Missions Misunderstood » Blog Archive » Losing My Accent

Posted May 31st, 2006 by E. Goodman

Learning a second language is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s frustrating and humiliating, and the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. Sometimes, you just want to give up. But we put forth the effort in order that we might be able to share our lives with the people of the places we’ve moved to. If only recognizing the importance of language learning was enough to, you know, speak it.

I used to like the television show “Alias.” The main character, Syndey Bristow, was the best secret-agent ever. She was sort of a cross between James Bond and Lara Croft. I watched faithfully through the first season. I was half-way through season two when someone asked me what the show was about. “Well, there’s this college-student-by-day, undercover-super-agent-by-night whose dad is a double agent but she doesn’t know it and whose mom was a double agent for the KGB but her dad didn’t know it, and her dad’s best friend is the villain posing as a good guy, until they introduce her long-lost sister.” I was overcome with how ridiculous it sounded as I spoke. After that, I never watched the show again.

The worst thing about the show wasn’t the spy family, triple-agent, gadget-for-everything, plot, it was the fact that no matter what obscure country Sydney found herself in, she spoke the local language perfectly. Chinese. Tagalog. Welsh. She spoke them so well that not even the local bad guys could tell she was a foreigner. Stealth-ninja swordplay skills I’ll buy, but fluency in fifty languages is just too unrealistic for me.

Which brings me to I asked a friend who is a church planter in the UK about this a few weeks ago. Maybe he’ll post his response in a comment, but really can’t get past this. We’ve got people on the field who speak the national language very well. They’ve been around a while, they can do everything they need to do and say anything they might need to say in the language. But they have accents. Strong ones. They butcher the language with the typical American “R’s” and lazy vowels. In the phone, no one mistakes them for nationals. In person, the listener still has to contort his face as he strains to understand. So my question is this: Do our personnel working in English-speaking contexts take on the local accent?

For me, the accent is the key to true cultural relevance. Think of it this way, if I were to speak with a guy in London, he’d surely notice my American accent. But after a couple years of living in Covent Garden, I’d surely be able to put on a pretty good English accent for my friend. Not that I’d be able to pass for a Brit, but I bet he wouldn’t say, “Hey, you’re putting on an English accent.” No. I’m pretty sure he’d say something like, “Hey, you’re losing your American accent.”

I’m sure there are probably all sorts of ministry applications to the idea of losing our accents. To me, it just reminds me that there is more than just a language barrier between me and the people to whom I minister. It makes me want to live in such a way that the people around me start to say: “Hey, the longer you’re here, the less your faith seems foreign to me.”

Filed under:Communication, Missions, Strategy