Over the last two days I met two people who reminded me of what it was like for me to communicate with others more than 15 years ago when I first came to Cambodia. I believe that one of the biggest barriers to successful ministry or business is simply found in language ability. The ability to speak to someone in their own language can never be substituted.
The first person I met was a Vietnamese well driller. The Vietnamese man wanted to sell me a well drilling rig, but he needed to explain why his rig (a hodge-podge of old Soviet car parts) was the best rig for me to buy. He could speak no English, so he was trying to speak Cambodian (or Khmer). I know a great deal about the parts and equipment required to drill a well, so I wanted to confirm if his equipment was what I needed. When he first started speaking I realized that he had only been in Cambodia for a few years and so Cambodian was a new language for him. His business required him to be able to speak in Cambodian to make sales. For the first few minutes he was speaking fairly reasonable, but with a heavy Vietnamese accent. If I couldn’t understand something he was saying, I would try to ask a different way or use hand motions to demonstrate the type of equipment. After about five minutes I could see he was becoming physically tired of talking and trying to think of the Cambodian words. I chuckled inside knowing this was what I went through long ago. Alas, I had little mercy. I still needed to ask about the parts, so I continued with my questioning. After about ten minutes I could no longer tell what he was saying. I think he had completed drifted back into Vietnamese. I told him I would let him rest his tongue and I would be back in a few days.
The next Sunday, we had a guest speaker at the church. He was a Filipino. I have never seen a Filipino missionary ever learn the language very good, so I was curious to weather he was going to speak in English or Cambodian. He gave a greeting; “Chum Reap Suah”, which anyone could learn. Then he spoke his first full sentence, it was some Cambodian mixed with English. I just laughed inside. For the next 45 minutes I listened to him talk mixing two different languages, and occasionally throwing in a Tagalog word or expression. I could picture myself trying to give my first sermon in Cambodian 15 years ago. As the sermon progressed, the Cambodian words dropped almost completely off and he went into speaking Filipino-English. This time the listeners were the ones who looked more exhausted. I asked the people around me if they knew what he was talking about and they said, “something about Christmas.” “Close enough!” I thought.
Whether it is business or ministry, the necessity of fluently knowing the language is absolutely essential. So often with the ease of travel today people think they can fly into a country for a weekend and make a big business deal or lead a hundred people to Christ, but in reality, little communication is even going on. Long term people living in a country, who fluently speak the language, are absolutely critical to the success of their venture, whether it be for business or ministry.
In both these cases, I hope they don’t give up and keep trying hard to speak fluent Cambodian. If they don’t quit and persistently continue to learn the language fluently, they will have much success in the future. I have had so many significant opportunities come my way just because I could speak Cambodian fluently.