Language = Culture: My Journey of understanding

I have now been in Singapore for over a year, and one of the things I have enjoyed the most is learning about the different cultures that surround me. I have visited the Malay heritage centre, Indian heritage centre, eaten Peranakan food and made mooncakes. All these cultural experiences and conversations about culture have lead me to reflect on my journey of understanding culture. 

Despite growing up in a multi-cultural community where I learnt Maori at school, I didn’t really come to understand about language and culture until I was an exchange student in the USA. During my year away I saw that although I could communicate in English, it didn’t mean the American person I was speaking to understood what I was saying in the same way that I did. I realised that those who learn the language of a culture actually learn about the culture at the same time.

When I first considered missionary service, I thought I would be ruled out, as I struggled with English and thought I could not possibly learn another language. However, the Lord had other ideas! When I reached Thailand, I put in long hours studying Thai, and after two months of persevering I thought I was ready to start working with Thai students. What a surprise when I found my English Major students knew very little English… and I knew very little Thai. After three semesters, I cut my Associate term short so I could change my membership, return for long term service, and complete my language study. I wanted to be able to communicate with those I had grown to love. I had learnt that speaking to someone in their “heart language” was key to speaking to their heart. 

My Thai isn’t great, and it still amazes me that I can communicate with Thai people. Learning to speak Thai is one of the hardest things I have ever done, and one of the greatest miracles I have ever personally experienced. It was a time that humbled me and caused me to lean on God more than ever before. Thankfully there were people who upheld me in prayer during this time. I have found that language and culture learning often results in personal growth in other areas. 

Of course, moving from Thailand to Singapore did not mean the end of formal language and culture learning, but instead introduced me to a whole new phase of learning; it’s not just the culture that is different. The most embarrassing moment I have had so far was when I was ordering some food and could not understand the server’s question. In the end she spelled out the word and I said “Oh, MILD” and proceeded to tell the poor girl “It’s said MILD”, like she was one of my language students. Later, I felt like I had been so rude; I hope she thought I was just being like a Singaporean Aunty and correcting someone younger. Despite moments like this, I’ve still been able to connect with people. There’s the elderly lady in my apartment block who has told me “I speak no English”, so I just wave and say hello when I see her, and the Malay family that chooses to speak in English instead of Malay during my visits so I can join in on the conversation. I have seen that humility, a genuine love for your neighbour and a desire to learn about others are valuable tools when it comes to crossing cultures.

Story from Lee-Anne 

Lee-Anne serves as the International Personnel System Team Leader at the OMF International Centre in Singapore.

If you would like to learn more about the work of OMF please visit www.omf.org/nz