The Aim of Language Learning

by Rachel Pieh Jones on February 13, 2013

I posted a note on Facebook about a language lesson and received this comment, “Are you still studying language? I thought you’d be fluent by now.”


It has been more than a decade. What’s my problem?

I can make a list of excuses. I speak two, sometimes three languages. I had two-year old twins when we arrived and added another baby. My family endured an emergency evacuation, searing conflict, work crises…I could say this particular language is just plain too hard: there are few textbooks, the two that exist are error-filled and not my dialect. The written form is young and still working out spelling kinks. Or I could say I’m stupid or I’m not a language person. Or I haven’t worked hard.

In other words, I could blame language difficulty on situations, the language itself, or my failings.

But I have worked hard. I’ve put in forty-hour weeks. I’ve studied faithfully all these years. I have a degree in linguistics and love languages and language learning. I use all the languages every day. I’m highly conversational.

So the question lingers, why do I still have language lessons? What’s my problem?

This, fellow expats, is the wrong question.

Raise your hand or leave a comment or tweet it out if you moved overseas under the impression a good solid two years of immersion study would have you fluent.

Oh how many times I’ve heard this and then seen people leave, far from fluent, after 2-3-4 years.

Language learning is hard, so hard that the best advice I’ve heard is: “Anyone who wants to learn a language well must have a solid theology of suffering.” (pretty good advice for all of life, I’d add)

Will language learning never end?!

The reality is, you might not ever reach fluency. Or it might take you years longer than you thought. Your spouse or coworker might fly past you, you might fly past them. But this is not about you. It is not about your speed or adeptness. What is wrong with me when language comes slow is the absolute wrong question.

The right questions are: How does God want to change me and use me while I learn this language? How does God want to accomplish his purposes through me while I learn this language? How can I love people while I learn this language?

The point, the aim, is not fluency. The aim is to honor God, to be used by him, to become more like Jesus, to love well.

Work hard, study hard, don’t give up. There will always be fables you don’t know, proverbs you’ve never heard, jokes you miss the punch lines of, songs you can’t quite follow. This is why I still have a language tutor.

There will always be people who need jobs, people to love and relate with, people to visit in their homes and invite into yours, people who delight in helping you discover the beauty of their culture at ever-deepening levels. This is why I still have a language tutor

God will always have lessons in humility, patience, endurance, treasures of the exquisite in the unique turn of a phrase and in the relationship. This is why I still have a language tutor.

And as you labor and learn and laugh at yourself, remember. The aim is not your own fluency. The aim is God’s work in and through you, however and at whatever speed he plans to accomplish it.

What motivates you to keep studying language?

Advice for newbies or oldies?

Funny language faux pas?

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

                         Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Tanja

    Language learning is hard. A language is so much more than words, grammar, syntax and phonics. You can learn some of these by hard work, but language is so closely tied to culture, to local history, to the stories told and untold, to myths, to songs that were popular 15 or 30 years ago, to religious ideas and personal preferences that learning a language is almost like letting a whole new person with all its past and present inhabit you. While still being you!

    I’d say learning a language is a life long process. I’m still learning my own! Because new words appear, others become antiquated, and new ideas bring forth new idioms…

    One thing is knowing a foreign language. Another, the ability to apply it correctly in the location one wishes to practice it. There was nothing wrong with the words I said, when I as a 17 year-old high school exchange student to the USA asked the boy sitting in front of me a question that made me famous in the senior class. The problem was that this tiny little word had one meaning in European English, and quite another in American English. The question I asked was: “Do you have a rubber?”

    • Hahaha! So sorry for your senior-year slip up! But yes, still learning my own. And communication IS so much more than simply the words we use. Sometimes I can understand all the words in a conversation but still have NO idea what the conversation is about or how to join in. And I really do feel like a different person when I speak Somali – like you said, a whole new person. I am louder and more direct and ruder and aggressive and courageous. It is much easier for me to fight in Somali and with Somali hand gestures too!

  • Chantelle McIver

    Which language were you learning? Afar? I worked in Djibouti for a while with the Ethiopians. Anyhow, yes language learning is so hard and I totally agree you have to be willing to suffer! Most people don’t understand how hard it is so I usually just brush off their comments.

    • Somali and French. A little Arabic or Afar if someone tries to force me. I can’t handle that many though!

  • Liz K

    Ugggg!!! This is such a hard one! I have been working on Spanish for about 15 years now (off and on) and thought after a full year of language school 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, I would be much much further than I am now. But you are right, there is something God is working out in me because of it. I think it has something to do with patience, empathy, and maybe some pride:) I remember reading the story of the tower of Bable during language school and thought “Ohhhhh!! This is suppose to be hard!! God made it that way on purpose!” And that fact really encouraged me. Weird? Yes, but encouraging nonetheless!

    • True though – knowing that something is supposed to be hard somehow helps us push through it, doesn’t it? At least for me too, not expecting it to be easy and then feeling frustrated when I don’t measure up.

      • Liz K

        yes, I think that was it, knowing it wasn’t just me that was struggling…

  • This is encouraging stuff. Thanks for challenging us with asking better questions. So true.

    This quote is good: “Anyone who wants to learn a language well must have a solid theology of suffering.”

    How true is that?!?!

    Also this got me: “The aim is not your own fluency. The aim is God’s work in and through you, however and at whatever speed he plans to accomplish it.”

    I could apply that to so many areas of my life right now.

    Thanks for the pep talk 🙂

  • I speak four languages comfortably, but only 2 are currently fluent. Fluency can change based on circumstance, need, time, many, many factors. What is important is that we do all we can to the best of the ability and opportunity God gives us. Language learning, even in one’s mother tongue is a lifetime experience.

    • Fluency DOES change, I talked about that just last night with a friend. I feel like for me, it goes up and down, depending on what I am focused on. When working with low-income women doing micro-loans – lots of fluency. When working with the English newspaper – language takes a dive. The important thing is to be always open and ready to learn.

  • i’m one of those that loves learning languages. even now, when i can carve out time for concentrated and consistent language study, i’m like a kid in a candy store because i love words, grammar and the challenge of learning a whole new way of thinking. my biggest frustration is that God hasn’t gifted me with the concentrated time i need since our one year of language school. i consider myself able to communicate in 2 languages; i can get through the pleasantries and understand enough to do simple marketing in another. either time constraints or lack of available funds has meant that my continued language learning has been in my spare time and mostly on my own initiative. A few years back, I started doing literacy work and making sure i at least read the texts when leading studies for the ladies at church… so progress continues… slowly.

    advice? if you really want to learn a language, make it a priority (unless you are one of those amazingly gifted people who just absorb languages and don’t need to) – and never stop trying to improve your ability to understand and communicate in the heart languages of the people around you.

    • I love this Richelle- the comment about “heart languages”. A good reminder that connecting someone in their first language is really an act of pursuit of their hearts.

    • Me too – I studied Linguistics in college and love words. For example, I love that there are 46 words for camels in Somali and that they see the world in different colors because they have different color words! But as work and family moved up in time consumption and now that I am working with the English newspaper, language learning has taken a back seat again. But I always want to be learning. I love that you have worked on both languages and focus on connecting with the heart.

  • right on. I speak a second language well, especially for two years, but definitely NOT fluent.

  • I loved this post. It is so right-on. I loved especially this:

    “The point, the aim, is not fluency. The aim is to honor God, to be used by him, to become more like Jesus, to love well.”

    So true! And yet, I found that so often I would feel such judgement from others who were fluent. I was immediately sub-par because I was fumbling words and misspeaking tones, and I would cringe when I would try to answer a local in front of someone who was quick to correct me.

    Isn’t it amazing how missionaries can fling such judgement? What is with us sometimes?

    I think that’s why I loved that quote I grabbed– the point is not fluency, it’s LOVE. YES.

    • I would have been someone casting judgment before I was completely humbled and started to learn some of these things. I judged so many things in our early years, and in our pre-coming years. Now I feel much more open and able to learn and sometimes can feel that judging coming from newer people. Then I have to stop judging them for judging me and remember that we are all on a journey!

  • Alana

    We don;t live overseas but have a ministry in India and as a result of desperately wanting to communicate with theses beautiful people I have started learning hindi. My motivation is just to be able to communicate, I want to hear their stories, I want to talk to them without the use of an interpreter…I doubt I will ever be fluent, especially because we don’t live there..but try I will!!

    • I love that you are putting in the time and effort to learn Hindi w/o even living there. That has unique challenges, I’m sure, but will communicate your heart and affection.

  • I recognise that God is a critical factor in your life but it is best to leave him out of it when it comes to discussing the problems you (others) are having in learning a second language. Why I suggest you do that is because then you can focus on how to improve ( or understand what is getting in the way) rather on reflecting about what you can take out of the experience you are having!

    The reality is that we ALL learnt our first language to perfection, or at least to the level of our environment, so we have shown we have what it takes. The problem is that we are then put in school and told forget all we have learnt, the real way to learn a new language is to do “what I tell you”. Invariably this new strategy leads to failure (for something like 95% of kids). And then we we grow up, our model for language learning is what we went through as a child…and guess what! Still doesn’t work!

    On top of that we may have accumulated various adult traits, like reluctance to make fools of ourselves and listening abilities that have degraded etc. etc. So the way to become successful in learning languages is to find a way/s that works and then to become cognizant about our characters that might be inhibiting us. Would suggest checking out for example so you can get a sense of the kinds of things that were never emphasised but are critical for our success.

    • I agree that it is important to learn effective methods and to try a variety of strategies and that many of the ways we are taught languages as adults are ineffective. I see your point and I believe in the need to be humble, willing to make a fool out of ourselves, try a variety of methods, etc. There is no way I would have learned these languages without looking ridiculous. But I also don’t think it is valuable to leave God out of the discussion. The reality is, many people living overseas won’t come to a fluent level in the local language/s and when that is viewed as the ‘holy grail’ if you will, or some sort of standard by which we can compare, judge, and criticize, it is invaluable to understand the deeper, spiritual things that happen while learning a language and to focus on those as ultimate, not a certain degree of fluency. Viewing language study in the context of a relationship with God is not meant to be an excuse for not studying hard or being creative in figuring out what might work.

      Appreciate your comment and thanks for the link. I studied Linguistics, my husband is a Professor of English and we’re always on the look-out for language learning ideas and websites, etc. After perusing for just a bit, the site looks loaded with helpful information.

      • I believe the successful language learner is actually transformed by the experience, so inevitably the experience is a spiritual one. I completely agree with your observation about allowing personal human issues like “comparing” to get in the way. But they don’t need to.
        There is a Confucious saying which goes something like this, “He who has no target hits nothing”. Without having a goal to become native like ( if that is what “you” really want) it will never happen. Like any journey, language learning needs a destination. It does not mean that we have to walk over other people, OR ourselves! By having a destination we stretch ourselves and in the process discover more of who we are and in that process can become a better instrument.

        • I’m curious about your opinion/knowledge on fluency? I’ve wondered (but have only anecdotal evidence to go on) whether or not it is possible to become native-like as an adult specifically in a situation with a less-developed educational system. For example, in Djibouti, the University educational language is French. So for me to become academically adept in Somali feels virtually impossible and I have yet to meet any westerner who has. On the other hand, it seems reasonably possible that I could attain that level of fluency in French here. Would love to hear your thoughts on that. Personally, I’m interested, but I also think it would be helpful for newer staff – helpful in creating goals they could actually reach.

          • Took me a while to get back to this! Apologies.
            Attaining a native like proficiency in a situation that you talk about is possible, with or without an education system. The reality is that it does take a commitment. The kind of commitment I am talking about is twofold-

            1.talking Somali with the locals consistently and for extended periods of time
            2.a determination to improve one’s own language from every encounter.

            Many people get to a level and think, usually unconsciously, I understand them and they understand me so that is enough. The finer adjustments are needed to get to the upper levels, and they can take as much effort as the ones lower down!
            Hope this helps!! 🙂

  • Kenny Sacht

    I’m wondering if any of you can give me some good advice to help me better learn a language? I go back and fourth a couple of times a year to the Philippines where we operate the Hope House – a safe house for girls trafficked in the sex trade with Wipe Every Tear ( I spend around a combined 2 months per year there.

    This past trip did it in for me when my director of operations there said to someone “Kenny doesn’t want to learn our language…” and my heart SUNK deep in my chest! I’ve had all sorts of excuses why over the past few years I haven’t learned some Tagalog.

    Question: Would you recommend something like Rosetta Stone or another software? I can’t spend hours per day, but would like to begin learning the language. Any help would be appreciated!

    • Oh I can just feel how you felt when you heard them say that about wanting to learn it. Ouch and sorry! We did use the Rosetta Stone for French and then spent 6 weeks at an intensive language school actually in France and I did find it useful. For Somali we just relied on relationships mostly – point and learn, like a child with a lot of listening and game-playing.

      The rest of the learning has been through language tutors – basically anyone who can speak it. Doesn’t have it be a teacher and often someone who ISN’t a teacher is more helpful. There are lots of methods, have you heard of the Growing Participator Approach (GPA)? That is quite popular in our region lately and seems useful.

  • Rachel! This post is fabulous! I know I will be referring people to it. I also know I will be using wisdom from it as I talk with others, and I will pawn off these power packed thoughts as my very own creations just so I can sound all smart and wise like you. 😉 Ha!

    Seriously though, this is great:“Anyone who wants to learn a language well must have a solid theology of suffering.” (pretty good advice for all of life, I’d add)

    Okay, so here is my rub. Newbies come. They don’t want to learn the language. They don’t carve out time for it and don’t put the effort into it. What do I do when I talk with them??? I have to bite my tongue until it bleeds! My ugly judgy side flares up and I want to let ’em have it. I’ve tried, a couple times, to express with as much love as I could muster the importance of learning the language and the culture. Then the little newbies want nothing to do with me. I say to myself, fine, who needs ’em? But then I also berate myself for being ‘too hard’ on them. Hm. Do you know where I am coming from? Do you ever meet the missionary who doesn’t want to learn the language? If you do, what do you do with them?

    • You can totally pawn it off as yours Angie! That quote about a theology of suffering was something someone told us in our very first weekend on the continent and I have never forgotten it.

      Newbies who don’t want to learn the language?! Wow. I honestly don’t think I’ve seen anyone come here like that, but possibly because you really could barely function without at least some level of either French or Somali. I have seen some who don’t BOTHER to learn it, but that’s a slightly different situation. And I have met some who try and work so, so, so hard and it just doesn’t come. In each case, the response needs to be different of course. And I’ve learned a lot about this stuff and about my own heart issues regarding them. Language is such a personal and challenging aspect of life overseas, on many levels!

      If you aren’t directly responsible for them, I don’t know if there’s much you can do other than being an example and a motivator/cheerleader. But if they are your staff, you could be much more direct. I wonder if questions about their vision and reason for being there, what they want to accomplish, if those types of conversations would help them see the value of it. Or maybe sharing some of your own struggles, processes, stories of when you really needed the language or how people appreciated it, I wonder if those might help? And then, of course, backing off at some point and praying.

      Anyone else have a thought on this?

      • i’ve found the best way to encourage people to work on a language is to give them opportunities to see their need to learn the language and the value in making those efforts as well as the impact it makes on those to and with whom they try and minister. when i’ve met someone and that person begins to intrigue me and i want to know them better – and not always through the bridge of a translator – then i’m willing to put out the energy and effort necessary to work on the language.

        God has wired us with a desire to communicate… sometimes, with the additional pressures and stresses of living internationally, it is easy to sideline language because our resources and reserves are already stretched thin and we are overwhelmed – learning the language is a tool to help combat that as well.

        • That’s good – helping them see the need to learn it and the impact of it. Those are the same things that motivate me too, to keep going.

  • I did test as fluent in my second language (Hindi) after my first two years – but totally agree with you about the life-long nature of language learning (we are, to some extent, always learning our first language as well – new words, etc). Always new turns of phrase and words to learn. It’s an incredible journey that involves learning just as much about yourself as it does about the new language.

    My only concern with saying “fluency isn’t your goal – honoring God and loving others is” is that I’ve seen that twisted by people who want an “out” to avoid the discomfort and lifestyle changes required by language learning. They don’t seem to see how much love is communicated by a smooth conversation with a friend in distress or the ability to pick up on important cultural cues.

    Multiple instances of local friends asking me to speak with another expat (who’s been here longer) on their behalf regarding a sticky situation because they don’t speak the language well and won’t “understand the heart of my words” has convinced me that language ability (especially when English is not a natural alternative) is an indispensable component of communicating love to and being accepted and trusted by the people among whom we work.

    • Good point Sarah and I hope this wouldn’t turn into an excuse. You are right, language is key to relationships and, I think, to longevity even. And of course it is key in being able to successfully work and relate with people. The thinking behind that phrase I guess is that people would continue to learn and work hard to learn, but with a slightly nuanced focus. Personally, it comes out of my own passion for language learning that has been so strong at times that I’ve had to deal with pride, criticism, and hurt that I’ve caused or situations in which I’ve placed language learning OVER loving people and God.

      This is a really important point to make, I’m glad you brought it into the conversation.

      • Mmmm… okay, yes – put like that I understand better and it closes room for excuses. While fluency or increased language ability should be a goal, it is always (or at least should be always) subservient to the ultimate goal of loving God and loving neighbor. Any goal above that one has become an idol.

        • Calling it (fluency) an idol is right on – that’s what I made it in our early years. And, in all honesty, I still need to check myself. This post is as much for me as anyone!

  • suzanne

    i studied spanish for 10 years before moving to the dominican republic. i had lived in paraguay for 3 months, been on 6 week long trips to spanish speaking countries and earned a spanish minor in college. i have been living in a spanish speaking dominican republic, working and churching with spanish-speaking dominicans for seven months and i STILL had to have a friend call and order ice cream for me last night. there’s always more to learn! i love this learning, though!

    • As hard as it is, the humbling aspect of language learning is good for us, isn’t it? Incredibly, I have found most people gracious and helpful though – like friends who order ice cream for us!

  • Heather P

    Thanks for this! I’ve worked hard at language study for the past few years but while I live in a low English area my particular job is mostly in English and I’m a mom. While I may sound somewhat impressive to a visitor to our area I’m still an absolute baby to a local, and have felt judged by locals and co-workers alike as to my level of ‘commitment’ to the people of our area. Unrealistic, I know in my head, but that hasn’t stopped me from feeling very, very frustrated! You’ve beautifully voiced what I’ve learned in the process! I’m somewhat of a language learning flop but haven’t given up! And have learned a lot of other stuff in the process.

    • My husband is an English prof and so learning language has been significantly challenging for him. He’s learned it, but had to fight for it. If only people looking in and ready to judge could see the effort put forth, and not the level reached, right?! People are all so different in ability and circumstance.

  • Linda

    Language learning is hard work! After about 18 years in the language my husband keeps discovering layers of language he has not learned! He works in the language every day but would never translate without the help of his two translators who are mother tongue speakers of the language! I have learned that as long as i want to communicate with people I need to speak the language. i don’t have to do it well, but i have to be striving to learn more. I have to have a long term perspective on it. I also have to be humble. language learning is the most humbling experience I have ever had. Just when I think I know something, I see how little i really know.

    • Amen. I totally agree, and a long-term perspective is key. As is humility. I’m still impressed with translators, whether or not they use native speakers. What an amazing work and skill!

  • David

    I am convinced that everyone should spend at least a year of their life in a country that speaks a language not their own. There are so many lessons to be learned in areas like humility, perseverance, community, trust, etc. In my own life, I see God using the language-learning process in so many ways for my sanctification… and that is both for His glory and for my good.

    • What a great idea! Because of all those character-growing things and sanctifying things.

  • Pingback: Welcome Tara Livesay . . . And A Few Announcements()

  • Pingback: Why I'm glad I'm not yet fluent in Swahili - Every Tongue | Every Tongue()

  • Debbie

    This is such encouragement to me as I struggle with learning Shangaan. We just have classes once a week and after almost two years we still just know the basics.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    How did I miss this post? So.Good. The fluency piece….Arabic can be studied for years and it would still be a challenge to have real fluency in both reading and writing. I love your placing language learning into the context of how can God change me, how can he use me? One of the beauties of language learning is that we are humbled, we become like little children and we need to understand that space so we recognize it’s not about us, and it’s not about how great we are and what a gift we are to the country we’ve moved to. Rather, it’s about God’s kingdom and souls, and families, and individuals that we word by word, sentence by sentence, verb by verb and mistake on mistake learn to communicate with and the God who communicates through us. Love this post.

  • Pingback: When Envy Rots the Soul()

  • Pingback: Join me at A Life Overseas – “When Envy Rots the Soul” | Communicating.Across.Boundaries()

  • Pingback: Words Matter()

  • Pingback: yes, uncle, yes | mostly storying()

  • Rachel D.

    I really, really enjoyed this post! I love this blog in general, and I check it as often as I can ^_^ About three years ago, after a Korean missionary to Japan came to my church, I have felt God calling me to go as a missionary to Japan. As a sixteen year old, I am currently in my second (:D) year of Japanese…. and it’s difficult, to put it simply. Three separate alphabets, one with thousands of Chinese characters even the natives don’t know completely? A language with so many facets the nature of your speech could go from formal to casual and back again within the space of a few seconds depending on the person you’re speaking to? Sounds like I’ll be in the language learning process for a while… But, to get to the point, I am motivated to keep learning the Japanese language because:

    1. I believe that God is calling me to do it, and, for the difficult, complex language it is, it seems wise to me to get started a little earlier so you won’t get so heavily knocked by “the language wall”.
    2. I enjoy it :).
    3. To me, it makes sense to learn the language of the people you are going to a missionary, rather than forcing them to learn English in order to communicate with me. Also, although translators are helpful, I think it would be more beneficial for me in the long run, in terms of building real relationships, to learn the language myself. That way I would not need to say every little word through a translator.

    Anyway, I’m sorry for the long comment 😛 Just wanted to say how much I really like this blog and answer the question ^_^ Keep up the wonderfully awesome work!!

    Rach(el) <3

  • LynnAnn

    This articule was immensely helpful to me; thank you so much for posting it! I have been in Guatemala a little over three years now and am no where close to being fluent, although Spanish is supposed to be the easiest language to learn. (A fact I beat myself up with often.) Just the other day I was teaching a ladies’ Bible study, and I referred to a friend of mine who fluently speaks several languages: English, Spanish, Dutch, and Papiamento (a language spoken in Aruba)….only instead of saying Papiamento, I said papanicolau…which is pap smear in Spanish. Whoopsie!

  • Megan

    Funny faux pas — in Khmer to ask for the check you say “some cut loy.” I had a friend visiting and thought it would be fun for her to ask for the check, but instead of saying “loy,” she said “joy” which is equivalent to the f-bomb. *face palm* That was a fun one to explain to the waiter and to our table. From now on, I’ll just make sure I ask for the check. 😉

  • Pingback: What I Learned: 10 Lessons from Living in Thailand | Djibouti Jones()

  • Here

    Use memory palaces to learn thousands of vocabulary words, 10+ a day. Research other additional methods. Don’t do it backwards and concentrate on grammer too soon,

    People learn and become fluent in multiple languages, not by luck, but by learning and using advanced tools. Others try to do it using brute strength, rote, and other poor methods, and wonder why they struggle. So if you are doing something, language learning or anything, always remember to look for wiser, more skilled ways and tools. Rote, brute strength is rarely that way,

  • Jill Jorgensen

    Thanks for this article! Just moved to a new city (in the country I have been serving) for a season of language school and it’s been rough. I turned to “A Life Overseas” to find some encouragement about language learning and found your article. It brought me a lot of encouragement!

  • Pingback: When You’re Sure God Loves Ann Voskamp More Than He Loves You…()

Previous post:

Next post: