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.”

Ouch.

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

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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.

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