I recently spoke with a man who had been a missionary in Brazil. While he was there he made a great effort to learn Portuguese well, taking as his models the Brazilian Portuguese speakers around him. His goal was to sound just like them them--or as much like them as possible--when he spoke.
To this day, twenty years after leaving Brazil, he speaks excellent, idiomatic Brazilian Portuguese. The hard work that he did many years ago continues to yield dividends in the way he speaks the language.
He told me about a time he traveled with a fellow missionary in Brazil. After an interaction with a Brazilian man, his colleague turned to him and asked in an annoyed way, "Why do you do that?"
"Do what?" my friend replied.
"Why do you try talk like the Brazilians, instead of like an American?"
"Because they talk right, and I want to talk right."
"Well," his friend concluded, "don't do it around me."
I thought about that story again a couple of weeks ago when I was listening to a radio program about language learning. The man being interviewed said something to the effect that the greatest compliment you can pay a language learner is to mistake him/her for a native speaker.
I realized that this was exactly what my friend's colleague had wanted to avoid. There was something in his self-identity that resisted identifying with Brazilians and he didn't want to risk ever being taken for anything but an American.
Now I realize that for most of us it is very unlikely that we would ever learn a language so well as an adult that we would be taken for a native speaker. But putting that aside for the moment, one of the reasons that my language students tend to be the most motivated language learners in the world is that they don't only want to communicate information with Paraguayans; they want to identify with them in the language that defines them as Paraguayans--Guarani. By learning Guarani, we affirm, value, and make part of us something that most Paraguayans hold in very high esteem--the language that is uniquely theirs.
Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen, in his book Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, talks about this identification: "Such identification is not an external façade designed to create some kind of artificial congeniality; it is the heart of God incarnate in the missionary." (p. 66) The heart of God was demonstrated in Jesus, the Word who took on human form and had to learn words--human language--as a baby. His identification with us, his creation, sets the pattern for missionary identification.
That's why language learning for missionaries is not an onerous task to be endured so that the real missions work can begin. It is an indispensable step in the process of incarnation that every missionary must engage in completely in order to be effective ministers in the context they've been called to. For this reason, people who go to minister in contexts where they "don't need to learn the language" find themselves at a distinct disadvantage, because they lack one of the most fundamental tools of identification.