The Many Jobs of a Missionary ~ Linguist, Part 1: How We Learned the Language

This job goes without saying. Pun intended! 🙂

Missionaries must learn the language of the people they are ministering to!

When my husband arrived in South Africa to work in the villages of the Tsonga people (before we were married), he knew no other missionaries working with the Tsonga people who could teach him the language. There was no language school or Rosetta Stone digital course.

Thankfully, South Africa’s national language is English, so several of the nationals had a working grasp of English, some better than others. Seth asked a national pastor that was his sole link to the village to teach him Tsonga. This worked–like a broken wheel–bumpy and uncomfortable for both.

The national pastor, although fluent of course in his native tongue, did not know how to explain the rules and logic of Tsonga to a non-native learner. Would you know how to explain the logic of English to an ESL speaker? And Seth did not know at the time how to teach another person to teach him the language. (Now we have a much better idea of how to tutor someone to tutor us!) Eventually in frustration, the pastor explained that Tsonga was like Greek–no rules, see? Okay, so Seth was back on his own.

Again thankfully, those stronger and better than us had gone before. Swiss missionaries translated the entire Bible into Tsonga in 1907, and so Seth had a Bible and a dictionary in Tsonga, which helped immensely.

My favorite missionary heroes are those linguists who pull a language out of the air and put it into writing for the first time–who labor for years to put the Bible into someone else’s language. How can we measure the worth of those who have gone before us making our work so much easier? My eyes teared up recently reading a book for children about missionary translation work called God Speaks Numanggang, by missionary-turned-homeschool-curriculum-provider David Hazell. Frontline missionaries who sweat to translate the Bible are heroes. Praise them with great praise!

So Seth read through Romans and other books of the Bible verse by verse with teen boys, trying to match his accent to their tone. But he still didn’t understand the structure of the language.

Early days: Two teen boys helping to translate into Venda and Tsonga--not ideal!

Early days: Two teen boys helping to translate into Venda and Tsonga–not ideal!

Well into his first year, he received a tip from an Afrikaner (white South Africans–another thing to be thankful for in this country!) about another Afrikaner who worked for the South African Bible Society for years, mainly in the Venda language, another language prevalent in the villages around us. This man helped to translate the second version of the Venda Bible. He could even preach in Venda. Seth got his contact details and went to visit him.

Here he is--a modern-day hero that the world does not know.

Here he is–a modern-day hero that the world does not know.

This was the game-changer. In order to learn the language, we often need help from those who have already done it! This man told Seth of a little grammar book that the old Swiss missionaries had written called Everyday Tsonga, which Seth could purchase at a little Indian shop in a nearby town.


Seth did that immediately, and it opened up to him the structure of the sub-Saharan languages–the African languages south of the Saharan desert. Lesson 7–oh how we praise God for it! It’s called “Classes of Nouns and Their Prefixes.” Exciting, huh? 🙂

IMG_1413Each lesson had a grammatical term with a “rule” listed underneath. Yes. Every language has rules. 🙂 And here’s how lesson 7’s rule began: “In Tsonga…all nouns are divided into different classes….It is important that this system of noun-classes should be mastered thoroughly, as it is the key to a correct speaking of the language. As we progress, we shall see that any adjective, pronoun, or verb, which stands in relation to a certain noun in a sentence, is connected with that noun by means of the repetition of its prefix in one form or another; so that one can say that it is the noun, which rules the whole sentence.” The lesson then goes on to give examples.

Oh, sweet relief! To our English minds, the verb really rules the sentence. We had no concept for nouns ruling the sentence. But African languages are riddled with tiny little words called “concords” that connect subjects to verbs, get attached to adjectives, and act as the pronoun. If you don’t know the concordial system, you can’t learn the language!

For example:

In English, we would say, “The bread is good.” But in Tsonga, they say, “The bread it is good.” And the “it” changes depending on what the subject is. “It” also changes for adjectives like “big” or “small.”

Before this grammar book, Seth could not figure out the rhyme or reason for all of these little words throughout the Tsonga language. He would try one version of “it,” only to be told that for “bread” it was “xi.” So then he would apply “xi” to a person or a table, only to be told that it was “u” or “ri” respectively. He was constantly guessing wrong and didn’t know what all those little words meant to the language. It was utterly confusing. Now it seems so obvious to us–now that we have the key!

Since then, we have both learned Tsonga (almost fluently) and bits of Venda (which I have forgotten, but Seth can speak passingly), and now Seth is trying to pick up bits of Shona in order to reach some of the Zimbabweans who have flooded our province of South Africa. Each succeeding African language is easier to learn after jumping the hurdle of the first one.

If you look back on your life, I’m sure you have your own stories of God’s providence–literally, His “seeing before.” How we learned Tsonga is one story in which we bless God for His providence–His “seeing before” in providing those clever Swiss missionaries to translate the Bible, publish a Tsonga grammar book (in English!), and guiding our steps to meet the people who would introduce us to the grammar.

And now we have begun on our journey to being a linguist–one of the most important jobs of a missionary!

More to come…

About Amy

I'm Amy, a missionary wife and homeschooling mother of five children, blogging about our lives and perspectives on culture in South Africa.
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3 Responses to The Many Jobs of a Missionary ~ Linguist, Part 1: How We Learned the Language

  1. Ann Bedford says:

    Loved hearing how God directed you on this particular path of your ministry.

  2. I read this post in my email, but never commented. I loved this one! To see how God prepared the way before you went, but how you have learned and can help pave the path for those who come after you.

  3. Pingback: Learning from a Seasoned Missionary « Telling of His Wonderful Deeds

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