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Learning a Foreign Language in a City that Speaks English

During my first missionary term in South Asia, I relished the opportunity to dive deep into the culture and begin learning the local language. The city of three million people where I lived was a tiny village by the country’s standards, and very few spoke English. The missionary team I joined was passionate about connecting well with locals in gospel conversations. Doing frontline evangelism and training local believers to do it too formed the core of our team’s work. So, by necessity, learning the language was a high priority instilled in me from the very beginning. As I began my second term there, I continued pushing myself toward greater fluency, and I was not infrequently driven to the verge of tears in the process. But by about year five, I could finally discuss complex heart issues in the local dialect with relative ease. Because the context of my ministry called for it, my time in South Asia required long and deep language learning.


I’m now in my third term as a missionary, and the Lord has called me into a ministry context that is vastly different from what I experienced before. I live in Prague, Czech Republic, one of Europe’s midsize hubs, with a population of right around a million that is home to a large community of expatriates like me. Although the locals here are proud of their native Czech language, English is spoken widely throughout the urban center. My missionary colleagues here are just as passionate about proclaiming the gospel as my first team was back in South Asia. The difference is that a good portion of the lost people around us speak English, and they speak it really well. In this context, some of our missionaries can carry out their God-given callings without learning the local language, but does the prevalence of English mean learning the local language is no longer necessary for any of the missionaries working in our city?

The question of whether or not to learn the local language in our context depends largely on each missionary’s specific role.

I am just one of many missionaries who live and work here in Prague, and each of us has different roles within our broader, shared work of advancing the gospel. Some serve our missionary organization by working in finance, logistics, media, tech support, or administration, while others are tasked with laboring in the nitty-gritty of local ministry and church planting. Of course, God uses all this variegated effort for the advancement of his kingdom. And regardless of the specific roles we each execute for our organization from nine to five, we are all compelled by Christ to share the gospel message with those around us. In a city like ours, some cross-cultural missionaries really can share the gospel widely and winsomely in English. The question of whether or not to learn the local language in our context depends largely on each missionary’s specific role.


Our colleagues who serve Christ’s mission primarily by handling the financial, logistical, and administrative needs of our organization are vital to what we do. These missionaries use their special skills to keep things running, and their crucial contributions seldom get the recognition they deserve. The fact is that their specific roles do not require them to learn a language other than English. And given our context here in Prague, they are able to share the gospel with their friends and neighbors, day in and day out, in English. In cases like these, I can think of no practical reason why such missionaries should feel obligated to attain fluency in their city’s historical, native tongue.

At the end of the day, the question of whether or not missionaries in largely English-speaking world cities should become fluent in that place’s native language seems to depend on the specific missionary role they’re each called to fulfill.

Other missionaries here in Prague are focused on local ministry and church planting. They labor tirelessly to catalyze indigenous, self-reproducing churches in our urban center and across the Czech Republic. While a handful of English-speaking, international churches are able to minister to the sizable expat community here in Prague, some of our missionary colleagues are working to reach Czech people in the Czech language for the sake of the Czech church. (Say that five times fast!) Of course, these cross-cultural workers in our cosmopolitan city have the option of sharing the gospel in English from time to time, but their specific missionary roles require them to communicate with excellence in the local language. For them, language learning is a must.


At the end of the day, the question of whether or not missionaries in largely English-speaking world cities should become fluent in that place’s native language seems to depend on the specific missionary role they’re each called to fulfill.


Learning new languages has always been fascinating and invigorating to me. My first seminary degree was in biblical languages, and my full-time language study in South Asia was a true joy. As the Lord would have it, my current missionary role here in Prague does not demand that I ever become fluent in Czech. I could steward the gospel well here in our city even if English was the only language I knew. However, I invest time every week in learning my city’s native language because it’s something the Lord has made me passionate about. I go to Czech class for ninety minutes twice a week, and I’ve made some modest improvement throughout my time here in Prague. But reflecting on the broader question of whether or not missionaries in situations like mine should learn the local language, I think it’s all about what each missionary really needs to fulfill their God-given role.

 

Kyle Brosseau is a missionary with the International Mission Board in Prague, Czech Republic. He holds a DMin in Missions from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is working on his PhD in World Religions from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @jkylebrosseau.

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