While attending a Disaster Relief training conference in Hong Kong a few years ago with The Salvation Amy, I found myself in a very challenging learning environment. I was one of three English speaking western delegates amongst representatives from every Asian country in the South Pacific East Asia zone. The trainer was from England and the course was presented in English, but the class discussion and workshop participation took on the flavour of the diverse language groups represented.
Despite having a clear advantage of speaking the same language as the trainer, I became very aware that I represented a minority culture in this context and faced my own language barriers in processing and contextually applying the knowledge learnt when participating in small group discussion. Most of the other delegates spoke multiple languages and connected easily with the dominant Asian culture (despite the diversity within the dominant culture), yet struggled to present back what they had processed in their familiar language groups in a clear and coherent manner through the unfamiliar language of English. However, what the trainer did next was one of the most culturally intelligient things I had seen in such an environment. She invited each participant to present to the class in their native language. Even though she could not understand their language of origin, she observed a sudden change in their body language and confidence as they "organised their thoughts" and "constructed their knowledge" in the "language they dream in" (Trudgen).
Trudgen's article, "What Language Do You Dream In?", helps us to make sense of the linguistic challenges of cross-cultural communication. I am currently trying to learn bahasa Indonesia and have discovered that even though I have a growing vocabulary of words, sentence structure and phrasing is very different to English. I recognise many words in conversations with my Indonesian friends, but have to work hard at trying to construct my thoughts in a very unfamiliar language structure. In a small way, I identify with the frustration illustrated by Trudgen," English makes me tired" when people from non-English cultures (including indigenous Australians) are attempting to communicate in a second language.
We need to take language seriously if we want to effectively bridge the linguistic gap in communicating the Gospel cross-culturally.