Learning your neighbor's language

I lived in Canada for five years. It’s a beautiful and friendly country that I am extremely fond of. But never during those five years did I forget that I was in a foreign country.

During a presentation on culture shock, a fellow American was talking about his experience at a soda machine. He put in his money and pressed the button for a grape soda. But when the can came out and he looked at it, he saw the word “raisin” instead of “grape.” All of a sudden, he wasn’t thirsty anymore.

Food packaged for Canadian consumption has English on one side and French on the other. Ken had simply picked up his can with the French side forward. When he turned it around, he saw what he’d expected in the first place: Grape Soda.

The episode was a reminder to him that he was a foreigner, that he didn’t belong there. It was something that completely surprised him, because he assumed that living in Canada would be exactly the same as living in the United States. The soda can cracked that assumption.

A Scottish student related a similar episode to the grape soda one. In this case, he went to a cafe and ordered a cup of coffee. The barista replied, “What kind of coffee?” and then pointed to a wall full of options. It paralyzed him. “I just wanted a cup of coffee,” he said. (Starbucks hadn’t made it to Scotland at that point, I guess.)

Those five years of living in Canada meant dealing not just with the converting to metric and translating from French, but dealing with a different culture than my own. Sure, we share the same English language (mostly) and a very long border, but we have subtle but strong cultural differences that set us apart.

This mirrors the Christian’s first missional hurdle: We need to learn the language our neighbors speak.

Although we live next to one another, we speak a different language, reflecting a different way of viewing how the world around us operates and a different way of interacting with that world. To expect our neighbors to speak and act the same way that we do is like living in Canada and wondering why they watch hockey and turn statements into questions by adding “eh?” at the end of them.

One of our biggest stumbling blocks with learning our neighbors’ language is that we assume they’re saying the same things we’re saying and meaning the same things we’re meaning when they say those things. Because of these assumptions, we miss out on what they’re actually saying.

A case in point is when my wife and I had some other couples over for dinner and while we were enjoying our dessert, we did what couples often do when they’re getting to know one another: Each couple told the story of how they’d met.

When I was talking with another friend about the dinner several days later, he asked me what language the other couples used to talk about how they got together. Was it fate? Was it chance? Was it karma? Was it God? Was it the universe (whatever that means)? And I had to acknowledge that I hadn’t paid close enough attention to how they described this pivotal hinge moment in their lives. Why? Because I was filtering it though my worldview.

And get this. When I relayed their stories, I replaced their words with words that I use. A simple act of interpretation had obscured their approach to the world.

Learning our neighbors’ language means halting the interpretative process and listening to the actual words and details they use. And only once we’ve heard them do we begin the interpretive process of asking why they used those words and details.

Listen first. Interpret later.

And that interpretive process is really a learning process. Since I stand outside of the world my neighbors inhabit, I have to ask them to teach me about it. I can’t assume I know what that world is like from the outside.

Living those five years in Canada meant watching Hockey Night in Canada and going to a Vancouver Canucks game with a Canadian friend to understand Canada’s hockey culture. It meant eating donuts at Tim Horton’s, participating in their (excellent) socialize medicine system, and talking with people about the whole Quebec/French/separatist thing. And that was only scratching the surface.

The posture of a learner is essential if we are to regain our missional edge.

I wouldn’t go to an Asian, African, or Latin American country without the attitude of a learner. Not only would I not understand a word they were saying, but I’d dress inappropriately and commit all kinds of social blunders.

So, since we all would expect to be a learners in what seems like a more exotic location, why wouldn’t we expect the same of ourselves in our own neighborhoods? Familiarity with place and similarity of language trip us up by putting us in that interpretive autopilot mode. The more exotic the setting, the more we expect things to be different and the less shocked we are to experience difference.

Getting off autopilot and paying attention to the words and details that our neighbors use as they communicate from their view of the world will not only help us learn how they view the world, it will also help us communicate the good news of Jesus to them in ways they can understand.