Serving With a Foreign-Language Congregation
“I SAW another angel flying in midheaven,” wrote the apostle John, “and he had everlasting good news to declare as glad tidings to those who dwell on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people.” (Revelation 14:6) In fulfillment of this prophetic vision, the good news of God’s Kingdom is being preached worldwide in various tongues, or languages. Many of these languages are spoken by immigrants living far from their native lands. These individuals too are hearing the good news from zealous Witnesses of Jehovah who have learned another language.
Are you among those Witnesses who are serving with a foreign-language congregation? Or are you perhaps thinking about doing so? To succeed in your endeavor, you need an unselfish motive and a proper mental attitude. Since your objective is to help others learn the truth from God’s Word, you have the best possible motive—love for God and neighbor. (Matthew 22:37-39; 1 Corinthians 13:1) The desire to help others come to know God provides far stronger motivation than merely enjoying the company, food, and culture of people of another nationality or group. Does the prospect of learning another language seem overwhelming to you? If so, having the right outlook will be helpful. “Don’t let the language intimidate you,” says James, who learned Japanese. Realizing that many others before you have succeeded can help you to persevere and to maintain a positive attitude. How, then, can you learn a new language? What will help you adjust to a congregation where that language is used? And what must you do to stay spiritually strong?
Tackling the Language
There are many ways to learn a language. Students and teachers vary in their preferences. For most students, though, attending a few classes taught by a qualified teacher makes learning faster and easier. Reading the Bible and Bible-based publications in your new language and listening to whatever recordings are available will help you to build your vocabulary and expand your knowledge of theocratic expressions. Radio, TV, and video programs with suitable content can also expose you to the language and culture. As to the length of the study sessions, studying a little every day is usually more effective than enduring painfully long but infrequent study sessions.
Learning a language is like learning to swim. You cannot learn to swim just by reading a book. You have to get into the water and splash about in it. So it is with learning a language. This is difficult to do only by studying. You need to interact with people whenever you can—listen to their speech, approach them, and by all means, talk! Christian activities provide the ideal setting for this. Often, you can put what you learn to immediate use in the field ministry. “It may seem frightening,” notes Midori, who is learning Chinese, “but householders can see that we Witnesses are trying hard. This can move hearts. We only have to say, ‘I am happy to meet you’ in their language, and their eyes light up!”
Christian meetings are also a great help. At every meeting, try to comment at least once. No matter how terrifying that may seem in the beginning, do not worry. The congregation wants you to succeed! Monifa, who is learning Korean, says: “I am so grateful to the sister who sits next to me during meetings, writing down the meaning of certain words for me. Her warm and patient support really helps me.” As your vocabulary increases, you can begin to think in the new language—associating words directly with what they represent rather than translating each word in your mind.
Your first linguistic goal should be to “utter speech easily understood.” (1 Corinthians 14:8-11) Though people may be tolerant, mistakes or a heavy accent may distract them from listening to your message. Giving attention to proper pronunciation and grammar right from the start will prevent you from forming bad habits that are hard to break. Mark, who learned Swahili, suggests: “Ask good speakers to correct your worst mistakes, and then thank them for doing it!” Of course, be considerate of the time and energy of those who help you in this way. Although you may ask someone to check your work, try to prepare your talks and comments using the words you already know or have looked up. This speeds up the learning process and helps you to speak with confidence.
Keep Moving Forward
“Learning another language is by far the hardest task I have ever undertaken,” says Monifa. “I have moments when I want to quit. But I remember how much the Bible student loves to hear deep spiritual truths in my simple Korean and the joy the brothers show when I progress even a little.” The point is, do not give up too easily. Your goal is to be able to teach lifesaving Scriptural truths to others. (1 Corinthians 2:10) Hence, learning to teach the Bible in another language requires concentrated, long-term effort. As you move ahead, avoid measuring your progress by comparing yourself negatively with others. Those learning a new language progress at different rates and in different ways. However, it is useful to be aware of your own progress. (Galatians 6:4) “With language, the learning curve is more like a staircase,” notes Joon, who has taken up Chinese. “Just when you feel you are not improving, you suddenly realize you have made progress.”
Learning a new tongue is a lifelong pursuit. Therefore, enjoy the journey, and do not expect perfection. (Psalm 100:2) Mistakes are inevitable. They are part of the learning process. When he began preaching in Italian, one Christian asked a householder, “Do you know the broom of life?” He meant to say “purpose of life.” A Witness new to Polish invited the congregation to sing the dog instead of the song. And by a slight change of intonation, an individual learning Chinese urged his audience to have faith in Jesus’ bookcase rather than in the ransom. The bright side of mistakes is that the correct terms learned are not likely to be forgotten.
Working With the Congregation
Language differences are not all that separate people. Cultural, racial, and national differences often divide mankind even further. These barriers, though, are not insurmountable. A scholar studying Chinese-language religious groups in Europe observed that Jehovah’s Witnesses are “supranational.” Among the Witnesses, he noted, “ethnicity plays no role, and language is nothing but a vehicle to understanding God’s word.” Indeed, applying Bible principles is what helps true Christians to rise above national differences. For those who put on the ‘new personality, there is neither Greek nor Jew nor foreigner.’—Colossians 3:10, 11.
All in the congregation should therefore work to promote unity. This requires opening one’s mind and heart to new ways of thinking, feeling, and doing things. You can prevent differences from turning into divisions by not giving undue attention to personal preferences. (1 Corinthians 1:10; 9:19-23) Learn to enjoy the best elements of all cultures. Remember, unselfish love is the key to good relations and real unity.
Most foreign-language congregations begin as small groups, often consisting largely of those learning the new language, along with some who have only recently begun to learn Bible principles. Hence, misunderstandings are more likely to occur in such groups than they are in a large, established congregation. Mature Christians should therefore strive to be a force for stability. Showing love and kindness in words and deeds helps to create a wholesome environment in which new ones can grow spiritually.
Those who volunteer to help in a foreign-language congregation must also be balanced in their expectations of others. Rick, an elder in such a congregation, explains: “Some newer Witnesses may not be as well trained in organizational skills as are those in the local-language congregations. But what they lack in ability, they often make up for in love and enthusiasm. And many interested ones are coming into the truth.” By regularly being on hand and by giving of yourself in whatever way you can, you will truly benefit the congregation, even while you are still learning the language. Working together, all can contribute to the congregation’s spiritual advancement.
Maintaining Spiritual Strength
A brother who was relatively new in a foreign-language congregation overheard a mother helping her child to prepare a comment. “But Mommy, can’t it be shorter?” pleaded the child. “No, dear,” the mother replied. “We have to save the short ones for the language learners.”
For an adult, being unable to communicate well for months or even years can be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually taxing. “I easily got depressed by my own limitations,” recalls Janet, who now speaks Spanish fluently. Hiroko, who learned English, remembers thinking: ‘Even dogs and cats in the territory understand more English than I do.’ And Kathie says: “When I moved to a Spanish congregation, I went from having several Bible studies and a notebook full of return visits to having none. I felt I wasn’t doing anything.”
Here is where a positive attitude is essential. When she became discouraged, Hiroko reasoned: “If others can do it, so can I.” Kathie says: “I thought of my husband, who is making such good progress and doing so much in the congregation. That got me over the hump. It is still a lot of work, but I am gradually gaining the ability to preach and teach, and that makes me happy.” Her husband, Jeff, adds: “It can be frustrating not to grasp everything that is said in announcements and at elders’ meetings. I have to be honest and humble and ask for details, but the brothers are happy to help.”
To avoid spiritual exhaustion while working with a foreign-language congregation, you must not fail to give priority to your spiritual health. (Matthew 5:3) Kazuyuki, who for many years has served in the Portuguese field, says: “It is important that we get sufficient spiritual nourishment. That is why as a family we study and prepare for meetings in our own language as well as in Portuguese.” Some occasionally attend meetings in their own language. Moreover, getting enough rest is vital.—Mark 6:31.
Counting the Cost
If you are thinking about moving to a congregation where another language is used, you must count the cost of doing so. (Luke 14:28) In this regard, the most important areas to consider are your spirituality and your relationship with Jehovah. Prayerfully assess your situation. Take into consideration your mate and children. Ask yourself, ‘Do I have the circumstances and the necessary spiritual and emotional strength to take on such a long-term project?’ Doing what is best for you and your family spiritually is the course of wisdom. There is much to be done and much joy to be found wherever you serve as a Kingdom proclaimer.
For those who can serve in a foreign-language congregation, there are great rewards. “This is one of the happiest experiences of my life,” says Barbara, who with her husband moved to a Spanish congregation. “It’s like coming in the truth all over again. I am so thankful for the opportunity, especially since we cannot be missionaries in another country.”
Around the world, thousands of ordinary people of different ages are taking up the challenge of learning another language in order to advance the good news. If you are among them, keep your motive pure and your attitude positive. Above all, trust in Jehovah to bless your efforts.—2 Corinthians 4:7.
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Attending language classes taught by a qualified teacher makes learning faster and easier
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Your spiritual health should not be compromised while you are learning a foreign language