Blog Japanese

Why language learning is missions OR: Why I stopped waiting for the gift of tongues and just started studying the language

For those Americans who have had the experience of studying Japanese (or any foreign language), they can understand that is no easy task. Some would go so far to say that among the world’s most commonly spoken languages, there are no two tongues so different in grammar, form and use than English and Japanese.

With Japanese clocking in at an average of 2,200 class hours over 88 weeks (1.69 years) to gain basic proficiency (however researchers in this case define it) [reference], it’s easy to be tempted to look for any type of shortcut available.


Language Difficulty Infographic (From Voxy)

Missionaries to all nations can resort to a number easy-road methods, for example:

  • Skipping reading/writing to focus solely on speaking/listening (particularly for languages that use non-roman alphabets or Chinese characters).
  • Bulking up on vocabulary to help them fake it with what’s really a limited understanding of grammar.
  • Cutting short their education and study for the stuff of “real missions.”

Why do we do it? Because it’s hard.

After traveling how many thousand miles, who wants to sit in a classroom or with a tutor for 2+ years while they watch the people they came for walk by just outside the glass?

The Gift of Tongues

One particular favorite shortcut among we charismatics is praying for the gift of tongues, particularly the supernatural ability to speak a language. Friends have often asked me if I prayed for the ability to speak Japanese, and many have prayed or offered to pray for me to receive Japanese fluency supernaturally. Of course, I always accept these prayers—it would be foolish to deny such a gift if God offers it—but I’m not particularly keen on seeking it myself. I’m often reminded of a story from the biography of Hudson Taylor (a man credited for the being the first to successfully bring the Gospel to inland China).

Hudson Taylor & Tongues

At the time of the story, Taylor had already made huge strides in his ministry. He was known for his ability to fully submerge himself into the culture, being one of the few western ministers to adopt Chinese hairstyles and don traditional clothing. His humility towards the culture enabled him to preach the Gospel where none had ever done so before.

Hudson Taylor in Traditional Chinese Clothing

Seeking a special baptism of power, the celebrated Cambridge Seven of athletic fame in England arrived in China in 1885 to serve with the China Inland Mission. While sailing up the Han River with J. Hudson Taylor, three of them, C. T. Studd and Cecil and Arthur Polhill, put their Chinese grammar books aside and prayed for the Pentecostal gift of Mandarin and supernatural power according to Mark 16:17. Exasperated, Taylor told his starry-eyed novices: “How many and subtle are the devices of Satan to keep the Chinese ignorant of the gospel. If I could put the Chinese language into your brains by one wave of the hand I would not do it.” Taylor emphasized not only that such presumption would delay their mastery of the language and keep the Chinese from hearing the Gospel even longer but also that effective communication in Mandarin required more than just an ability to speak the words. 

Read Full Article

Language is More Than Words

What Taylor recognized that the Cambridge Seven didn’t was that communication is about more than just words. Language is about a deep understanding of the root culture—where the language comes from, why they choose the phrases they do, what is left unsaid. When it comes to Japan, it’s every bit as much about when or what not to speak as it is about what you say.

Taylor knew that if his new missionary brothers didn’t take the time and put in the hard work to learn the language, they would never understand the heart of the Chinese. Furthermore, they would never be forced to humble themselves in the same way that Christ did.

Jesus Learned the Language

For those in a hurry to “start their ministry” for whatever reason, it’s a good a time as any to remind you that Jesus wasn’t in a hurry, and he certainly didn’t take any shortcuts or use miracles to make things easier for himself. If anything his performance of signs and wonders drew harsh criticism and saw his ministry conclude in abandonment by everyone he loved. Indeed, the miracles and power Christ walked in were not for self-service and glorification, but for the benefit of those around him and the glorification of the Father.

We know that Jesus was about 33 years old when he was crucified and that his ministry was approximately three or four years long, meaning that he didn’t even start his public ministry until he was 29 or 30. This of course begs the question, what on Earth (literally) was he doing until he started?

Luke says this about Jesus as a child:

“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.” 

Luke 2:40 NIV (emphasis mine)

Then, covering the span of time between the age of 12 and 29, Luke gives us the following:

“Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” 

Luke 2:51-52 (emphasis mine)

There’s two big things that jump out of this verse at me:

1) One that in both verses the scriptures say that Jesus grew, the implication being that he was not already but had to become the man that God had called him to be. It should be shocking to us that God, whose power knows no limit, took the humblest of roads and learned at home from his parents and at the synagogue just like the other Jewish children.

2) And two, that Jesus had to grow in favor with man as well as God. Certainly not even Jesus escaped the frustrations of childhood or the awkwardness of adolescence. Jesus needed to have this experience in order to be like us, as the scriptures state:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.

Hebrews 4:15 NIV

The long and the short of it is this: if Jesus had to humble himself to learn our lifestyle and language for thirty years, what makes us think we can do it less than two? Or for that matter, ten or fifty or a lifetime?

Language learning is in itself a humble ministry of the kind Christ demonstrated.

Understand the Gifts

It would be easy to read this essay and assume that my point is to criticize those who seek after the gift of tongues or by extension any spiritual gift. But to read it that way would be to miss the greater point. Of course we should seek after the gifts of the spirit, as Paul commands us to “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 14:1 NIV). However, it would be catastrophic for us to have the pride to think that those gifts were ever meant to be self-serving–a means to short cut real work. The scriptures say as much:

“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7)

These gifts are not for us to use to take shortcuts in life, but for us to serve the Body of Christ and the world to whom he sent us for the sake of his name.

Wrapping Up

I have no doubt that there will be those who disagree and would insist that praying for supernatural language acquisition should be eagerly sought after.

However, in an age where vacation-style short-term mission trips and highest-ever levels of missionary attrition clearly demonstrate western Christianity’s lack of any backbone, I can say confidently that the last thing any of us need are more shortcuts.

We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Romans 5:3-5

By Erich Boileau

Erich is a disciple of Jesus, writer and designer with over 10 years experience in web development. Currently he lives and works in Osaka with his beautiful bride Emi, where he also studies Japanese language and culture.

11 replies on “Why language learning is missions OR: Why I stopped waiting for the gift of tongues and just started studying the language”

Good stuff. As a language student myself, I’ve found that almost all of the connections with non-Christians I’ve made came out of the language study itself. And probably half of all the spiritual conversations I’ve had with non-believers were born from ‘staged’ conversations that occurred while trying to practice the language.
Don’t hate the process – use it.

I want to say thank you! I really needed to read your words. It’s so easy to want to shortcut and let God take care of the details, but nothing says “Love” to the Japanese better than our own striving to learn their language so we can speak to their hearts in a way they understand.
The gift of tongues was given to the early church as a sign of God’s power working among the disciples, not as a shortcut. God gave the Roman empire the Greek language so the gospel could spread faster. But today, we have so many tools and resources for learning languages that 1) God’s power isn’t going to get much credit and 2) we have little excuse for not taking advantage of all that is available.
Japanese is very hard, but mastery is so rewarding.
God bless!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.