Americans Learning Mandarin in Taiwan: A Case Study in Spiritual Development

The sociologist in me still enjoys reading and pondering over case studies of all kinds. I thought it’d be fun to write down one of my own, albeit more casual than actual academic standards. So below you will find a reflection of our first six months in Taiwan using the format of a case study. Enjoy!


Mission work overseas supplies a unique environment for spiritual development. New workers arrive from varying countries, Christian denominations, family units, and personal life experiences to an altogether different context. This case study focuses on an American couple who have joined OMF International in Taiwan to minister to the working class and marginalized people groups. 

Like all people, this couple has a history of sin-nature. Symptoms include: self-sufficiency, pride, impatience, distrust, and selfishness. For many years now the couple has lived under the grace of God through his Son, Jesus Christ. As a result, they have seen healing in many areas of their broken humanity. However, it has been made clear that the process of spiritual development continues throughout ones life. Philippians 1:6, “Be confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Therefore, God continues this process in his people no matter where they are, how old they are, or what line of work they enter into. 

The purpose of this case study is to determine how learning a language while living in a foreign culture impacts one’s spiritual development.



Patient C is very independent. She is diligent, accustomed to excelling in her work. She enjoys learning about new people and exploring places. She naturally has introvert tendencies and struggles with bouts of social anxiety when it is necessary interact with new people. Previously, Patient C has spent short periods of time overseas, but nothing long term. She has studied a second language in a high school classroom setting only.

Patient L is an extreme extrovert, gaining energy especially from conversations with others. He takes pride in doing a job well done, however lacks discipline and focus in matters outside of the work place. Patient L has lived in several countries as a child and youth, however he primarily spoke English in all locations. 

Patients L and C now live in Taichung, Taiwan in an average Taiwanese neighborhood. In preparation for full-time ministry their employer, OMF Taiwan, provides new workers with a two year Daniel Training program. This program includes language learning: learning how to speak, read, and write Mandarin and cultural studies: observation, reflection, and research on Taiwanese culture. Areas of their sin-nature have been exposed during this time of Daniel Training.



Over the years they have developed self-sufficiency, pride, impatience, and worry. Many of these symptoms went unchecked during their years of living independently in America. This is likely due in part to living in a context that is familiar, thereby creating a buffer for their sin-nature to remain hidden. However, these symptoms have been revealed, and even amplified, by living as foreigners in a new land where there are increased stressors and fewer safety nets.




Independent Language learning and Cultural Studies:

Language learning and cultural studies are intertwined and difficult to separate from one another when living in the country of one’s language studies. Patients C and L spend approximately 3 hours a day in a classroom setting and 3 hours a day in their home practicing and preparing their lessons. In the classroom, they also discuss questions of every day life in Taiwan. For example, how and where to buy bus tickets, how should Christians participate in Buddhist funerals, the treatment of people with disabilities, the different markets and stores to buy food, etc.

Furthermore, every moment of every day outside of their home is an opportunity in cultural studies. Therefore, Patients C and L have been intentional about going out into their neighborhood to practice Mandarin, make observations, and ask questions. 

Weekly Meetings with other Missionaries in OMF:

During these two years, they are also given a new worker supervisor and a language supervisor to contact with questions or needs as they arise. Additionally, they have weekly meetings with their supervisor and other new workers. Some of these meetings are also attended by OMF workers who have been in Taiwan for many years. At these meetings, in addition to discussing the cultural events that they have observed or researched, they also pray for one another and encourage one another in spiritual development.



Listed below are several scenarios that have created a rich environment for spiritual development.

Communication: Being surrounded by a foreign language while still in the learning stages of said language is a breading ground for patience. Patients L and C often need to use alternative words that they do know in order to communicate more complicated words that they have not yet learned. For example, “scooter doesn’t start” in place of saying “the ignition for my scooter is stalling out”. Other times, in communication people will use unknown vocabulary in familiar situations confusing Patients L and C. Therefore, ordering tea once a week for five months is still a difficult task and slow going. In these circumstances, Patients L and C have learned to become more patient with themselves and with others in order to slow down and communicate more effectively.

Scooter driving test: In Taiwan you need to have a special license in order to drive a scooter. Although Patients L and C have been driving for many years, preparing for both written and driving tests proved to be humbling in several ways. Upon arrival at the local DMV they needed to locate the area to do a basic physical check, which happened to be outside of the complex area. Lack of language exacerbated everyone’s confusion and the impatience of government workers. Patient C bore the brunt of this confusion leading to a public shaming for her lack of language. Patient L, who has excelled at driving in the U.S.A., had to take the driving test three times before eventually passing. As language learners living in a foreign country they are stripped of their previous status and much of their previous life experience is not directly transferrable.

Fellowship: The importance of regular fellowship with fellow believers has been strengthened. Learning language while living in a foreign language has increased Patients L and C dependency on other people for numerous things: identifying vegetables, purchasing a phone contract, knowing where to buy certain items, reading menus, etc. Even the simplest of tasks has become difficult. This environment has increased daily stressors. Patients L and C see weekly meetings and casual after-school gathering with fellow missionaries or church friends as times of refreshment and encouragement that provide opportunity to learn from the experience of those who have gone before.

Hiking in the mountains: The experience of hiking in DaKeng, on the outskirts of Taichung, is unique. The trails are composed of almost entirely vertical stairs built with sections cut from the trunks of trees. Even the easiest of trails builds endurance and perseverance. The four hour round trip was excruciatingly exhausting. Patient C was amazed how much one could endure when moving slowly but steadily, pressing on toward the end goal.

Walking to school: The walk to and from school is filled with numerous homes with god shelves (idols), incense, and altars for funerals. It is a constant reminder to Patients L and C of the hope they have in Jesus and how God desires to also set these people free from the bondage of fear and shame. This hope was reinvigorated when they saw the the baptism of new believers into the Church or heard stories from other OMF missionaries in Taiwan.

Marriage: As a married couple currently in the same ministry of language learning Patients L and C spend nearly every day, all day with one another. This has created ample opportunity to step on each others’ toes and offend one another. More often than not, they regularly practice exercising forgiveness with one another. In addition to rising their awareness to their personal need for grace, this has increased their aptitude for extending grace to others.

Newcomers in a foreign land: As newcomers in a foreign land not only do Patients L and C depend more on other people their dependency on God has also increased. Because they are often unable to take care of things themselves, the need to turn more matters over to God is even greater. Prayer for themselves and on behalf of others is more regular and bears more practical and immediate need. For example, locating a hiking trail in the mountains with limited character recognition and poor signage, maintaining the energy to go out and start conversations with others, retention of vocabulary and grammar while advancing in new areas of language, etc.

Less: Learning language while living in a foreign country also brings adjustments to cultural differences and priorities. For instance, Patients L and C have come to realize that they can not only survive but thrive with fewer belongings or even borrowed or shared belongings. This is a cultural priority of their organization, OMF. They also have fewer familiar conveniences. They are unable to Ben and Jerry’s ice cream from the nearby convenience store. They do not own a microwave or have a dryer for laundry. Sometimes they need to wait up to an hour for the bus to arrive. In these circumstances they have learned to be content with what they have been given and embrace the differences.



Learning language while living in a foreign culture provides ample opportunity for spiritual growth. The newness of even the most seemingly basic tasks, inability to properly communicate right away, and waves of adjustment to cultural differences creates an environment that forces an individual to see the raw core of their character. In such environments, one’s sin-nature is more quickly revealed. On the other hand, although one’s environment may certainly influence spiritual development, it does not dictate the quantity or quality of spiritual development. When faced with each of the scenarios above Patients L and C had to choose how they would respond. Would they allow these events to exasperate their self-sufficiency, pride, impatience, or worry? Or would they submit to God in these circumstances and see them as opportunities for growth? Would they try to see things through in their own strength? Or would they reach out to others for aid and encouragement?

In conclusion, the stressors and difficulty of learning language while living in a foreign culture will certainly reveal one’s sin-nature with more clarity and efficiency. However, this environmental factor proves to be more correlation than causation. The attitude with which one approaches said circumstances as well as the engagement of fellowship with others during these circumstances have a strong impact on spiritual development. It is likely that one’s understanding of God and one’s attitude bear greater influence in one’s spiritual development then their environment. This principle is likely to be an encouragement to many others in their spiritual development. 

2 thoughts on “Americans Learning Mandarin in Taiwan: A Case Study in Spiritual Development

  • January 23, 2016 at 6:49 pm

    A very enjoyable read! Where did you study sociology?

    • February 15, 2016 at 10:57 pm

      Oberlin College 🙂


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