It has been five years now, but I still remember how it felt. It happened more than once while I served in West Africa as a missionary, but it always caught me off guard. I would be working out in the bush, a long long way from anyone that could, or at least should, be able to speak English. And yet, in the middle of a conversation, I would hear it… a simple, “thank you.” Perhaps it was the response to some service I had preformed, bringing formula out to the bush for a baby who had lost her mother or giving someone a ride to another village, but it was always profound to hear gratitude expressed to me in my own language when these folk had no reason to know it.
Language is a big deal. Most American’s never experience a world where everyone can communicate except them. It is tough. And it makes the sound of familiar words so sweet. There is a reason it is called a heart language.
I spill a lot of ink on this blog trying to convince people, regular church people, that they do not have to be trained professionals to do cross-cultural ministry. In a day when the nations are now our neighbors, it is unhelpful to perpetuate this idea that we need a trained cultural specialist to reach people that are different from us. Instead, regular folk in local churches can, and should, be reaching out to all of these people groups moving into our cities.
What is more, I do not think you have to learn a foreign language to do it. That is one real benefit to our new neighbors moving here, by nature of living in an English-speaking country, many will learn English. Now, I think all people should have the joy of worshiping their Lord in a church that speaks their heart language. A church in their language would also be better for their discipleship and their outreach. At the same time, I think engaging these people groups can happen through key people in their circles that speak both English and their language. These people serve as gateways into their community and bridge the language barrier for local churches.
All that said, it sure is nice to hear your own language, and that is a gift we can give our new neighbors with just a little bit of effort and a couple of hours of time. No, you cannot learn a language in a couple of hours, but you can learn power phrases. Power phrases are key sentences and questions that are easy to learn but very important. They mark important moments in conversations and provide you with the ability to ask simple questions that allow the language learning to continue.
Learning power phrases has multiple benefits as well. First, asking international newcomers to teach you these phrases gives you a great reason to spend a little time with them. Second, you simply showing them that you want to learn their language demonstrates a respect for their culture, which will always translate into respect for them. Finally, being able to use these phrases in conversations with others from that group will immediately give you an open ear with them.
So, what are these power phrases to learn in any language? I’m glad you asked. I will give you three.
Greetings & Farewells
Hello and goodbye are a part of every conversation, and they serve as the first and last thing you say to someone. That makes them power phrases in any language. What is more, it seems many languages have a culturally unique way of greeting and leave-taking. Where I served in Africa, the morning greeting literally translated, “Did anything bad happen to you overnight?” Weird, huh? Well, so is, “How’s it going?”
There may be no faster way into the heart of an international here in the US than to greet them in their own language when you meet them. And the rarer their heart language, the more this is true. Learning to use these phrases every time you have a conversation with your new neighbors will help develop strong relationships and show them honor.
Fortunately, greetings and farewells are usually easy to pick up. Most people can do it after a few tries. All you have to do is ask.
Another very easy to learn, and extremely important, power phrase is thank you. This one is pretty obvious, but it comes in real handy when you eat at that Turkish restaurant in town and tell the server teşekkürler instead of thank you. Don’t worry… it’s not as hard to pronounce as it looks. Being able to thank someone in their heart language creates a level of sincerity that does not occur through a language barrier.
What is it?
There are several power questions to learn when doing language acquisition, but this may be the most important. Being able to ask this question will give you the ability to learn any other word you want. This question has a number of variants depending on the language. It may translate as, “What is this called?” or “What is it?” or “How do you say this?” Regardless, this is a good one to learn as it will allow you to learn all the vocabulary you want.
Of course, there are other power phrases, but these three can be learned quickly and easily and will give you a great advantage when engaging people with a different heart language.
Photo By laogooli