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Institute Provides Missionaries Language Training, Cultural Bridge

Sometimes the most routine job can have global and eternal consequences.

Just ask Julie Chamberlain. She is the director of the Spanish Language Institute in San Francisco de Dos Ríos, east of San José, a school that has taught Spanish to 13,000-14,000 evangelical missionaries since it was founded in Colombia in 1942.

“People who have graduated from here have gone all over Latin America, to Spain and eventually to other parts of the world to plant churches, start seminaries, develop radio stations, establish church ministries, initiate health clinics and begin other types of ministries,” she said.

And, she added, many have gone on to distinguished careers as mission presidents, missionary statesmen, seminary professors and other fields.

Chamberlain, who is from Birmingham, Michigan, in the United States, taught school in Gaylord, Michigan, and worked at a church in Ann Arbor before entering the mission field. She said the institute was founded by the Presbyterian mission board in Colombia during World War II to train those who had to flee Asia during the conflict and were reassigned to Latin America.

In 1950, the school was relocated to Costa Rica. In 1972, it came under interdenominational leadership, training missionaries from a variety of denominations and mission boards as well as independent leaders.

Today the school serves three major groups of students. The first are missionaries preparing for service in the Spanish-speaking world.

“We are a bridge between home and the field,” said Chamberlain, a missionary with the Latin America Mission. “They are in transition and can make their cultural and language mistakes here while they are getting their feet wet.”

“We think it’s better for them to study full-time here before they go to their field of service,” she explained. “If they go directly there, they get distracted by settling in and getting involved in ministry and don’t devote the time they should to language study.”

Chamberlain said that approximately 100 missionary students are enrolled at the school.

In addition to training missionaries, the institute provides intensive courses one or two months in length.

“These are open to the public,” Chamberlain said. “Mostly they serve teachers or college students, as well as pastors or other church leaders from the United States or Canada who are working with Hispanics and want to work on their Spanish.”

These one-month intensive courses are held in February, May, July and October, with a two-month intensive class offered from mid-June to mid-August.

The school also works with Christian colleges and universities to provide a cooperative study program in which students who are studying Spanish can spend a month or more in Costa Rica at the institute and become immersed in Latin American culture.

While the institute’s main focus is the same as when it was founded, Chamberlain said that the type of missionary student has changed a bit during her 13 years as director.

“We have seen an increase in the age of the students,” she said. “That reflects the current emphasis on Finishers (people who decide to end their careers in Christian service, becoming missionaries in their 40s, 50s or 60s).”

“In addition, we now find that the majority of our students have had some previous missionary experience,” she explained.

“Most have been on two-week mission trips, while some have served for several months in a foreign setting.”

Chamberlain said she is finding an increasing number of missionaries who are coming to Latin America from individual churches or new mission organizations.

“We have fewer denominational missionaries and fewer from the older mission societies,” she noted. “Instead, churches are deciding to send their own missionaries, or new groups are springing up and sending people to the region.”

Mega churches are not among those sending their students to the institute, Chamberlain said. Many of them send their missionaries straight to the field, either without language training or with language learning acquired elsewhere.

The institute has added new ministries over the years to meet the needs of missionaries in training.

“SojournAcademy was started in 1993 to provide English-language education to the children of institute students,” said Kevin Reilly, an Association of Baptists for World Evangelism missionary who serves as the school’s principal. Prior to taking the helm of the institute, he taught at the AsunciónChristianAcademy in Paraguay.

“We are here to help the institute complete its mission,” he said. “The children go to school here while their parents study.”

The academy, which is housed on the Spanish Language Institute’s grounds in San Francisco de Dos Ríos, has 100 students. The school offers classes ranging from pre-school through high school.

“It definitely is a ministry,” said Reilly, who is from Morristown, New Jersey, and studied at CedarvilleCollege in Ohio. “We are working with students in transition from what they knew back home to life in Latin America.”

While all of his students are adjusting to changes in their lives, Reilly said he finds it most difficult for the elementary-school children.

“They miss their friends, their extended family and their pets that they left back home,” he said.

The academy also trains the children in Spanish, offering at least an hour of language instruction a day.

“We are always looking for teachers who want to come here and serve for a year or more,” Reilly said. “While we offer a small salary, we encourage them to raise some support to supplement what we can pay them.

It’s a comfortable place to live and teach, and many come and want to stay on.” For more information about the Spanish Language Institute or SojournAcademy, visit



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