I have been learning languages all my life. No, really…I started with my heart language, English, then moved on to French in high school and college, and then Arabic. Now I just try to make a coherent sentence in anything!
The other day a long-time friend came to town to preach in the local Arabic churches. I’d known him from our years on the field, and even afterward, when he immigrated to California and started a satellite TV ministry to reach Muslims. I haven’t seen him in over eight years, so I went to his website to remember when my husband dragged me on the show with him. “You’ll do fine,” he said. The topic was Marriage in Islam and Christianity.
I was completely winging it, unlike my husband who was a native Arabic speaker and also great at speaking from the hip. If I spoke anywhere, even in English, I studied, prepared, and had notes. Not this time, though.
Did I mention I was on TV speaking Arabic?
We did this “live” show after I’d been over twenty years in the Arabic-speaking world, yet I still fumbled over words and struggled to sound more educated than a second grader—no offense, to any second graders out there.
Language is not an exact science because it’s being spoken by imperfect people.
We can study in language institutes, be immersed for decades, and still trip over our words when speaking. Mistakes happen. We forget a word in our adopted language. We use the wrong word and get ourselves in trouble.
We practice language to move toward perfection, but we’ll never reach it.
Yep, that’s just the way it is, and that’s okay. We need to remember that perfection is an unattainable goal if only to cut ourselves some slack. After all, Jesus does. He’s not looking for language virtuosos—he’s looking for humble lovers of God who are willing to butcher a language in order to reach a heart with the good news of Christ.
Am I saying not to work hard at language learning? Hardly. I worked hard, and it paid off. I was able to work in a French publication house in Ivory Coast with the French I’d learned, teach a girl’s Sunday School class, and sing in the church choir. Did I speak French perfectly? No. Did I communicate in French? Yes, and that’s what mattered.
Studying Arabic was even harder, but now with over thirty years of speaking the language, I can say the pain was worth the gain. Even the pain of having my mistakes on recorded video means nothing. The great gain was in being able to disciple girls coming out of Islam and walk alongside my husband in ministry.
It’s not the language, but what’s behind the language that matters.
Paul touched on it when he said:
Let love for Christ be your motivation in learning whatever language is necessary to share him with the nations in your midst. When you have that foundation, the words are just window dressing for the message you convey, because they’ll see it in your eyes, your smile, your gestures, and acts of kindness that accompany the words.
Are you struggling with language learning? Set the goal of perfection aside and set the goal of making Christ known before you. Love will see you through.
Grace and Peace