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Living as half a person: reflections on the first year (Part One)

Red Twin is temporarily back in Australia after 18 months in Central Asia. She was asked to give a talk about what the first year serving cross-culturally is like. She asked for contributions from us as well as other friends who are in Europe, South Asia and other parts of Africa. Much of what she said resonated with us and so I’ve asked her permission to reproduce some of it for our blog. Watch out in particular for the parts in italics which give some suggestions about how you can support cross-cultural workers.

Here’s the first part of Red Twin’s guest series on the first year of living cross-culturally:

Having half a tongue

I think that if someone did a study of cross-cultural workers’ prayers in the first year, the most frequently prayed for thing would be the gift of tongues. Because learning to speak the local language is the thing that requires the most effort, and the thing that blocks the most ministry. I remember learning in my psychology classes at university that verbal language accounts for only 7% of all communication, and things like tone and body language are far more important. Far be it from me to argue with my own profession, but I can tell you that it’s a pretty BIG 7%!!

You know how mums talk about going stir-crazy because they only talk to children all the time, and they’re just desperate for an adult conversation? That’s what it’s like – all the time, with every person. It takes a few months to develop the language to greet people, ask about their families and their children and their day, but it takes years to acquire the language to go beyond that. So there’s a constant sense of loneliness. I’m talking to all these people, but I’m having the same surface conversation over and over. Because I have enough language to converse, but not connect.

It’s one of the reasons why the question “Are you fluent yet?” is particularly frustrating. If you ask me that after I come back from the bazaar, or hearing about my friend’s weekend, then the answer is yes! If you ask me after a conversation with an elderly person, or someone from the village, or after I’ve lectured at the university, then the answer is a resounding no! And when you’re in the middle of language learning, you’re having far more failures than wins, and that question brings all those failures to the front of your mind.

Let me suggest some other questions that might be more helpful that you could ask a person in their first year or two of language study:

  • Tell me what kinds of words you’re focusing on at the moment.
  • Have you noticed anything interesting / funny about how the language works? e.g.
    • The cup became broken – don’t directly take responsibility because that would cause shame. Everyone knows I broke the cup, but you don’t say it that way.
    • It has interesting implications for biblical stories like the lost sheep. The literal translation is not that the shepherd found the sheep. Rather, the sheep became found. I need to think more about the theological implications of that.
    • What language wins have you had recently? Put the focus on the positive.

I had a great language win just before I left. I had made some pumpkin soup, and knowing that different pumpkins have different names, I asked a colleague what this particular pumpkin was called. He told me it was kadu-e tambal – literally lazy pumpkin. The next day, someone asked what I was eating for lunch, and I said that it was lazy pumpkin soup. And my friend burst into gales of delighted laughter! Bewildered, I asked why she was laughing, and she said to me “You belong to our city now. That is a special way of saying pumpkin only here in our city.” One little slang word, but it made my day!

And then last week, here in Adelaide, I went to the Persian supermarket on Prospect Road to buy naan – Central Asian bread. I had been there several years ago, after my short-term visit and they had been delighted with my halting language and asked where I learned it. But this time, I wandered in, spoke to them in Persian, and they didn’t bat an eyelid – just answered me with a flood of Persian themselves! It was only a simple conversation, but not only was I understandable, but I was unremarkable – just another Persian-background Aussie. Win!

Image credit: Doll by Beth

Categories: Ministry & mission Written by Tamie

Tagged as:

Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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