by Jessica Dais
There is a lot you can accomplish as a missionary in a foreign country, regardless of whether or not you know the local language. However, there’s something to be said about the special connection that’s forged when you speak in someone’s native language.
There is a deeper level of empathy on your part, and a stronger sense of trust on theirs. You’re able to move much more quickly from “stranger” to “friend.” Nelson Mandela captured this idea beautifully when he said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
If you’re hoping to make a lasting impact in the country God has called you to, and you’d like to take your personal relationships to the next level, consider learning the basics of the local language.
With the right strategy and tools, becoming conversationally fluent isn’t as hard as you might think. Here’s how to get started in four simple steps.
1. Immerse Yourself in the Language
The fastest way to learn any language is by immersion. Many consider this method to be a form of “trial by fire.” It involves surrounding yourself with the local language, and not shying away from it.
If you’re already in your host country, seize every opportunity to hang out with native speakers. Go to local events in the community and observe how others communicate, including their body language.
For extreme introverts, it can feel like torture to step outside of your comfort zone in this way. But when you realize that the only thing standing in between you and fluency is yourself, it gets a lot easier to put yourself in an immersion experience.
2. Use Leisure Time Wisely
In your free time at home, the learning shouldn’t stop! Watch the news, movies, and YouTube videos featuring native speakers. Even better, turn on the English subtitles so you can follow along. This process is highly beneficial as your mind will start automatically associating words and phrases with their meanings.
If you want to take it a step further, change the language settings on all your devices to the language of your host country. Subscribe to a blog in the language, try reading children’s books, or listening to podcasts.
3. Practice Speaking Often
As intimidating as it may seem, remember that the best way to become conversationally fluent is to put your skills into practice. Don’t wait until you feel comfortable enough to start speaking with the locals.
On the contrary, you should become more and more comfortable with misinterpretations and miscommunications – these are a normal and expected part of language learning. So don’t take yourself too seriously! Accept the fact early on that it’s very likely at some point you will embarrass yourself.
Thankfully, there is grace in these situations. Local people will appreciate your efforts to speak in their language immensely, and oftentimes, it shows. So don’t be afraid to try and fail. Be encouraged by Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
4. Build a Solid Foundation
One final tip- Many missionaries prefer to learn the basics of a language first, before embarking on their trip. This is a great way to set yourself up for success and build a solid foundation right off the bat. In this digital age, there are fortunately many free tools at our disposal. Here are just a few options:
- Download an app like Duolingo or Memrise to quickly memorize the basics.
- Take online language classes, preferably with a live teacher. Try the free membership option at TakeLessons Live for starters.
- Use Meetup to find other nearby language learners that you can practice your skills with.
- Find a penpal or learning partner on a language exchange network, such as italki.
Any of these tools would be an excellent starting point. Do you have any additional tips for fast and efficient language learning in another country, or before going on a mission trip? Share your ideas with us!
Jessica Dais is passionate about missions and creative writing. She previously lived as a missionary in Mexico and hopes to someday lead short-term teams to Nepal. Jessica is still working toward fluency in Spanish and enjoys sharing the lessons she’s learned along the way.