David Benzel has served cross-culturally in both Russia and Ukraine for 30 years. After studying the Russian language in Kyiv, Ukraine, he and his wife moved to Khabarovsk, Far East Russia where he taught for more than a decade at the Far East Russia Bible College. Then in 2008, the Benzels moved to Kyiv and David began teaching at Kyiv Theological Seminary. In the early years in Russia, David taught with the help of a translator. But he has now been teaching and preaching in Russian without a translator for well over twenty years. David is highly respected as a teacher and as someone who loves God’s Word. He will be greatly missed as he transitions to life and ministry back in the United States this year. The SEND U blog editor asked David to share what he had learned about teaching in another language over these many years.
I was asked to share what I have learned about learning and teaching in another language. I can’t say if other approaches work or don’t work. In fact, I don’t know if God has used me because of my approach or in spite of my approach.
Let me start by recognizing that our faith has a long history of teachers teaching in a language other than their native tongue. Much of the NT was written by non-native speakers of Greek. These non-native speakers were at different levels in their proficiency in communicating in Greek. Anyone who reads even a little Greek knows that John is much easier to read than Luke. Paul is much easier to read than Hebrews.
We also need to acknowledge that biblical leaders and teachers were not always confident in their mastery of a particular language. Even Moses felt he couldn’t communicate well in Hebrew, perhaps because of growing up in Pharaoh’s house.
Moses said to the LORD, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.”Exodus 4:10
Moses seems to have tied his view of himself to his problems with language. This is perhaps due to having been raised in an Egyptian household but having an Israelite mother.
We think we need to speak well, but that may be more of a matter of pride. We don’t want to sound like kindergartners. God greatly used people who had to minister in a foreign culture and in a foreign language. Their lower level of language usage made them ideal candidates to minister to many for whom language proficiency was also an issue. I have found that having to speak simply forces me to more simply communicate God’s truths than I would have in English. For this reason, I am perhaps more effective in this second language than I am in my native tongue!
The skills of language learning
While we might think of learning a language as one straightforward endeavor, there are actually 4 different skills that are involved.
- reading (the easiest because you can do it at your own pace)
Note that translating while someone is speaking is still another skill. Just because you understand and can even speak well in another language does not mean you can automatically translate to or from that language.
We want to become proficient in all four skills but proficiency in one area doesn’t mean proficiency in the other areas. You may perform one skill well without having any competency at all in any of the other skills. Doing one well doesn’t help you all that much in the other skills.
Not speaking well (or at all) can be a very humbling experience. It is surprising how many people don’t realize how difficult learning a new language actually is. They think their language is easy and that you are stupid for not understanding. Furthermore, some cultures use humiliation as a teaching method. Shaming is done to motivate learners. Consenting to serve in another language means humbling yourself much in the same way that Jesus humbled himself to become one of us. We need to accept that others will have a lower view of ourselves – and we may have a lower view of ourselves as well. We have to be willing to be looked at as if we are toddlers.1 (See a related blog post on “The Importance and danger of language fluency“.)
So, language proficiency is not just a skill. It is also usually closely tied to how we view ourselves. How do we become willing to humble ourselves in speaking another language? I believe the humility needed to prosper in a new language comes from a deep trust in the Gospel.
Language ability and our identity
Language (and how we communicate and present ourselves) seems to be such a big part of our identity. So, when we enter another culture and suddenly lose our ability to speak and understand what others are saying, we face a huge threat to that identity. Some aspects of how we interact with others require the sophistication of language use that we just can’t muster in the early stages of language learning. Who are we if we can’t even talk with our neighbors?
To the degree that we find our identity in Christ and not in our abilities and accomplishments, we are free to just try to communicate. Much of the pressure of trying to get it right comes more from a desire to be respected and impress others than from a desire to communicate love. We have to let go of the self-image we have sought to create in our own culture and be willing to become another person in the new language/culture.
Our identity in Christ
Only trust in the Gospel makes us willing to do this. The Gospel both frees us and motivates us. We need to realize that our identity does not depend on our ability to speak and understand. If we were to suddenly go mute, we would continue to be the children of God that we are. The same fruits of the Spirit would continue to grow in us and bless others.
How we accept the loss of this proficiency and how we approach learning a new language/culture are significant ways we can glorify God. Perhaps no one really will notice, but it can still glorify God.
Perhaps being silent for a while will prove to be very valuable to us in the long run. It will help us focus on listening and seeing (rather than on being heard and seen).
Teaching does not mean you are an expert
Although teaching in another language is something we really want to be able to do, we need to recognize that being able to do so does not mean that we are an expert in the language. I have found it much easier to teach/preach than to listen to others and respond (answer questions). In so doing, I control the content. I have prepared what I am going to say. Therefore, do not think that public speaking is the pinnacle of language acquisition. Rather, it is closer to the beginning level. Actually, speaking with someone on the street can be far more difficult. Participating in a group conversion can prove to be really difficult because the group might not simplify their language for your sake. You will hear how they really talk, using idioms, inside jokes, and references to life contexts, previous history, and current events.
The goal is not to master another language
I believe that no one totally masters a language, perhaps not even one’s own mother tongue. There are always topics in which we do not have all the vocabulary we need. There may even be grammatical constructions we avoid. Thus, the goal is not to “learn the language”, which in both unattainable and indefinable. Instead, the goal should be to more and more adequately communicate what I want to in the situations I need to. There may be other situations we can’t communicate clearly or at all.
Think more of specific tasks in which you want to become proficient. For example, learn how to greet, how to thank, how to apologize, how to start a prayer, how to close a prayer, how to begin a class. For me, memorizing a whole phrase or sentence often was more helpful than learning individual words.
At the same time, we will need to learn groups of words on a particular subject. For example, learn the names of various car parts, things in a house, the relationships people have (mother-in-law, uncle, cousin, etc.).
I heard someone say that we should try to find five different ways to say the same thing. I couldn’t really do that very often, but thinking about it helped me to find new ways of saying something when I didn’t know the exact word I was looking for.
Things one can do to get better at communicating in another language
Here are some of the things I did to get better at expressing myself:
Some ideas for developing your understanding
- Found a list of 500 basic words in Russian and made sure I knew those words. After that, I moved on to the list of 2000 basic words.
- Realized how important roots were in this language and learned lots of roots.
- Avoided translating class assignments that my students had submitted to me. Instead, I just read them as they were written.
- Frequently looked up Bible verses to see how this was expressed in Russian.
- Listened to various audio recordings of the Bible in Russian. I also listened to them at higher playback speeds.
- Found a good Russian-English dictionary for my phone and used it frequently.
- Read novels in Russian. I started with translations of English books, such mysteries by Agatha Christie. The vocabulary in books such as these is not sophisticated.
- Studied other topics, such as physics, nature, art, and history in the Russian language. These were subjects in which I had real interest. Using the language is the best way to learn it, just as using math to solve practical problems helps you learn it better than just studying math.
Some ideas for developing your speaking ability
- Tried to speak in Russian with everyone, even when they knew English.
- When singing in Russian, I sang loudly and whole-heartedly. This makes you sound like you know the language and boosts your confidence in pronouncing words.
- Made a list of words with similar sounds and asked native speakers to read or record them for me. For English, this might be a list of words such as “boat”, “boot”, “bought”, “bout”, “but”, “bat”, “bet”, “beet”, “bit”, “bite”, and “bait”. Vowel sounds in one language do not usually overlap with the way that vowels sound in English. This can be true of consonants too. Therefore, we can have a hard time distinguishing the differences between similar sounding words. We need to train our ears to hear the differences as spoken by a native speaker.
- Listened over and over again to recordings of the translation of my sermons.
[The SEND U wiki also has a number of resources and tips on language acquisition. See this wiki page.]
Advice for teachers
So here is some advice for those of you who are seeking to develop the competency to teach in another language.
Think in the other language
Try not to translate ideas but rather to think in that language. Don’t completely translate your notes and then read them. In fact, I advise you not to use complete sentences in your notes. Allow yourself the freedom to form the sentence in the new language as you speak.
Say only what you can say naturally. Don’t use many words you do not know in your presentation. When you use words/grammatical constructions you don’t know, it is obvious to the hearers and detracts from the communication of what you want to say.
Remember, our goal is not to “say our material” but for the students or listeners to hear, comprehend, and believe. Our own confidence in speaking is part of the process the Spirit can use to increase their confidence in its truthfulness. The more naturally we speak, even if not eloquently, the more persuasive we are.
Don’t try to be as eloquent and erudite in the new language as you are in your own language. One of the comments I hear frequently is how simply I present truth. I don’t think I do that nearly as well in English.
Some of the finer points that I think are so special in English don’t really translate or seem insignificant in another language. They are not really worth trying to say. It is usually content that translates, not forms or format. So, don’t try to preserve or value the forms or expressions you would use when teaching in your own language.
For example, when teaching on Hebrews 11, don’t call it God’s “Hall of Faith.” Speakers of other languages probably don’t know what a “hall of fame” is. “Halls of fame” are perhaps unique to our culture. Furthermore, the sound similarity of “faith” and “fame” is totally lost in translation. So, while these words could be said in another language, would your listeners understand this phrase since it doesn’t come out of the text itself?
You will likely just lose or confuse your audience if you try to explain a form that is found in English or in the original languages but is not found in the language in which you are teaching.
Value their translation of the Bible
One of the benefits of learning another language is that you get to read and hear God’s word in a new way. That in itself makes all the work worth it. God speaks that new language and wants to speak to you through it!
If the language you are learning has a Bible in its own language, listen to the Bible in that language. Memorize verses in that language. Teach from their Bible, not yours. Study the passage in their Bible, not yours. There may be nuances that are apparent in that translation that are not visible in your own. Furthermore, don’t focus on truths that are clear from your translation but are not evident in theirs.
Don’t ever minimize the value of their Bible translation in their eyes. It is their door to God’s self-revelation. How they view their Bible is closely tied to how they view God. Value it, praise it, and learn to love it. This can happen only because you use it yourself.
There are shortcomings in all translations, just as there are in your spouse or kids or culture – but you still love them. Probably truths are expressed in this translation that you have never seen in your own language, if only you have the humility to study it.
So, when you teach, don’t give the impression that the hearers should be doubting the accuracy of their translation. If there is a deficiency in the translation, it is better to let native speakers point that out. As foreigners, we instead should focus on what their version does say.
See and think in new ways
Learning one of these other languages opens your mind up to new ways of seeing and thinking. There are new ways of explaining and categorizing that have never occurred to you.
Don’t focus on what you think might be lacking in the language. Instead focus on what their text does emphasize. For example, English is one of the few languages in the world that has two articles (“the” and “a”). Most languages do with just one article and some don’t have any articles. As an experiment, try to talk in English without using articles. “In building across street, I see woman looking out window on bottom floor.” That seems strange and awkward, right? That strangeness is how others feel when you try to communicate in a different language assuming these two articles. Languages that do not use articles are not better or worse, just different. The main point of a verse or passage is most likely not dependent on people understanding what an article is.
Seeing God’s glory in another language
Learning to speak and teach in another language is a difficult and lengthy process. But it is a process that is well worth doing. In the end, we need to appreciate that God understands this new language, speaks that language, and values that language. There are some facets of His glory that we will only see via that language and culture. That is why there will be people from every language in the eternal kingdom. We will probably spend the beginning of eternity learning all these languages and cultural viewpoints!