The Linguistic Barrier
Once divinely called missionary workers are sent out to the comparatively needy mission fields of the world, in the great majority of cases, they are immediately confronted with another significant barrier to the fulfillment of the Great Commission: the people to whom they are sent speak a different language. In order for disciples to be made, understandable communication must first take place between the sender and the receptor of the message.
In contrast to other religious perspectives in which the communication of the message depends on a mutual understanding of one officially sanctioned language, God himself has taken the initiative to transmit his message of love to humankind through channels of communication that are perfectly comprehensible to them. Hebrews 1:1–2 beautifully illustrates this vital principle: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”
Even in cases where a mutual “trade language” is spoken and understood by all the parties involved, missionary practitioners have long recognized that the gospel is best communicated in the receptors’ “heart language.” In New Testament times, a basic knowledge of Greek united a large proportion of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, throughout which the Christian message first spread. Nevertheless, a concern for crossing the “language barrier,” in those cases in which it did exist, is shown in the following passages in the book of Acts:
When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. (2:6)
As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I say something to you?” “Do you speak Greek?” he replied. “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the desert some time ago?” Paul answered, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.” Having received the commander’s permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic. “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.” When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet. (21:37–22:2)
Overcoming the “linguistic barrier” encompasses two main aspects: 1) language learning on the part of missionary workers; and 2) translation of gospel media (with special priority given to the Bible itself) into the “heart language” of the intended receptors. Gwyneth Hobble observes:
If a missionary is to speak to men and women of the things of God and of His love revealed in Jesus Christ, it is essential that he be able to speak at least one language of the country. Over and above the ability actually to speak the language of the people, great insight is to be gained by study of a language into the thought processes, cultural inheritance and outlook on life of the people who speak that language. (14)
Although all missionaries will not necessarily be involved in Bible translation work, contexts in which the gospel has yet to be adequately translated into the everyday vernacular of the people call for a high priority assigned to this ministry. Also, a very valid and strategically important aspect of efforts to overcome the “language barrier” is the creation and/or translation, as well as publication and distribution, of gospel media of all sorts in the “heart languages” of the comparatively unreached peoples of the world.
(to be continued…)
(14) Gwenyth Hobble, “In-Service Preparation: Language Study and Orientation,” EMQ (1969): 222.