Nearly a hundred years ago, the editors of The Malaysia Message recorded the amusing experience in the life of a missionary. But, it also highlights the problems of sharing the Gospel with those who do not understand English or other language of choice.
‘MUCH has been made of the language difficulties confronting missionaries in Malaysia. Two or three incidents taken from a single month’s diary will show that the situation is not overpainted …
On the 9th of the month a certain missionary preached in the Tamil church, his sermon being interpreted into that language. The pastor is a Brahmin, the congregation was made up of Tamils of different castes, and of two distinct dialects or divisions – those from Jaffna, Ceylon, and those from the Madras Presidency.
The following Sunday found the same missionary in church with the Malay-speaking congregation, to baptise three children, in which service the Malay ritual was used. One of the children was the son of the native pastor – a Straits-born Chinaman, who is quite at home with either the Malay or English languages, but who, queue, dress and parentage notwithstanding, speaks no Chinese dialect. The pure-blooded Celestial son of this worthy father rejoices … in the good old Biblical name of Benjamin – not exactly a Chinese appellation.
The other two children were bright little lads, the sons of Chinese parents who have lived so long in the Straits Settlements that their most familiar speech is the Malay. But the boys have only recently come from China to join their parents and speak only the Tio-Chiu dialect of Chinese.
But it was reserved for the afternoon service to eclipse this commingling of tongues. The service was that of the Foochow-Chinese congregation, composed of people speaking the Foochow and Hinghua dialects. The infant son of a Cantonese Chinaman was to be baptised. Now the Cantonese dialect is almost as much like the Foochow as German is like English. So, inasmuch as the baptism of an infant is an utterly meaningless ceremony if deprived of the all-important part played by the parents, it was necessary and desirable to somehow make the service intelligible to the parents and the congregation alike.
So the missionary, to take part at least of a service entrusted by the church to ordained men only, used the Hokkien Chinese, that being the only dialect he knew; he used Malay to address the native pastor, who in turn read part of the service in the Foochow dialect, which the congregation best understood; and he used English in directing an interpreter to instruct and catechise the parents in the only language they could comprehend, Cantonese. Thus it took five different tongues to baptise that child, six to discharge the day’s work, seven to get through a single fortnight’s engagements.
The missionary went home tired, but glad. A Javanese drove the horse that took him, later in the day, to church where a congregation composed chiefly of English Wesleyans listened to the preaching of an American pastor. Returning home, his baby greeted him from the arms of a Macao woman and a Foochow cook served the dinner.
The week at least has the merit of not being a wearisome repetition of the Sabbath, for there was the Dutch contractor, who is building the new church, to be interviewed. A Sikh watchman was ready to relieve him of his hand baggage when he reached the downtown shops, where he turned a Kheh Chinaman over to a Malayalam clerk to be enrolled in the establishment where employment had been found for him.’ (MM, March 1908, p.41).
Earnest Lau, Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.