Don’t Peak in Language School

by Anisha Hopkinson on July 13, 2016

peak

{Peaking: Mountain top experiences. The phrase “Peaked in High School” refers to an adult whose significant achievements all occurred in high school.}

Sophomore year of high school I joined the choir class (as opposed to the cool kid musical theater club, which required auditions. Choir class accepted anyone.), but since I’m actually a terrible singer, I spent most concerts silently mouthing “Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon.” along to the words.

During the mid-semester solo evaluation I struggled so badly the teacher finally took his hands off the piano keys and remarked with a sigh, “Well, uh, I guess at least you can transition between your head and chest voice relatively smoothly.” That was the closest I ever came to a compliment in choir class.

The next year, I joined track (no tryouts and a guarantee not to be kicked off the team). This went well and I enjoyed being part of a team until I realized that joining track wouldn’t magically fix my slow and clumsy pace, but would do an excellent job magnifying it in front of everyone I knew. And since you can’t mime a race, I quit running. (These days I do run, still slow and clumsy, but since nobody is depending on me to cross a finish line within a certain number of minutes, I can enjoy stumbling along).

One semester I took dance for gym class (as opposed to cheerleading, which required auditions. Apparently I have a thing for new experiences as long as there is no risk of rejection). Even though I worked really hard on my end of semester modern interpretive dance, I still got a C for the class (which when it comes to gym class is exactly a rejection).

While I floundered in extracurricular activities that could have made me cool, I did alright in history, writing, and language – things that didn’t make me cool. That’s ok though, because in the end it didn’t really matter.

In grownup life it doesn’t matter if you were the cool kid or the biggest nerd in school. This is really good news for run of the mill kids like me.

Language school is just like high school. Do your best and try new things, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

As a brand new missionary, it’s easy to freak out. You finally made it to the field and now supporters are counting on you, your agency is counting on you, God is counting on you. You’ve got to do this right and you’ve got to do this well. You’re a professional Christian now – time for results! At least, that’s how it felt for me.

In language school, there are cool kids everywhere and just like in high school it’s really easy to fall into the comparison/be like them trap. Don’t. No amount of choir lessons and miming concerts could turn me into a star alto in high school and no amount of flash card drills and choppy neighborhood conversations will turn you into a culturally savvy missionary in language school.

Ok yes, language school is important just as high school is, but in the big scheme of things, even just a year from now, nobody is going to care if you talked to 10 people a day or had a private tutor. It won’t matter if you did ministry after class and preached on Sundays, or holed up at home for the hottest part of the afternoon in the air conditioning watching funny YouTube videos with your family. No one will care if you aced every language evaluation or have test anxiety and barely scraped through.

When you’re done with language school, there are only three things people care about:

  • You learned the language sufficiently for your job.
  • You were flexible when things went wrong.
  • You were kind to others.

Just after the one year mark in country, smack in the middle of culture shock and lamenting my struggles to adjust, I received an e-mail from a 20 year veteran missionary to my area. To paraphrase, he wrote, Disillusionment is normal. You try really hard in the first year, but your efforts seem to go nowhere. My wife and I evaluated our work at the 4 year mark and realized we were just at the point of breaking even. Our presence in the culture was finally about 50% positive / 50% negative instead of a mostly negative impact. It’s a shame people tend to leave at the 4-5 year mark, just when they are starting to become effective for ministry.

Admittedly, at 2.5 years in, I’m writing this post mostly to myself. Anisha, don’t peak now. You’ve got a long way to go! I finished the required language classes more than a year ago, but am so aware of just how much I lack. For a while there, I did get caught up in the Be The Cool Kid trap, but thanks to repeated bouts of dysentery (if anything will keep you humble, diarrhea will) and since I’m hard wired to ask every long term missionary I meet, “What advice can you give me?” thankfully that stage only lasted a few months.

Taking myself too seriously now would be just as ridiculous as it is in high school. So I repeat the accumulated wise words of those who’ve been at this much longer than me:

Relax. Trust Jesus. Don’t stress. Keep learning. Stick with it. Keep investing. Be nice.

When all those teenage missionary insecurities rise to the surface and life feels like I’m jazz hands-ing my way through gym class, I like to remind myself – It’ll be ok. After all, you made it through high school.

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Got advice? Go on and share it in the comments.

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About Anisha Hopkinson

Anisha was born to Chilean and Texan parents, first tasted missions in Mexico, fell in love with an Englishman in Africa, and now lives in Indonesia. She journals about cross-cultural life, helping people, and loving Jesus on www.namasayamommy.blogspot.com
  • Chad Gamble

    For someone starting language school in a few months, this is a very timely article. Thank you so much!

  • Brilliant post, Anisha 😉 Love your sense of humor weaved all through it! I’m not a missionary – so I didn’t go to language school – but after three years of trying to learn the new language of the country we stay in (part time) I don’t feel like I’ll ever peak but this post encouraged me again to ‘Relax. Trust Jesus. Don’t stress. Keep learning. Stick with it. Keep investing. Be nice.’ and I needed that.. so thank you

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