There were a couple of times in Ivory Coast – New Testament Dedications – where I started off a speech with a paragraph in the local language. Now I didn’t speak those languages, and I didn’t really know what I was saying except in the broadest terms. But armed with a reasonable ear and a tape recorder, I was able to make a pretty good fist of speaking a language. Admittedly, a reasonably trained parrot would probably have done better, but that is neither here nor there.
The thing is, it is actually deceptively easy to speak a foreign language. You can learn things by rote and sound pretty good, fairly quickly. But what then? You speak out your well rehearsed phrase and then the person you are speaking to is so impressed that they rattle of a long reply at high speed and you don’t understand a single word!
Speaking a language is not the same as communicating in a language. To communicate, you have to be able to speak, but much more important, you have to have the skills to listen and understand. When I taught language learning theory and practice, I used to have to keep drilling home this message. It doesn’t matter how much you can say, what really matters is how much you can understand. If you language learning is driven by your ability to speak, then you are limited to the things you know, but if you concentrate on listening and understanding, then every person you meet provides you with an opportunity to learn more. Listening and understanding is what counts in language learning, not speaking. Any old parrot can speak.
Bryan Russell picks up this theme in an excellent little article on how to speak to people about Jesus in the Western world. You can find it here.
Practice listening rather than focusing on telling. Our ears may be the most important evangelistic tool in our possession. Refuse to reduce sharing the good news about Jesus to some script. Sharing the Gospel with preChristians in the West is not a one size fits all tract or tape that can simply be downloaded. We must learn to listen carefully before speaking.