You Won’t Learn It Until You Have To

I already mentioned that the people in PNG speak more than 700 languages. It is the reason Wycliffe Bible Translators (known in PNG as the Summer Institute of Linguistic or SIL) have so many of their translators there headquartered in the lush and cool Highlands community of Ukarumpa. But with so many languages, which one should we learn?

Though many who live in the capital speak English, most Papua New Guineans who live outside speak
Melanesian Pidgin, a ‘lingua franca’ that allows people from various language groups to communicate with each other. While waiting in the Philippines for our visas, we tried learning Pidgin using tapes and a workbook. Perhaps you’ve tried learning a language that way and found how hard that method can be! It was valuable for learning the vocabulary and the grammar, but not as effective in getting us to speak or comprehend the language. We eventually tired of it and put it aside.

Even after arriving in Port Moresby, learning Pidgin was not a priority since most of the people in that city, as well as the southern half of the country, called Papua, spoke English or
Hiri Motu, another lingua franca. It wasn’t until my first trip to the northern half of the country, called New Guinea, and up into the central Highlands did I regain my motivation to learn Pidgin. The vast majority of the people of PNG lived in this area of the country and utilized Pidgin in the towns where people of different language groups congregated. (See map)

We scheduled a week long training seminar for pastors and evangelists in the Eastern Highlands Province organized through the Lutheran missionary in that region, Paul Senff. Originally from Texas, and looking every bit the part with his height and Gary Cooperish mannerism and speech, Paul and his wife, Marie, had spent many years in this gateway province to the Highlands region providing pastoral leadership to the people in the towns and isolated villages, all the while raising three daughters in a simple home with a wood burning stove.

You could tell the veteran residents by the way they drove ... usually at break neck speed, waving to every pedestrian while bouncing and rattling by on the rutted dirt roads. I remember hanging on tightly to the seat of the speeding Land Rover while Marie casually drove and conversed as if she were driving on a wide, well paved avenue. It was great!

Our training was held at the
SIL Jungle Camp in Ukarumpa, a group of perforated, thin walled cabins that failed miserably in keeping out the bone chilling temperatures. Seven blankets couldn’t keep me from shivering every night as I willed myself to sleep.

But the times spent riding on the dirt roads while crammed in the bed of a Toyota 4WD pick up with ten other evangelists and pastors trainees finally gave me the much needed opportunity to practice speaking Pidgin. They couldn’t speak English and I definitely could not speak any of the five guttural sounding languages they spoke. I’m sure I sounded like something out of a kindergarten reading primer because my sentences were short and simple. But it was satisfying to finally be able to communicate directly with the men. I learned more about speaking Pidgin during those truck rides than all the hours listening to the tapes. Formal education can get you only so far, but sometimes you really won’t learn it until you have to!

When we began the training seminar, I used a translator, not trusting completely in my ability to speak Pidgin. But it made teaching more difficult and awkward. I finally decided to try my limited Pidgin to communicate the curriculum and incredibly, as though the language was inside of me eager to come out, I finished the lectures on my own in Pidgin. Perhaps I was aided by the pidgin English we speak in Hawaii (although the two are completely different), but I found it easier to communicate the training principles, and even improved, with each lecture I gave.

Applying Scriptural principles to our lives is kind of like that as well. We learn so many Biblical principles from our pastors’ sermons, from Bible study groups or from our own reading and study. Unable to apply them all, we hopefully save them to memory where they remain until we find ourselves in a situation where we have to apply them.
It seems to be a part of our human nature that we don’t learn something until we have to.

That is why
it is important that Christians keep looking and moving ahead. An idle mind and body will have little need to apply new truths and principles. If you want to grow in your faith, then keep doing things that require more and more faith!