Friday, July 23, 2010

"They pray to cows"

What is the importance of language and culture study in a country or tribe?

This question is one of the main ideas that are confronted at NTM's Missionary Training Center (MTC). During the three semesters here, students learn that you cannot merely learn the language of a people group without learning the culture. This is why we struggle in a "classroom" type language study in high school. It becomes even more apparent when you are learning the language.
For example, when I was in Mexico, I had much more to do than learn the language. I could easily learn the words--that is simply memorization and pronunciation. But in order to communicate--which is much deeper than speaking words!--I had to know the culture of the person I was talking with. I had to learn how to talk to the waitress at the restaurant: in the U.S. we rarely raise our hand to signal the waitress to come to us for help, we may make eye contact or nod in her direction, subtly "asking" for her to come to our table. In contrast, the Mexican waitress may not revisit you (as you take the biggest bite off your plate like so often happens here) unless you signal to her with your hand. Neither waitress is correct or wrong--it is just a difference. One way that we simulate this experience here at the MTC is through a class called "Dobu." A handful of our staff on campus dress up like the Dobu people of Papua New Guinea simulating their language and culture. This week I had the opportunity to guide some youth from a local youth retreat through the Dobu village. It was fun to see students who, though they have a language and culture of their own, felt so strange in another culture that they were speechless for a few moments. Their manner of greeting was obviously not the correct way--in fact, none of the students in my groups tried to shake hands with the Dobu men. Each group had around twenty minutes to build a relationship with our tribal person, and to try to learn some of their thoughts on gods, prayer, and good versus evil.Afterward, we debriefed together in a classroom. One of the girls said, "They pray to cows!" Those of us on staff were confused, because we knew that was not a part of the culture! Through talking with her, we realized that she had heard the name "Tau" and heard "cow." One of many mistakes that would be made in a real cultural experience!

Please pray for the many missionaries heading overseas for the first time this summer. They will be hit on the tarmac by waves of heat, humidity, smells, and culture. They struggle often on a daily basis with these changes that are so different from their own customs.

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