Learning a language as an adult, even one that linguists list as an “easy” language, is one of the most difficult things you will ever do. When you are already suffering culture shock, the last thing you want to do is have people tilt their head and look at you like you’re from outer space, or laugh at you, or shake their head and walk away. But learning the language is essential to really know the culture, make close friends, understand the worldview, and profoundly impact the people as you desire. So pray and ask God to help you, and ask others to pray for your language skills.
Learning a language is like digging a well that you and your family – and your hearers – will drink from for the rest of your life. Dig deep and get to clean water by learning it well. Here are ten ways to help you to do so.
1. Immerse yourself in the language – Yes, you can learn a lot of the language in high school, college, or through self study, but you can never speak the language as the people do without living among them. Your language skills may begin at the “Tarzan” level where you sound a little like a caveman, progress to survival language level where you can ask where the bathroom is and actually understand what they say when they answer you, and then be polished to socially acceptable levels. Living among the people helps you to learn colloquial ways they phrase ideas, use idioms, pronounce words, and even the rhythm of their speech patterns. Live among the people, spend time with them, and interact with them as often as you can.
2. Learn the grammar and vocabulary – Children grow up in a culture, developing language proficiency, and learning grammar and vocabulary intuitively. As they are corrected along the way, they seek to match the communication styles of their linguistic world. Living among a people is a wonderful way to polish your skills, but you need something to polish. The hard work of learning new grammar rules is even harder when you never learned your own very well, but it is essential to do. Memorizing vocabulary words is necessary so that you can distinguish words in what sounded at first like one long sentence.
3. Teach someone else – Make it a practice to teach someone else what you learn along the way – whether a roommate, a spouse, a child, or a friend. In a mission context, there are often others learning the same language, and explaining to each other what you are learning each day is a way to teach. It deepens the lessons you learned as you do so, answering questions you might not have thought about before. Accept that you will always be in a fog. You start there, but after a week or two the first lessons seem clear. Unfortunately, the current lesson is not, and you wish you could just go back. As you progress, you will accumulate an increasing mass of “clear” lessons behind you, even though you feel like you don’t understand today’s lesson. Encourage yourself by the growing list of lessons behind you that are now clear, and help explain them to those behind you.
4. Interact with people – Knowing how to read and write the language is a great advantage, but it’s not helpful just to be able to make good grades on the written part of language school if you can’t communicate with others. A helpful key is to learning the language is speaking what you know every day. Interacting with native speakers helps you “hear” how they speak the language. Sitting in a class practicing the language with others from your home country only helps your ears to hear how expatriates speak the new language and teaches your brain that this pronunciation is okay. Rather than do that, you need to learn how people of all ages, education levels, and regions of the country speak their language and interact with them appropriately. Get out there.
5. Learn a new word every day –Make it your goal to add a new word to your linguistic repertoire before the sun sets every single day. Take a new word each day and learn its meaning, pronunciation, and how it is used in context. Then find opportunities to work it into conversations periodically throughout the day.
6. Read. Read. – Read the Bible in the language everyday, at least a verse or two. Read the newspaper, a devotional book, even the back of the cereal box, but read something everyday. Look up words you don’t know and keep a log of new words you are learning.
7. Write it down – Make sure you keep a written record of your new words so that you can review them – and build confidence as the list grows. Write out prayers and get them grammatically correct so you will be able to pray coherently when called upon in church. Write a paragraph or two in your new language in a daily journal. Just as in English, you will soon develop a reading vocabulary that is richer than your speaking vocabulary. This will help you to follow conversations, understand sermons, and read in the language as you encounter words you normally would not have known.
8. Ask for help – As should be obvious by now, if you want to learn another language, you must slay your pride. Get used to asking people, “What do you call this?” “What is this called?” and “How would you say…?” In this way you will not only be learning to use the language as it should be used in context, you are building relationships with others.
9. Make a fool of yourself – Nobody wants to be laughed at or be embarrassed, yet this is an unavoidable part of learning a new language. The faster you accept the fact that you’re not going to be at expert level the first week, the faster you will begin to actually speak out loud, and learn to laugh at yourself. Craig Storti says the fastest way to make a fool of yourself is to begin learning another language. Embrace it. The alternative is never to speak out loud so no one will ever snicker at you. You may avoid being embarrassed about your language skills, but you are exchanging temporary embarrassment for long-lasting shame and frustration that you don’t know how to speak the language, and cannot minister as a missionary in the culture to which God has called you.
10. Make friends – We are rarely impacted profoundly or influenced positively by total strangers, even if our relationship with them is merely through mass media. We need language skills to build relationships and the relationships help us to learn the language. The best way to learn the language is to learn the culture and the best way to learn the culture is to learn the language. Making new friends and building relationships with others is the best way to learn the culture and language. These all go together. Learn the language, learn the culture, make friends, and keep that cycle going.
This article was first published as a blog post by Dr. David Sills at www.reachingandteaching.org.
Dr. David Sills is the founder and president of Reaching & Teaching International Ministries, a missions professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, speaker, and author.