World Christian Missionary Resources - Helping you reach your world for Jesus

Why Missionaries Should Start Learning the New Language Early

Below is the opinion of a ministry called RLM, which ministers to people in Russia.

RLM's philosophy of language learning:

I. Initial, intensive language and cross-cultural training for at least eight months prior to deployment.

Why study intensively before going to the former Soviet Union? Isn't it just as effective to learn Russian when I get to the field?
  1. Life on the field interferes with language learning
  2. One problem is that on the field, the missionary is first of all bombarded with the rigors of life there. Time is consumed by merely trying to live and learn to adapt to the lifestyle and the culture. It's like jumping into the English Channel before knowing how to swim. There are simply too many distractions on the field to have the kind of focus needed for effective language acquisition.

    If you add to this difficulty the rigors of ministry itself, language learning will be further reduced to virtually zero.

  3. Russian nationals often use language-teaching methodology which is less effective for North Americans.
  4. Another reason is that the teaching methodology used by Russian nationals on the field in native-run programs is often counter productive. Nationals often teach in a way which is appealing to Russians, not Americans (cross-cultural dissonance), and do not typically know how to properly explain the grammar.

  5. The inflectional complexities of Russian create unique difficulties for the missionary.
  6. Due to Russian's complex nature, most newcomers to this language desperately need a gradual approach to becoming immersed in the language, rather than experiencing it all at once and hoping to acquire it "from the people." Even in Russian-run schools and institutes, the experience is the same and the student usually suffers from insufficient "absorption time" and explanation. A gradual approach to immersion avoids the aversion to learning which is otherwise experienced on the field.

  7. What the research shows.
  8. A study of the different approaches used by various missionaries shows that a focused, intensive time of language learning bears much greater fruit in the long term than is experienced by those who do not acquire such a foundation.

    We have seen that those missionaries who have had eight months to a year of intensive language training are able to disciple new believers in Russian and to communicate and teach effectively pretty much right when they arrive on the field. Those who take, say, only a semester or a summer intensive course require at least a year or two longer living and studying on the field before they are ready for such endeavors.

    For those who do not get any pre-field language training, the results are far worse, and most are still not language proficient after three or four years on the field.

    In the US Department of Defense, all workers who are to work in overseas embassies, in the intelligence community, etc., are required to study the language in question intensively at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. The U.S. State Department learned many years ago that pre-field intensive language study is best if one hopes to be effective.

    Missionaries who are deploying to Spanish-speaking countries they typically train for one to two years in Costa Rica at the Spanish Language Institute prior to setting foot in their host culture. Why is it that those going to the former Soviet Union, a country whose people are not even western, and who speak one of the world's most difficult languages, do not get the proper training and typically end up suffering for several years on the field. Many of those who have been forced to go home, have done so mostly due to the frustration associated with language learning and cultural adaptation. Certainly better training is needed.

    RLM is devoted to enabling missionaries to "get their feet wet" and quickly develop the skills with the language needed on the field before deployment. RLM is a ministry to missionaries and we aim to keep it that way. We try to create an encouraging atmosphere with few distractions and where the missionary can focus on the task. RLM endeavors to use the most up-to-date language teaching methodology, and most of each day is devoted to conversation.

II. Follow-up intensive training and missionary internships.

When the Basic training received in the U.S. is followed up with Advanced language training on the field, and if this could lead directly into a missionary internship program, where the missionary could become better acquainted with Russian culture and how to properly behave, live and minister in Russian-speaking cultures, he or she will be effectively prepared to serve for years to come. This could easily eliminate much of the missionary attrition we have thus far seen in the former Soviet Union.

III. Teaching Methodology

  1. At RLM we believe first of all that languages are learned, not taught. The task of learning is the student's, while the task of RLM is to provide the proper and most effective atmosphere for that learning to take place.

  2. Languages are also meant for COMMUNICATION. What this means is that everything that is done in the classroom must be developed in a communicative, conversational way. It must relate to the real needs on the mission field. Therefore, RLM attempts to utilize the very best methods.

    Grammar explanation is necessary, but should never dominate the learning experience. Communicative methods are used for conversation classes, and everything taught is channeled into conversation time so that the student has ample practice.

  3. Immersion at a proper time is key to successful language learning. This means that to immerse the student too early can be detrimental, but when it is appropriate, he or she must be immersed and then a strict discipline of immersed observed (our Russian-only policy). Students therefore are afforded a Russian Cultural House, where they speak only in Russian.

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