but what about the heart referred to in this case, where feelings and emotions come from? Well, in [this language] like in English, the heart and the seat of emotions [use] the same word — tha.“So now we just need the word for hard. In English the word hard has a couple of different meanings, which makes it “hard.” In K there are a couple of different words that mean hard as opposed to soft. There is chong [stiff, strong] and nong [firm]. I won’t even talk about tones here.

“So, since the adjective goes after the noun, we can put together tha chong [be keen, eager] and tha nong [be stoical; have self-control]. Which one describes Pharaoh’s heart? George [a missionary who had been here before] did some rough translation of this passage which I am basing this teaching lesson on until we get it properly translated. He used tha nong for hard heart. When I wrote the rough draft of this lesson, I did some asking around and decided that tha nong was the better choice. Well, I have acquired a PDF copy of a 287-page K to English dictionary (but not the other way around) that we have found to be quite accurate. It has both combinations in it!

“Hmmm…so, was Pharaoh keen and eager or was he stoical and self-controlled? Neither — he was stubborn. And I am still struggling to find the right words to communicate that concept. But you can see how important it is to work with a native speaker and make sure we are communicating what we think we are communicating. God’s message is important and needs to be communicated clearly.” (Emphasis added by the author)

The aforementioned app (the shining knight) is in the beta testing stage in Papua New Guinea. I asked Aaron Luse to give me an update on the testing. You can read it below.

Views from a Consultant

The sweat was rolling down the foreheads of the new young missionary couple as they walked down the dusty village road. The mother did her best to shield her baby’s head from the direct sunlight as we emerged into a clearing from the tall coconut trees that had provided some shade. The father adjusted his step as the toddler perched upon his shoulders began to fall asleep and slump off to the side. I had joined them on one of their first ventures as a couple into one of the villages in Papua New Guinea near the location where they had begun their orientation to the field as missionaries. It was early on in their days of orientation, but as a culture and language consultant, I wanted to be sure they were starting off well.

In the couple of hours that we had been out, we had managed to cover a few miles of winding roads and trails, avoid the tropical rainstorm that had passed through, point out several new cultural events that were taking place, meet some new people and gather some of the trade language by using tools and techniques that had been acquired during the missionary training. The years of preparation were finally coming to fruition, and the reality of life on the field and the monumental task that lay ahead of the young couple were finally in view. Walking these trails with their dust-covered, sandaled feet was their new path to work. Noting the new sounds, smells and sights was their assignment. Repeating phrases, recording stories and learning how to communicate were their tasks. After learning the trade language, they would then move to another people group in Papua New Guinea and repeat the whole process again in order to learn that particular culture and language to be able to present the gospel and establish a church there.

Back in the classroom the next day and joined by the other three new missionary families, we discussed how everyone was doing now that they had had a few weeks in the country and had been out to the village a few times as a group and a time or two as couples. Everyone spoke positively about the adjustments of life and the difficult task they had been given to do, but there was a unanimous concern among them: processing all the new culture and language information had not gone well. They were not the first group to voice this issue. In fact, over the last five years of helping orientate new missionaries to the field, the biggest obstacle in the culture and language learning process has not been sickness or the heat or the bugs, and it hadn’t been the citizen helpers, the village or the tools and techniques. Rather it had been the program used for filing all the information.

Years ago, when my wife and I had learned an indigenous language, there had been a program developed by the mission for this process. It had worked well, but the changes of technique and technology had made it antiquated and unusable. In the intervening years, we have tried numerous combinations of apps and programs. We had been successful at finding some that worked well for some of the components needed, but no single program could do it all. Then there was the issue of platform — some were Mac users, some were PC users and not all the programs and apps were cross platform. There were also update issues and changes to the programs. Oh yeah, there were also internet problems — most programs were going cloud-based, but we couldn’t do that in the remote areas of Papua New Guinea.

I had hoped that this group would be different. They were given the opportunity to be “beta testers” for the new “Stages App” being developed specifically to help in processing culture and language information. The demonstration of what the program could do was impressive. There was excitement in the air. This time, processing would not be the “thorn in the flesh” of culture and language study. The four couples spent the money to get a secondary Android phone (since Stages is not available on iPhone yet) and gave it their best effort for two weeks. Unfortunately, they had a considerable number of issues with the beta version, and blank screens and crashes left them in some awkward situations in the village. Aspects of the program not yet developed and the inability to export data out to other programs or input data made the program ineffective for reliable use as the primary program.

So, it is back to the mix and match of programs and apps for now. We have high hopes for the release of Stages past the beta version. The user-friendly format is fantastic, and the specific things it does for our purposes are incredible. The promised features still in development, including the review tool, are exciting, and the cross-platform, mobile and desktop compatibility will be ideal. The kinks just need to be worked out, and other features finished. Maybe it will be complete by the time these four couples finish studying the trade language and move into another people group in the country. Then, it could be used as they learn an even more difficult language and culture in order to plant churches. Wouldn’t that be great!

— By Aaron Luse, Church Development Director/CLA Consultant

Tags: Partner to Partner,
POSTED ON Nov 25, 2021 by Bruce Enemark