Language Learning is Like Climbing Stairs

by Angela Cheng

I was climbing up the long flights of stairs of our mission center in the crazy tropical heat of Bangkok when the Lord gave me an unexpected revelation. I was headed to our staff meeting after a morning of sitting in language class, barely uttering baby sounds of the tonal Thai language. How in the world was I ever going to speak this language?

In my first year, I had committed to full-time language learning with the dream of being able to communicate God’s love to the people to whom He had called me. My days consisted of riding the city bus an hour to language class, with windows wide-open, taking in the pollution, smells, heat, and noise of the bustling city. This lover of quiet, wide-open spaces was being tested in more ways than I desired.

Then I would sit in a three-hour language class trying to learn a complicated foreign language before another hour-long bus ride back to the center where I finished the day with two hours of language homework. I was frustrated with the process of trying to learn the characters and remember each sound.

I was approaching the middle of my first year in Thailand, and my language-learning classroom was becoming a jail cell. Was I ever going to speak, read, and write this language? Thai language has 72 characters, split into 44 consonants, 28 vowels, and five tones. Say a tone wrong and you could end up offending someone—which I did many times! On top of that, Thai has no spacing in between words like English does, so I had become like a child, learning sounds and memorizing word combinations with a lot of time, sweat, and tears.

But that day as I ascended those stairs, the Lord impressed upon me that I wanted to be at the top of the staircase as quickly as possible, just like I wanted to learn Thai. However, just like with the staircase, I needed to take language learning step by step. He reminded me that language learning is a process of taking small steps and that if I kept taking the next one and then the next one, I would eventually get there. My job was to trust the process.

I had so fixed my eyes on the end goal that I had ignored the process and become frustrated, thinking I would never get there. The Lord was saying, “Just be in the day, in the now, and I will get you to your destination.” And that is exactly what happened.

Years later I found myself translating speech from Thai to English at meetings and big events, leading a ministry completely in Thai language, while also reading and leading Bible studies in my new language. My favorite activity was (and still is) worshiping God with Thai people in their native tongue. It took time, energy, and grit, but by the grace of God and for His glory, it happened.


(Excerpted from Angela’s recently published book, Finding God’s Goodness in Unexpected Places. All profits go towards overseas missions projects.)


Angela Cheng and her family served as YWAM missionaries in Southeast Asia for fifteen years. They currently live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they serve with YWAM in various ministries. Angela can be contacted at

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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