Language…Why Bother?

7 Oct 2020

Message and Para-Message

‘Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews…  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law… so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.  I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.’ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

Learning someone else’s language is tough! Why do we bother with it, especially in a world where English is becoming increasingly useful as a means of communicating with more and more people around the globe?

Shortly after returning to Australia from Central Asia, God led me to an experience that illuminated the deep value of cross-cultural messengers struggling to communicate in the heart language of their hearers rather than speaking with ease in their own heart language. In my years in Central Asia, I had shared the gospel in Tajik countless times, usually with a high degree of struggle since it was not my heart language. One day, back in Australia, an opportunity arose to share the gospel with my neighbours, a young couple whose heart language is Mandarin. These two friends of mine had competence in English more than sufficient for everyday living in Australia, but as we spoke in English about the deeper truths of the God who loves fallen humanity, I could sense that I wasn’t really connecting with them. I found myself wishing I could speak with them in Tajik. I dismissed my impulse as ridiculous – not only do my friends not understand a word of Tajik, but surely I can explain the gospel better in English, which is my heart language! My friends were gracious and the conversation struggled on to a reasonable conclusion, but as I returned home, I began to ask myself why I had the desire to share the gospel in my second language.

In cross-cultural communication, what difference does it make whether the language used is the heart language of the recipient or the heart language of the messenger? Although the message – the content of what is said – may be just the same in either language, the para-message – what is communicated alongside the content – is vastly different. When the messenger speaks in his or her heart language, naturally and with ease, the para-message says something like, “You need to understand what I’m saying, so make an effort.” However, when the messenger speaks in the recipient’s heart language, falteringly, with great effort and relying on the recipient for help, the para-message says, “It’s tough for me to communicate this message, but it is so important to me, and you are so important to me, that I am going to struggle through with your help until we both understand.”

My conversation with my neighbours reinforced my conviction that it is immeasurably valuable for us as cross-cultural gospel messengers to speak the language of our adopted people. As our new friends and neighbours see us struggle day after day to learn their heart language, we honour them and demonstrate our desire to connect with them. Essentially, we show them love and, in so doing, we envelope our message in a para-message that values both them and the message; ultimately bringing glory to the God who sent us as messengers.

-Peter Roberts, Pioneers Language Learning Consultant.

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