When All You Can Say is “Sí! Sí! Sí!”

by Abby Alleman on September 5, 2014

Early September doesn’t just mark the beginning of the school year for children, it also marks the beginning of language learning for both newcomers as well as those who have been in their adopted countries a long time. Because let’s be honest here – fluency takes a lifetime and more. Trying to get our tongues around sounds that don’t exist in our first language is an exercise of body, mind, and soul. I love the way Abby brings in humor, advice, and the Tower of Babel. May you be greatly encouraged by this post on language learning. You can read more about Abby at the end of the post. –Marilyn


“This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” ~ John 10:6

We were in a hotel in the hills of Barcelona and I was meeting my host family for the first time. I was all smiles and nerves. Although I had taken four years of Spanish in high school (with an excellent teacher) and two semesters of upper level Spanish in college, this was the first time where I was surrounded by native speakers. No matter what they said, all I seemed to be able to say was “Sí! Sí! Sí!”

Looking back, I was probably expressing my excitement at being able to understand anything they said. I was starry-eyed and adventurous. The farm girl who boarded that 747, my first plane ride at 20 years old, to step out into the big wide world beyond my small town. My mom said I went on that plane one person and came back another.

She was right.

Now 20 years later that family truly is my own. I felt alone and frightened, at times, but the doors that were opened through stepping into another world and becoming fluent in its language have radically altered the course of my life. But it’s been a messy road, especially fumbling through the ins and outs of learning to speak a new language.

Whenever I see my host mom she always shares the story of the night it was my turn to clean up the kitchen after the ‘cena’ or dinner (which often happened close to midnight). She had asked me if I would clean the kitchen some night as it was customary for the whole family to take turns. And, of course, I said ‘Sí! Sí! Sí!’ Then when my night came and she told me it was my night and would I please clean up, I said ‘Sí! Sí! Sí!’ So when the cena was over I rose from the table said ‘Buenas Noches!’ and headed to my room for bed!

My now second family also likes to tell the story of the weekend hiking trip I went on which I thought would be low key and I could easily do in sneakers. My host family asked me several times if I was sure that I wanted to go and I said ‘Sí! Sí! Sí!’

Well it turned out to be a gorgeous weekend in the Pyrenees with about 10 other people who were pretty close to Sherpas. They were also a pretty tight group and most spoke the native language of Barcelona which is Catalan and not Castellano (Spanish). So I understood far less than the little I then could.  I also needed to have my hands held by two of these amazing Catalan hikers coming down from most of the heights. I slept one of the nights in a packed shelter with a group of Dutch hikers and someone’s stinky socks in my face!

And there are many more stories, I am sure, about the crazy blonde American girl who could only say ‘Sí! Sí! Sí!’

And I laugh because this whole language learning business is full of humility and humor. Both are essential to the journey.

Last week I heard a sermon on the Tower of Babel. It resonated with me as I think of this next language adventure I am on with Hungarian (which is unanimously considered one of the hardest languages in the world and, for me, makes Spanish seem quite easy). The pastor said that when God divided the peoples of the earth through their language He destroyed their unity. It hit me that their collective consciousness was overrun by pride in the comfort zone of knowing the only language spoken. And I immediately had this thought ‘and it’s only the humility of Christ that can overcome that can heal this disunity.’

We cannot survive and succeed in language learning without the Spirit of Christ as our guide. He humbled himself in every way and laid aside the heart language of Heaven to communicate in ways that were consistently misunderstood. And He did it all to redeem us and give us his righteousness so that we can wear Him in the fumbling and bumbling. Because He is our identity we don’t have to be perfect or even good language learners, we just need to be His.

And we need to laugh! We all start out in a new language only able to say ‘Me want water!’ Or ‘Help! We lost!’ Or ‘I go up, over, down, ok?’ We are babies in adult bodies.

My Hungarian language learning has been completely different than studying Spanish. When I moved here long-term I was a mother of two young children and four months pregnant with our third. I had learned a few phrases and some numbers during our internship, but there was no formal schooling as our ministry is based on teaching students conversational English. I had little time to devote to language as a baby was coming! And hardest of all, I was feeling responsible for my kids and unequipped to be their advocate.

But some things remain the same no matter how many languages we learn:

1)       Don’t take yourself too seriously: It really is essential to laugh at yourself–the blunders are a part of every journey. I have many new things to laugh at in learning Hungarian. Like calling ‘legs’, ‘balls’ since there is one letter difference.

2)       Be in community: One of the amazing joys of this language experience is that I am walking it with my husband. We took lessons together in our home and we have laughed and learned and encouraged. Whenever we get together with other Americans who live here, we share fun stories and listen to them too. It all reminds us that we are not alone.

3)       Don’t compare: Everyone learns at their own pace and struggles in different ways while being strong in others. My husband is the better listener(because he does it more) and I am the better speaker(because I do it more). Hmmm…I don’t think that pertains to just Hungarian 😉

4)       Language aptitude is highly overrated: Speaking as someone who others might say is gifted linguistically, I remember that ‘Sí! Sí! Sí!’ Girl all too well. The truth is that it took much more than ability to become and stay fluent for 20 years. It took practice and more practice and falling down and getting back up

5)       Find what works for you/Develop a good plan: Although I learned Spanish traditionally, I have become very outside-the-box with my methods in language-learning. A lot of this is practical as I have only had a few hours/week or less to devote to language learning since we moved to Budapest. We were taught a method during our overseas training with CRU. It is called ‘the Growing Participator Approach’ and uses several non-traditional methods, like TPR, and is modeled after the way we learn our first language. I knew I wanted to learn this way so I came with confidence and implemented the plan.

6)       Don’t give up!!: This is where my husband is my language-learning hero. He just won’t give up no matter how discouraging his day. And he’ll use what he knows. He has learned by listening and speaking and working through miscommunication. And in the process he has shared the Gospel with students all over the city and made friends everywhere. He is always inspiring me to do the same.

7)       Language learning is a spiritual discipline: We are often asked if people speak English here. It seems to imply that if they do then why would we need to learn their language? But that’s not the perspective of Christ. He stepped into culture and time and manifested God’s love through incessantly communicating with humility and determination in the language of the heart. We learn new languages to know Christ more so that He might pour out HIS love through our imperfection that reflects His perfect love.

My hope is that this post would encourage you wherever you are at in your language journey. We are truly in this together!

 If you are new to language learning, what are most anxious or excited about?

And for the many of you who are experienced language learners, do you have any funny stories to share? Or additional words of wisdom and encouragement for those just starting out? 

Let’s encourage one another in this essential part of missionary life!

Abby is a farm girl who found her heart in the city. She can now humbly claim fluency in three languages but it’s the three little ones who call her mama that truly humble her. She and her husband have been ministering to students in Hungary through the ministry of CRU since 2005 and pray continually that their greatest joy would be found in the Gospel. She can be found blogging at www.abigailalleman.com

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/bicycles-balcony-la-sagrera-413761/

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About Abby Alleman

A farm girl at heart, Abigail (Abby) loves the surprising stories God writes. Since her first plane trip at the age of twenty landed her in Barcelona, Spain, Abby knew her life would never be the same. She holds degrees in both Math and Spanish and is a former high school teacher. She has served as a translator and short-term missionary in Latin America and inner city Philadelphia. But her most treasured journey is when her big dreams came crashing to the ground, when heartbreak and humility brought her home to her family, God and eventually right to her husband, Jared. They have worked with the student ministry of CRU for ten years in both the U.S. and Hungary. She has three small kids and blogs her life and love of story at Abigail Alleman ( www.abigailalleman.com ).
  • Susan Hill

    Oddly enough, I needed this post this morning. I homeschool our kids and had each of them pick a foreign language to begin getting accustomed to. So I picked French, and now a year later, I am taking French online through a local college. Small word by small word I am persevering. Although if someone tried to talk to me in french, I could mainly say, hi, what my name is, and ask how they are doing. Oh, and maybe tell them it’s 2:00 in the afternoon. If it’s 2:13 in the afternoon though…I’m in trouble. Lol! And I have definitely seen the humility that language learning requires. Thanks for this post.

    • Susan, great perspective. I love that you gave your kids and yourself this challenge!

      • Susan Hill

        Merci beaucoup!

  • Marla Taviano

    I love this post. Thanks so much! We’re heading to Cambodia indefinitely in January, and I know just a smattering of Khmer. Excited/nervous to learn! And determined to be brave and humble.

    • You are welcome Marla. I am praying for you right now for the time that is ahead for you. Hopefully this is something you can come back to when you hit a rough patch. Remember, He is with you!

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    I really laughed at all the si si si’s! Reminded me of the Khmer word for perhaps or maybe: “Prahael.” One of my friends has a joke that whenever a Cambodian is speaking to you in Khmer, and you don’t understand what they are saying, instead of saying yes, no, or not understand, you should politely answer, “prahael,” and then sampeah (the bow with the hands together, to show respect). Might not be funny in words but when he tells it and acts it out in real life, it’s hilarious! It’s the answer that works for everything 🙂

    • Elizabeth, I can picture this acted out and it would be hilarious! I will never stop laughing when I picture myself in that hotel with wide eyes and bobbing head and a constant ‘¡Sí! ¡Sí! ¡Sí!’ 🙂

      • Elizabeth Trotter

        My favorite Si! Si! Si! moment of yours was when you were supposed to do the dishes and went to bed instead!

  • Victoria Parsonson

    This is great! I spent 3 years in Madagascar and have recently come home to Europe. I had already learnt French, and had picked it up easily (Madagascar’s ‘European language’) and therefore rather stupidly assumed that I’d manage to pick up the local languages easily as well. It was a time when God really humbled me – learning languages was my ‘thing’, I enjoyed it, and yet here all of a sudden was a language that I found really difficult and just couldn’t seem to learn. To me, languages had grammar rules, and spelling rules, almost like algebra, you just have to learn the rules – and yet here was a language that had no proper written form, the few people who tried to write it down, all did it a bit differently. I am a very visual learner, I need to see it in front of me, and so this messed with my head. There were very few grammar rules, and so much of what was said that seemed to be ‘white noise’ that no-one could give me a meaning for. The Malagasy culture meant that my ‘status’, as a white lady and as a doctor, put me above most people, and therefore they refused to correct me when I made mistakes in what I said – so I really struggled to learn and improve as no-one would tell me what I was saying wrong. NO textbooks, no verb tables… God taught me to rely on him though, when I got so frustrated, so discouraged, when I stupidly compared myself to colleagues. Little by little, I got there. I learnt to celebrate victories – a particular one for me was when I could finally talk to small children myself in outpatient clinic and reassure them and make small talk, “don’t worry, this won’t heard, don’t be scared, where’ your tummy…” – before, I used to hate when I child was scared and crying in my clinic and I couldn’t directly comfort them myself. My attempts at numbers etc in the market earnt me some friends and local respect – they still all remember the time I asked for ‘102 eggs’ rather than 12. One of my best mistakes, is mixing up the words for ‘fruit’ and ‘flowers, which only have one syllable difference between them. I used to regularly tell my patients with constipation to eat flowers three times a day. And of course because I was the white doctor, my patients all just said “yes doctor” and didn’t question it, until finally one of my Malagasy colleagues decided to tell me what I’d been saying wrong for several weeks. If you tell someone you’re going for a walk, and slightly miss-pronounce a very subtle sound, you end up telling them that you’re going prostituting yourself. Unfortunately Malagasy is full of situations where a slightly wrongly pronounced syllable completely changes the meaning. Perhaps the worst one is that I am known to most people as “Vic”, which in fact means ‘worms’ (ie intestinal parasites) in the local language. And once again, I had become well-known as “Vic” before anyone told me this, and so my attempts to be called “Victoria” weren’t so successful, “Dr Parasite” it is. After 3 years, I am far from fluent, but I can do day to day life without too much help, by the grace of God. The biggest thing that helped me, was when I was going through a time of completely blocking and not being able to move forward, was having the will to force myself to keep going, and to keep trying in every situation I could find, even if it was wrong – and my attempts were always well received. And rejoicing in personal victories, which often seemed inconsequential compared to people around me who seemed so good at it – but they were nonetheless victories for me, and so I celebrated them.

    • Victoria, I can relate so well to language as a formula having double majored in math and Spanish. I love your sharing what God worked in you and the joy of being able to comfort children. These victories are so worth celebrating. Thank you 🙂

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Oh my goodness, Victoria, these stories are so funny, thank you for sharing them! Dr. Parasite, and eating flowers 3 times a day! Hilarious! Thanks again for brightening my day. 🙂

  • I just realized that I would add another essential :: pray for and seek out at least 2 native speakers that you can practice with even when you just know a couple of words. They will let you struggle through learning and have patience that helps you feel secure as you are fumbling and bumbling. The Lord has been so faithful to answer this prayer for me here in Hungary with 2 people who come regularly to my home. It has made all the difference as a mama with 3 small children who doesn’t always get out;)

  • Miriam

    Thanks so much for your encouragement, Abby!
    I once used pictures for ‘to enter’ and ‘to exit’ during my lesson, only to discover a few weeks later that we had interpreted the pictures in the opposite way. What I saw as ‘to enter’, she had interpreted as ‘to exit’! Till now, almost a year later, I still easily mix them up as I didn’t get it right in the beginning… and it doesn’t help that both words only have 1 letter difference.
    To your list I would add ‘set goals’, which is in line with what you already mention in #5. I noticed that even with a method that worked for me, at a certain stage I wasn’t really moving forward any more, despite having lessons and still learning new vocab. Since then I’ve made goals of what I want to reach in the next 3 months and it really helps me to focus on the right things to learn at this moment (I make weekly language plans derived from my 3-months goals). And it also means that I’ll have something to celebrate when I’ve reached certain goals! Of course goals need to be realistic etc (i.e. formulated SMART) as e.g. the goal ‘speaking better T…’ is so difficult to measure…

    • That’s great Miriam! It IS a tough balance with the goals amidst the falling down & not getting so discouraged you just want to give up, but you explain it well! Thanks for sharing!

  • Charlotte

    Oh my, there are so many language blunders! I’ve been living in Cambodia and learning Khmer for 2.5 years, and my most common mistake is using the word “samram” (trash) when I am trying to say “samron” (snack)! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked about eating trash!! Now we are planning to move to Thailand next year and starting over with a new language! Haha

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