QA 1: Plowing Through the Language Barrier

March is "Question and Answer Month" and I'm excited to reply to the questions that have been emailed to me so far. Today's blog is in reply to a question sent by Lee, who asks, "I am praying about being a missionary. What are some things that my wife and I could expect to encounter as we leave our country and family behind and move to the foreign field? (any advice on adapting culturally, difficulties you have faced, language, etc.)"

Some of my other Real Missions, Real Life readers are prayerfully considering the mission field; others are on deputation or in language school; still others are plodding through high school Spanish. This week’s blog is especially for them. One of the most daunting obstacles to getting to the foreign mission field is learning a second language. Here’s a bit of advice to get you started or keep you going.

1. Invest for a later return. Learning a new language is a slow, arduous task at first, and most days I felt like I was drowning in vocabulary lists and verb conjugations. But then I started using what I had learned, little by little. I began breaking that communication barrier and realized it was all worthwhile. One day a word popped out without much thought, and I realized with exhilaration that it was right! It’s kind of like financing a house. You are paying a lot at the beginning and not seeing a lot of equity; it will come. You have to invest in order to see that return.

2. Be a grammar nerd. Okay, maybe you don’t have to love English like I do; but the better you understand how your own language works, the better you will be able to maneuver in a foreign language. Knowing the parts of speech, the names of tenses, etc. will help a foreign language student see patterns in the new language more easily. It’s hard to understand that in Spanish direct objects come before the verb, if you aren’t sure what a direct object is and that it comes after the verb in English.

3. Pretend you’re a parrot. Or maybe a stand-up comedian. If you are one of those people who can impersonate others, you’ve got a head start. Part of learning a new language is listening carefully to how others pronounce and arrange their words and simply imitating them. To be honest, I felt a little silly at first, like I wasn’t using my own voice. But if I spoke Spanish the same way I do English, I wouldn’t be doing it right. In fact, I would sound less intelligent. I had to learn to use new muscles and make sounds I’d never made. I watched people’s mouths and tried to imitate exactly what they said. This is a proven way to learn a language. After all, how do you think you learned English?

4. Search for opportunities to use the language. People who master a second language are those who use it on a regular basis. I got out of my comfort zone and signed up to be an assistant Sunday School teacher in a Spanish children’s class. I talked to immigrants in the grocery store. I taught an adult ESL class on Tuesday evenings. One summer, I took a missions trip all by myself. In order to retain all that book learning, I had to get out there and use it.

5. Never stop learning. Though I began learning Spanish as a teenager, though I dream in the language, though I can communicate very easily now, I’ve realized that the more I learn, the more I realize I know very little. Learning a language is something I can never “check off the list.” It’s a lifetime of commitment. I must never let up, never be content with my mastery of the language. Language is a living, growing thing; in order to keep up, I must keep a teachable spirit.

6. Be able to laugh at yourself. This is perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give you. If you aren’t willing to put yourself out there, you will never learn. You can’t wait until you think you’ve got a handle on a language to start speaking it; you’ve got to start from day one! Yes, you’ll say all kinds of silly, embarrassing things. Just laugh along with everyone else and say it right the next time! Any missionary can tell you countless stories of goofy things he’s said, even at times he meant to be very serious. There is nothing to do but enjoy the joke and go on!

I’ll never forget the time as a teenager when I announced very confidently to a large group of Hispanics “Tengo hombre!” [I have a man] instead of “Tengo hambre!” [I am hungry]. Amidst their chuckles, I realized my mistake and quickly blurted, “Estoy embarazada!” thinking I was telling them how embarrassed I was. Unfortunately, embarazada does not mean embarrassed; it means pregnant. Live and learn, right in the middle of howling laughter.

Then there was the time I was teaching a salvation lesson to a group of Mexican children on a teen mission trip. In describing sin, I meant to ask if they ever fought with their brothers and sisters. But I omitted a vowel and ended up asking if they ever skinned their brothers and sisters. Between their horrified faces and the snickering MKs in the back of the room, I knew something was up…

I studied harder, and my mistakes were not so frequent. But one night at a get-together with both Americans and Latin Americans, I was asked to explain a popular party game to the Latino crowd: Spoons. I went into great detail, telling them there would be a big pile of spoons in the middle of the floor, and when one person got the right hand of cards, he could grab a spoon. "As soon as that happens," I went on, "we all have to grab the spoons. If you don't have a spoon, you lose! So fight hard and grab a spoon any way you can!" The Americans listened patiently for me to finish; but I saw that the more I explained, the larger the Latinos' eyes grew. Then it hit me. I was saying cuchillo instead of cuchara. Knife instead of spoon. The looks on their faces said it all: These gringos are crazy!

Ten years later, I’m still goofing up and laughing it off! Yes, it’s been a long, hard journey. But let me tell you, there’s nothing like knocking on a door when we are back in the States on furlough and meeting a sweet immigrant lady. She’ll glance at my white face, shake her head in resignation, and start to close the door with an apologetic smile. That is, until she hears, “¡Buenos días! Me llamo Cristina…” Her face lights up with wonder: She speaks Spanish!

I won’t lie to you. Learning a second language is one of the hardest things you’ll ever attempt. It’s slow, frustrating, and even humiliating at times. But it is one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do. Hang in there. It’s worth it.

Congratulations to Dennis Pustinger, the winner of the drawing for a Honduran coffee assortment! Be sure to check back each week for more answers to your questions about life on the mission field!
4 Responses
  1. Emili Says:

    I have definitely used "embarazada" in an already embarrassing situation! And I never keep cuchara and cuchillo straight! One of my common issues is saying I had Thursday for breakfast...jueves instead of juevos!! Thank you so much for your advice! I always love reading your blog. Love and miss you and can't wait to come visit again! :)

  2. Shanna Says:

    My first winter in Moldova, I took a trip with the teens to Romania. It was snowy, and the rented van had no heat. We were piling the blankets on. One of the girls taught me the word for blanket (plapuma), so I repeated it a few times, then got quiet. A few minutes later, I looked over the pastor's son, who knew absolutely no English, and all I knew about him was his name. For some odd reason, I decided to practice on him, so I grinned and said loudly, "Pupa-ma!" Everybody died laughing, and finally someone told me I'd asked him to kiss me! We got married about 3 1/2 years later...some mistakes you never live down!

  3. Braydon Says:

    Learning a new language is a really hard task especially for an adult. If you want to learn a language you need a lot of time. There are many language courses for a short period, but they only teach you the basics of the language. This will not help you out much. You have to mingle around with people and then try to learn the language. I feel this is the best way even though it takes a little time.

  4. Kimberly Henderson Grainger Says:

    You go, you fellow "Grammar Nerd"! Many times, we've wondered at the mysteries of God's great foreknowledge, as my Advanced Grammar and Composition class paid off when I became an ABeka Book writer and editor!
    Ya' jist niver no win yore studeees r gonna hep ya, rite?!?!

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