For the language learning missionary there are some "must have" items that he better make sure he packed as he begins his language learning journey. Let me share with you four of them that we are glad we brought with us to Canada as we learn French.
The first is patience. I remember my father telling me countless times as a young person that "Rome wasn't built in a day." This simple statement was his reminder to me that there is time and that there are certain things that you just cannot rush. Learning a second language is one of them. There is no such thing as "15 Minute French" no matter what the package on the CDs at Costco may say! We were recently reminded by a native French speaker that it took them a lifetime to learn to speak the way they do, so we should not be surprised that we are where we are at in language learning after only a few months. With hard work and determination the language will come, but it will take time and patience. Rome was not built in a day and French is not learned in two months.
The second "must have" is perseverance. Language learning is just plain hard work. And a lot of the hard work comes without demonstrable progress. There are days when you are on top of the language learning mountain; like when you are able to order a hamburger at McDonalds without the cashier giggling. Then there are other days, and these seem to come more often, when you cannot understand what the kid in first grade is saying to you because his vocabulary is so expansive! But this calls for perseverance. Cherish the victories at McDonalds and giggle with the first graders as they talk about you (in French so that you cannot understand them!), but keep going and persevere. There is no other way to learn.
The third thing the language learning missionary must have is a good memory. Not just to remember the words written on the stacks and stacks of French flashcards, but to remember why he is going through the painful process of language learning in the first place. He is learning a second language for the sake of the Gospel and the unreached peoples who need that Gospel so desperately. One of the first things that we did when we arrived in Canada was to hang a big map of Senegal up on the center wall in our living room. We did this to remind us of why we are here. Learning French cannot be separated from the faces of the people of southern Senegal who need to hear the message of the Gospel; a message that must be communicated to them in a way and in a language that they can understand. If we forget this then language learning will all too quickly become merely academic, rather than the purposeful equipping for ministry for the sake of those who need to hear.
But the last, and I would say most important, thing that the language learning missionary must have is a firm understanding of who they are in Christ. It is amazing how intrinsic our first language is to who we are as a person. It is the language of our heart that we laugh in and dream in and pray in. It is a part of who we are. As you immerse yourself in a new language there is the feeling that a part of you, a real and deep part of you, is being loosed from the moorings that have held it firmly for your whole life. When this happens there is a part of your identity that is shaken deeply. And at that time you must find your identity in Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone. Your identity and worth come solely from who you are in Jesus and from nothing else. And this truth will sustain you when you cannot speak and when you are discouraged and when those "deer in the headlights" moments come in class, in the store, at church, and everywhere else. The language learning missionary must know that his identity comes from the finished work of Jesus and not from his progress in language acquisition. So this frees him to jump head-long into learning while at the same time wholeheartedly pursue Jesus Christ as the source of his joy and identity and worth.
We packed our bags for language learning in Canada at the end of December. But thankfully, God had been packing these truths into our lives for the last fifteen years. And He never forgets to pack anything that we need for the journey; especially the long and hard journey of language learning.