Can I Speak Love in English?

by Editor on May 7, 2014

Anyone who has spent a fraction of time living and making their home overseas knows what it’s like – the overwhelming, exhausting, inadequacy of language. The learning it, the using it, the not knowing enough of it. And that’s why I love this post by Shannon Malia Heil. Because she takes us to a different place and asks an important question: Can I Speak Love in English? You can read more about Shannon at the end of the post.


The elevator door opens, and an elderly halmeoni (grandmother) brightens up to see me entering with my three small children. “Aigo!” she sings. “Ippeuda!” And I ready myself for the deluge of words that flood over me like drowning waters. Of course, they come, and I struggle to breathe.

My children look up at her wrinkled face and smile. They listen to her dote on them, let her touch their faces, respond to her invitation for hugs. They listen to her question me eagerly, and they see my blank stare and hear the nervous words that tumble out, surely with a laughable accent. “Mollayo. Shil-lae-hamnida.”

I don’t understand. Excuse me.

The elevator door opens–my escape. And we blow kisses to halmeoni as Mommy hustles the crew out and into the busy city of Seoul.

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“What did she say, Mommy?” Such innocence. My preschoolers still think their mom knows everything.

In truth, my cheeks are flushed with shame. How can I live here and not speak the language? What must the locals think of this foreigner who chooses their city but not their tongue? What do people back home think of me when I shake my head to their comments: “Oh can you speak Korean?”

Then I stop walking as a thought emerges. My children stand at my feet and look up at my face, waiting.

I worry about what people think, but all I need to remember is being faithful with what God has given me. And a tug on my hand reminds me of those gifts.

You see, when we arrived in Seoul, I carried one crawling infant and one growing inside me. Two pain-encouraged births later, I found myself overwhelmed with mothering three at home in a foreign country. Despite the efforts of tutoring and personal study, I could not grasp more of the language than its basics needed for grocery shopping and trivial conversation. It wasn’t just time; I needed sanity. It’s hard to learn a new language when you can barely finish a sentence in your own.

So I had to let it go. Unlike other overseas workers who must speak in the native tongue to socialize or to function in society, almost everyone with whom we interact speaks English. Our service here is primarily to the international community.

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But the guilt clung to my shoulders, slumping them. You can’t speak Korean! it hissed at me, as if that was the test I needed to pass before being deemed cross-cultural or even Christian. You can’t love Koreans if you can’t speak to them! Wait a second. Is that true?

Didn’t my children love that woman in the elevator?

Doesn’t the man at the chun-won store smile every time he sees my family, even passing on the street?

Don’t the cooks at our favorite kimbap place speak with me in a hilarious blend of English and Korean–all of us laughing and apologizing and bowing and…loving?

Can’t I speak love in English?

“Mommy, let’s go!” my four-year-old urges, with a hand tug to emphasize each word. I look down at him and my heart fills. It fills with emotion–with love, with appreciation, with grace–it fills with beautiful things that words cannot contain.

And I feel okay with it all. Maybe my weak motives for learning Korean would have resulted in a prideful heart. Maybe I would have seen myself as the ultimate missionary or the model expat. Maybe God gave me this season of love without words to see–really see–this country, these people, and especially the little ones holding my hands and strapped to my back. Maybe it was by His grace that I was kept from the language.

In His season, I will learn it. But for now, I will speak love in English:

with smiles,

with gestures,

with service,

with openness,

but most of all . . . with humility.

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Have you allowed your own insecurities to come between you and the people you should love?

How has God merged you into the culture in which you live–and reflecting on that, how was that His best for your acclimation?

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Malia lives in Seoul but her home is with her husband and three children–traveling to and from places and in and out of books. Blending the cultures of her life, she dances hula, eats pancit, says “yalla,” and bows her thanks. She writes more about family, faith, and culture on her blog At Home Abroad.


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  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Oh I love this post! I am so in the same boat in Phnom Penh, and last summer I tried to “do it all” and about lost my mind. I think my husband and 4 kids need me sane rather than proficient. Like you, I’ve come to peace about it, and now I just say, “there aren’t enough hours in my sanity” to try to do it all. Technically, yes, enough hours in the week, but not really, if I don’t want to have another breakdown. Love what you’ve shared here, and God bless!

    • Elizabeth, I’m so glad this resonates with you! My husband and kids also need me “sane rather than proficient.” I wish we could sit together and talk about it all, but I’m sure even if we lived next door to each other, our kids would keep us from complete sentences anyway. 🙂 May God give you balance as you assimilate and mother in Phnom Penh.

  • Jon Rhoades

    Living comfortably at home in Hawaii where pidgin is the furthest I stray from English, I’ve taken for granted the beauty of knowing (and not knowing) a language. Beautiful insights, Shannon! Thanks for sharing.

    • You’re welcome. ^^ This language journey has been a doozy for me, but believe it or not, my Hawaii background (and the different languages we were exposed to even there) prepared me to be a really good guesser when it comes to foreign languages. I’m so thankful for that help as I navigate through all the unknown sounds around me here. Still, I look forward to clarity someday when those sounds will fall like knowledge on my ears instead of like riddles.

      Thanks for reading and connecting here!

  • Joy Ballard

    Thank you for being honest about your human limitations. We all must come to that point at one time or another. And I’ve gotten to that point in language learning. Or I should say, I’m getting to that point, because the guilt still gets to me sometimes. But this season of raising kids is so fleeting, I’m realizing! The language learning will come slowly now. And we will always need to be learners of our non-native language, but our children will not always be with us. Thank you for putting it so well and for being a kindred spirit!

    • “This season of raising kids is so fleeting”–What a great reminder! You’re so right that we could become proficient but miss out on these irreplaceable moments with our young children. I also love that you pointed out we “always need to be learners of our non-native language.” It never stops, but as mothers, our “spare” time to intensify that learning will increase as our kids become less dependent. Thanks for sharing!

  • Meredith

    Thank you for this much needed encouragement. I too am the mother of three littles – I arrived on field with two and quickly conceived number three. My heart’s desire is to be proficient and smooth in the national language, and yet, it just hasn’t happened…yet. I, too, struggle often with guilt. If it’s not guilt about lack of proficiency in language, it’s mommy-guilt. I just can’t seem to do it all successfully. Thank you for normalizing my experience and reminding me that I’m not alone. Blessings on your journey!

    • You are definitely not alone! It sounds like we would have much to talk about while our kids played together, probably mixing languages themselves, right? I totally hear you about the language-guilt versus the mommy-guilt. I’m trekking through this one beside you, Meredith!

      • Beckywithasmile

        Listening to you guys makes me thankful that God has provided an opportunity for me to come and learn the language before marriage/littles come along. If it encourages you at all, a friend told me the other day that her kids open up a lot of ministry doors because people love to talk to/photograph/smile at young kids. Don’t be discouraged because you can’t speak yet, God will provide and perhaps it will be using your lack of language/culture skills to show himself to the people around you 🙂

        • You’re right! When I go out in Seoul without my kids, people aren’t as open and friendly as when I’ve got cuties with me. Thanks for the great reminder. 🙂

  • Beckywithasmile

    I’m thankful for this. I’m not currently involved in proper missions, but I’m an English teacher in Japan and my job’s about to end. I’m considering missions, but I’m a bit worries about my limited Japanese. Thank you for reminding me that God can use me even in my limited language skills.

    • Becky, I’m going a bit off topic here but just wanted to encourage you that not only are you certainly capable of impacting people with limited Japanese, you are already doing that now. The definition of “proper missions” is something I find often debatable (and something I appreciate much in this blog’s discussions too). As a teacher, you are regularly present, and even though your conversations are in English, your daily interaction is speaking to them in their native language. I pray you’ll embrace the full value of your position! Blessings. 🙂

      • Beckywithasmile

        Thank you Malia! I needed that reminder. I am embracing it, I think 🙂 More just thinking about what’s coming next and trying to find where God’s leading me. I hope to come back to this tiny town in some capacity, but who knows what’s next? 🙂

  • Wendy

    I just wish I’d written this myself. We’ve been in Japan 12 years and I still struggle, regrettably, with the language. However God has given me a ministry that doesn’t need super Japanese, and indeed it frees up and supports those who do have it to do what God’s gifted them to do.

    • Isn’t it hard not to compare ourselves? It sounds like you’re being faithful with what God has given you, but it can be tempting to look at others (in their different positions) and wish for their proficiency. Language is such a visible (or audible, really) sign of acclimation and connection, but I often have to remind myself that speaking the language doesn’t mean faithfulness. That must be in my heart and seen in my obedience. In other words, I could speak perfect Korean with no one wanting to listen. Right now, I’m speaking broken Korean but trying to do it with love.

      And I love your perspective of how your ministry frees up others to be faithful. Beautiful!

  • Jessi Francis

    I loved this and was so encouraged by this Malia! I too hope to raise a family overseas one day, and this is one of the fears that I have. I love that you realized that what is most important is your heart and motives behind your actions and words. Thanks for sharing!

    • I’m so blessed to know you were encouraged, Jessi. 🙂

  • I absolutely loved this! It’s a wonderful reminder as I’m trying to engage the international community at and around my university that love is an action and doesn’t (always) demand speaking! It can be intimidating to walk into a sub-culture feeling very limited by the supposed barrier. This was God’s little way of reminding me of all the ways I can minister to them without having to learn 5 new languages. Thank you!

    • Yes! The language barrier keeps so many of us from interacting. I’m thankful my kids showed me how much can be said without words.

  • Hi Malia, first of all what a lovely name! Like a flower on the lips!! Living in the UAE, Dubai specifically, I am faced with a multitude of languages I could learn with daily contact with people from so many nations. It is nice to be reminded that love can be expressed in any language! Thanks

    • What a sweet compliment–thank you!


    I never did learn the local language well where we lived, although I could understand when people said, “Andy and the kids speak really well, but Kay can’t say anything.” 🙂 People loved me anyway. Delighted in my presence. Took me to their hearts. And for a trying-to-recover perfectionist, that was pretty amazing. My ego took a beating, but my heart learned to be free. I’ll always be grateful.

    • I love how you’ve said this. Thank you for sharing. “My ego took a beating, but my heart learned to be free.” I can definitely claim the first half there, but I’m working on the second. Thank you for your example!

  • Love this post. I chose not to spend a lot of time learning Lao when we moved to Laos for very similar reasons. And, I too, have often felt conflicted about that.

    • Lisa, I think we will continue to feel conflicted and that’s because we love these people and want to have conversations with them. I hope to never come to a point when I don’t care about learning the language…because that would mean something died in me–a desire to connect. I can hear that desire in your voice too. 🙂

  • Great encouragement. My situation is similar where I’m going in not knowing a whole lot of the language because I’m working with an international community. Human language is important, but God’s language is universal.

    • You’ve summed it up perfectly, Jeannette. 🙂

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  • Beth

    Visiting from Time Warp Wife. Beautiful post. I remember when in Guatemala for a couple weeks wishing I had spoken the language but it all came down to my willingness to love on them. That is what He wants most from us…to love others. Thank you for sharing. Blessings to you.

  • Erika Loftis

    I am in the SAME BOAT, and felt so encouraged after reading this. I actually don’t even have a ministry, looking after our four kids consumes all three functioning brain cells (and could probably use more if I had them!) but I feel so ashamed for not knowing more Thai, or learning more, or studying more, especially now that I sleep through the night (baby four was born here, and took a year to sleep through) but I just can’t. There is a will, but no way… Right now. I hope someday to speak love in my host nations language… Until then, love will be spoken in unintelligible, broken Thai, and hopefully through everything else…

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