Thursday, April 7, 2011

Today in Language: Francis Xavier

Francis Xavier, one of the first Jesuits and also one of the first missionaries in Japan, was born on April 7, 1506. The statue to the left, in a park in the southern city of Kagoshima, presents a Xavier with decidedly Asian features.

However good/bad Xavier may have been as a missionary and however biblical/unbiblical his theology may have been (and I know little about either), what interests me most is how he fared linguistically in his many countries of ministries.

I have not done much research into Xavier's ministry in Japan but have read that he struggled with the language, at least initially. It is commonly reported that Xavier called Japanese "the devil's language," though I am more than willing to be generous and assume that Xavier overcame that linguistically unintelligible, culturally myopic, and theologically indefensible notion. It is certainly true that many missionaries, in many countries around the world, learning various languages (including Japanese) struggle. But I don't think these languages have to be hard. In regard to Japanese, I often think [ALERT: unproven assertion] the difficulty comes from the fact that Japanese is so different in many respects from English, French, Spanish, Italian, etc., and not from the grammar which is really not that difficult.

Regardless of language difficulty, missionaries or anyone else going to another country should try their hardest to master the language. That is something I want to drive home to a team of university students my wife and I will be taking to Japan in the summer of 2012.

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