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Learn the Local Language

July 23, 2010

North Africa

Jan and I are in North Africa, making new friends among the good Muslim people of this city. Our Arabic language is pretty rusty (we studied Arabic 20 years ago in Jordan). People know we learned it in Jordan (“or maybe Syria or Lebanon,” they say.). You know how one’s choice of words or one’s accent gives a clue as from where someone hails. Same in Arabic. One day my taxi driver said to me, “You sound like you learned Arabic from a Palestinian Christian woman.” He was right; somebody should give that man a Ph.D. in linguistics.

Christians who are doing mission in the Muslim context are learning languages. When a Christian worker is learning a local language he or she is more than 50% “into” the culture. Language is almost everything; you can talk about taking your shoes off at the door and giving up eating pork and abiding by a hundred other culturally appropriate customs. But if you are learning language, you are loving and respecting local people in a way that they appreciate (though the authorities will think it a bit odd). When we think of the controversy about “doing Christian mission in a Muslim context one should keep in mind the humility that the gospel takes on when it comes to people in their own language.

Take, for example, the people near here known as the Kabyle Berbers. They have a language, and their language is more than 50% of what makes them “Kabyle” (pronounced Ka-bee-lee). The other 50% is their history, their music, and their particular customs but ah! the Kabyle language! That is the key to their heart and soul. Question: who in all the world is learning to speak Kabyle Berber? Are the Arabs? No, because they look down upon the Kabyle people as inferiors. Are the tourists? (“What tourists get off the beaten track to find the Kabyle homeland?”) Are the members of the American diplomatic corp learning Kabyle? (“The Kabyle! Aren’t they the anti-government agents up on the mountains?”) Are the United Nations troops learning Kabyle? No. So, that leaves one set of people in all the world learning the language of this evidently forgettable people: Christian workers.

I know of 247 more “unengaged” Muslim peoples with obscure languages that no one is learning. But “this gospel of the kingdom must be preached to all the world and then the end will come.” In the coming years there will be Christian workers resident among all of them.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ryan permalink
    July 24, 2010 2:20 am

    Good entry Bob. Thanks for writing it.

  2. Michael U permalink
    August 20, 2010 1:13 am

    It’s exciting to hear you had an opportunity to visit the country I visited! The tricky thing about learning Berber language is that the folks I was with always interspersed their conversation with Arabic and French as well (and even some English), so to effectively learn “the language”, you’d have to learn all three! Pray God will open doors for me to return.

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