Society Matters | Volume 32 No. 3 | Spring 2022

Volume 32 No. 3 | Spring 2022 4 Society Matters Learning the language key to unlocking culture in mission The very first thing that Divine Word Missionaries do when they are assigned to a country is to learn the language, because it is in being able to communicate with the people that they learn more about them and their culture and really get to know and to love them in Christ. Fr Truong Le SVD, who is a member of the SVD Australia Province, working as a parish priest in a village in northeastern Thailand, was born in Saigon, Vietnam and his family emigrated to the US when he was six. “I would say that I have a 1st grade level Vietnamese language competency,” he says. “The primary language used at home is Vietnamese, so I’m able to retain much of it. English is my primary language and Vietnamese is my secondary. But now, with Thai thrown into the mix, the ordering may be shifting.” Fr Truong first arrived in Thailand as part of the SVD’s Overseas Training Program (OTP), prior to ordination. He undertook Thai language studies in Bangkok for six months and then moved into pastoral ministry for the rest of his program. “I felt that the six months of classroom studies gave me adequate training wheels, but the encounter with the people helped me develop language skills further and much more in-depth than the formal classroom can provide,” he says. “Coming back to Thailand for the first assignment, I just went straight into pastoral ministry, and the Thai language came back naturally. “However, one of the challenges of working in the Isan Region (in north-eastern Thailand) is learning the local language, which the people refer to as the ‘Isan language’ or ‘Laos’.” Fr Truong says he can now read, write and preach in Thai. “However, at the same time, I’m trying to improve expressing philosophical, theological, psychological and spiritual content in the local context. “I always have a blast exchanging ideas with the villagers. I don’t think I’ll master any of the languages, but that’s the beauty of it all: learning and seeing more of the world every day.” Fr Truong says his parishioners help him to learn the local Isan language and encourage him to use more of it, especially during preaching. “Language is a bridge, and the villagers help me to build a sturdier one every day. Without this bridge, quite frankly, mission would be difficult to cross.” He says learning the local language is fundamental to mission. “It is paramount to communicate in the local language. If not, then nothing much can be done in terms of missionary work. Communication is crucial in encountering the people, understanding the local context, learning their way of life, and listening to their needs. “Concretely and substantially, language is the medium to proclaim Christ to the culture.” Also assigned to Thailand is Indonesian-born Fr Bernard (Ben) Bella SVD, who has been learning the local language. “My language background is Bahasa Indonesia, but I also Fr Olivier Noclam SVD celebrates Mass with the Arrernte people of Central Australia Fr Truong Le SVD teaching English to Thai children