All the Things I Still Don’t Know

by Janine

Tonight my daughter came home with homework of fill-in-the-blank words, where they give you a picture and maybe a “letter” (or in our case, a syllable) or two as a hint. These assignments are new as she’s starting to advance in learning her hiragana [the simplest of the phonetic lettering scripts of Japanese].

Some words I just type into the dictionary, and together we learn a new word. The problem arises when you have no idea what they’re trying to portray in the picture. Two out of six were words I have no reference for… one of them I’m not sure we have a word for in English. So I’m waiting for a message from a friend who will help me help my kid with her homework.

Anyway, it’s gotten me thinking about the ongoing upheaval of our sense of competency that begins the moment you land in a new world you’ll now call home.

Before you left, it was all about competency and calling. Or at least, so you thought.

You go through applications and interviews, you study, you take courses, you prepare, you pack, you have meetings and presentations, you answer questions… people think you’re ready to go! “They are fit for the calling,” you hear them say.

And you need to do these things. You have to be wise and not embark foolishly and haphazardly.

But here’s the paradox: you land, and you can just go ahead and throw all that out the window.

I know. It doesn’t make sense. But it really does make sense.

No longer are you the person who knows “all the things.”

You’re a learner now, and it’s best to honestly suit yourself with that attitude along with your new visa stamp.

Gone are the cultural clues, the comfort of how you do things, social structures and systems that you’re familiar with. Gone are the days of intuitively understanding life and the way everything works. Gone are the days of giving on-point presentations; you’ll be combatting first grade homework!

It’s time to learn a language. That’s not like a one- or two-month course and then you’ve checked that off your list. For many languages it’s thousands of hours of study and practice. And you’ll probably butcher it for a good long time and speak with the worst accent. You’ll make silly, embarrassing mistakes. You’ll talk like a child and have to work hard to refine and grow yourself.

You’ll need help, and lots of it. You’ll need humility, and lots of it.

You’ll need a good sense of humor to laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously.

You’ll make blunders culturally. Some you’ll laugh about (later), and some you might cringe over here ever after.

You’ll learn to interpret all the things you didn’t even know were there before, because they aren’t written.

You’ll learn new expressions, new things you didn’t know you could do (by the grace of God!), new vibrancy and variety of the beautiful creation of God.

Hopefully, you’ll slowly learn to strip your Biblical beliefs of their cultural colors and give the substance to another to see God bring it to colorful life in their cultural expression and the work of the Holy Spirit in their life.

You’ll be serving– or even deeper than that– learning how to serve. Learning how to share.

It’s our seventh year together on the field. I see just how far we’ve come in all of these areas, praise God. These are the things you might read about in our newsletters or our blog.

But what we live, in our daily missionary lives, is the distance we have yet to go. It’s all the things I still don’t know, but that there is grace for and that God works in.

A Japanese Christian man who works with many missionaries told us that it takes a good 10 years for a missionary to start getting good at culture and language here. So we still have even more to go to be properly seasoned.

And yet, in the meantime, we know God is working and using us, and moving in the process. We see it in our lives and in the people around us and in God’s leading and timing. It’s a journey, definitely not as we anticipated, and yet, all the things we learned and unlearned and then re-learned– they make a lot more sense these days.

This entire journey is a walk of faith and trust in God that He’s got the map right even if the one we’re holding is upside down.  He’ll enlighten us like a loving parent, if we’ll allow Him to.  He’ll even transform us through this journey and work through us in ways we might never have seen coming.  In the end, it’s Christ who supplies our competency as ministers of the Gospel.

~~~~~~~~~

Janine, her husband Vicente, and their three daughters live and serve in the Tokyo metro area.  They established an evangelistic media ministry to share the Gospel.  Janine served for 3 years in Mexico before moving to Tokyo to work in church-planting, where she eventually met her Honduran husband who happened to visit on a short-term trip. Janine enjoys audiobooks, quilting, cooking and obviously, writing. You can find out whether they survive elementary school by following her personal blog.

How’s Your Training Montage Coming Along?

I have swimmer’s shoulder, but I don’t swim.

It’s not that I can’t swim, I just don’t do it often enough to cause an injury. I’m in physical therapy for my shoulder now, but I actually started PT because of pain in my hip, and then my shoulder started acting up. I wish I could say that my hip problem was caused by swimming, or by mountain climbing or power lifting. Instead, I think it’s from stepping out of my car the wrong way. And my shoulder? It might be caused by painting our dining room. Or who knows? It could have come from brushing my teeth with too much reckless abandon.

I know what you’re thinking. But before you say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart, let me first say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart.

So every day I go through my series of exercises. If only my routine included things like “reverse suspended monster crunches” or “overhead double infantry lifts.” But no, I have “supine gluteal sets” and “seated shoulder flexion towel slides at table top.”

It’s not quite the stuff of a Rocky training montage. (If you haven’t seen any of the five Rocky movies, seven if you add the two Creeds, then just think about any film that includes a music video of the main character getting ready for battle.) In preparation for the next ultimate fight, set to stirring music, Rocky boxes with frozen meat (da-da-daaa), rips off dozens of one-handed pull-ups and push-ups (da-da-daaa), lifts log chains over his head (da-da-daaa), guzzles raw eggs (da-da-daaa), and outruns a car (da-da-da-da-da-da-da-daaa-da-daaa).

Here’s the thing about training montages in the movies: They’re in the movies. When you’re tackling challenges in real life, it’s not bigger than life and it’s not condensed down to just a few minutes. Seen from the inside, the real stuff of montages can feel slow, tedious, and monotonous, not monumental.

Do you have things in your life abroad that are necessary but mundane, things you do day to day on the path to your goals but that lack the flair of a movie workout? Things such as prepping for departure? Settling into a culture? Language learning? Wading through red tape? Forming relationships? Chipping away at overwhelming problems?

Here’s the thing about serving overseas—and life in general: Rarely do our efforts merit a rousing soundtrack. Now if your cross-cultural experiences are film-worthy, I won’t stand in your way, and I’ll cheer when your theme song reaches its crescendo in the cinema. But for most of us, rather than a fully orchestrated “Gonna Fly Now,” an “Amazing Grace” played by a toy xylophone and a kazoo may seem more appropriate.

It makes me wonder about the music behind the Psalms, when they read, “to the tune of ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks'” or “to the tune of ‘The Death of the Son.'” Wouldn’t it be nice to know what those songs sounded like? I’m guessing they weren’t pulse-pounding tunes but more in line with the normal, coarse warp and woof of a life serving Jesus.

And here’s another thing: Much of what you do in cross-cultural work doesn’t culminate in a resounding, definitive victory. Often, it’s more of a series of little victories mixed in with little failures. You know, that two-steps-forward-one-step-back thing. (Or is it the other way around?)

Take language learning for instance. What if your language study doesn’t culminate with nationals saying that you sound more native-born than they do? What if your language study never seems to end? Yes, you’ll have agency- and self-imposed benchmarks to meet, but you may never get to where you wish you could be—or to the level of your coworkers. That’s OK. It’s not about matching their good, it’s about doing your good. Wherever your best efforts lead you, there’s a place for you in God’s work. I hope others believe that, too.

Much the same could be said about “learning” your new culture. It takes a lot more time and effort to be a resident of a country than to be a tourist. In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, Eugene Peterson uses similar language when talking about the Christian life, making a distinction between those who are “tourists” and those who are “pilgrims.” He writes that most Christians “are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points.”

Peterson identifies the common assumption among Christians (and others)

that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments.

“Thirty-second commercials.” “Thirty-page abridgments.” To those I could add three-minute training montages. But all of these may seem rather quaint compared to the norms of today’s culture (Peterson’s book was first published in 1980), with our current attention to Twitter and TikTok and all the other short bursts from social media.

Yes, the Christian life is “a long obedience.” And if I could paraphrase that, I’d say it could also be seen as a long series of short obediences. It’s exercising, stretching, pulling, pushing, lifting, running, jogging, walking, and resting, over and over again. It’s you, as a cross-cultural worker, doing all this with a God-ward aim, with your God-given abilities, at your God-given speed. It’s finishing your race, even if your finish line doesn’t end up being on foreign soil.

And it’s you, all the while, humming in the background the soundtrack of your own making.

(Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, InterVarsity, 1980)

[photo: “Focus,” by Keith Ellwood, used under a Creative Commons license]

4 Ways to Take Your Language Learning to the Next Level

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.

Greetings for the New Year: Hey, 2019, Wassup? Have You Eaten?

I remember his question well.

One morning I walked to our neighborhood post office in Taipei to take the language exam I liked to call “mailing a package.” I got in the line leading to a clerk with whom I was familiar, practiced and prepped for answering what he would ask me—things like “Where is your package going?” or “What’s inside the box?”

Instead, he glanced at me and said nonchalantly, “Have you eaten?”

What? Did I look gaunt and hungry? Was he prying into my daily schedule? Was he inviting me to share a snack? Was the post office a food-free zone and he’d seen some crumbs on my shirt?

While I remember the question, I don’t remember what I said in return. As he’d caught me off guard, my guess is that my reply was incoherent at best (F for the exam). It wasn’t until later that I found out that “Have you eaten?” is simply a local way to say Hello, particularly among the older generations. (“I’ve eaten” or “Not yet” suffice for responses, with no need for elaboration or fact checking.)

I wish I could say that was the only time I was confused by a greeting in Taiwan. Yeah, I wish.

Another one that tripped me up was the first few times I heard someone call out “Huan ying guang lin!” when I entered a store. The literal translation is akin to “A happy welcome to the arrival of your bright light!” I couldn’t make out the individual words, and to me it sounded as if people were making a valiant attempt at English and were saying “Good morning” to me no matter the time of day. Good for them, I thought, with a smile. At least they were trying.

And then there are the Chinese non-verbals. There’s the slight downward nod of the head, which is equally suitable at a restaurant to acknowledge the waiter who’s come to take your order or at the airport to welcome home a close family member who’s returned from a year abroad. And I’d be remiss if I left out the highly nuanced two-handed exchange of business cards.

Those people and their funny ways.

Of course, we English speakers in the West are “those people,” too. How hard it must be for English learners to navigate our greetings landscape. We have our “What’s up?” (up where?),  “What’s happening? (to whom?)” “Howdy! (short for “How do you do?”—but do what?), and “How’s it going? (how’s what going where?). And that’s not to mention “Whazzup?” “Wassup?” “Sup?” “S’appenin’?” “Look what the cat dragged in,” or “Speak of the devil!”

We have our non-verbals, as well: the hand shake, the high five, the fist bump, the hug, the side hug, and the hand shake into a half hug.

So here’s the place where I say—What about your host culture? Do they have interesting, intricate, or confusing-to-expat ways of saying hello? Did they catch you off guard the first time you encountered them? Or maybe you caught the locals off guard with your ways of saying Hi. As we greet the new year, I invite you to share with us your experiences with greetings in the comments below.

But . . . a too-late search of the archives of A Life Overseas shows me that Rachel Pieh Jones did something just like that a few years ago. (Oh, internet search box, why do you torment me so?) In fact, some more frantic searching shows me that back when I asked readers to offer up their odd-food experiences, I was again following in Rachel’s footsteps.

So you can still leave your comments here if you’d like. Or you can just head over to “Hello World!” to read that list of submissions and join in there. And don’t worry if you find out that you’re repeating what somebody else has already written. That happens sometimes.

[photo: “HI sparklers,” by Julie Lane, used under a Creative Commons license]

 

Are You OK? and Help! Two Things You Really Need to Learn to Say in Your Target Language

When you visit a country where the people don’t speak your language, there are several important phrases you should know how to say: things such as “Hello” and “Goodbye,” “How much is this?” “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Can I have ice with my water?” But when you move to that country, the stakes become higher. The important words and phrases become deeper and more necessary and more . . . important. They’re usually not covered in the first five chapters of your language book, and you may not end up learning them until you come face to face with the need for them. At least, that’s the way it was for me.

Are You OK?

The streets in Taiwan give new meaning to the phrase flow of traffic. Outnumbering automobiles two to one, scooters zip in and out to fill in the narrow gaps between cars, and when they all come to a red light, they pile up at the intersection, waiting to spill forward again when the light turns green. Watch that whitewater river for long, and you’ll see quite a few accidents.

One morning while I was walking to language school in Taipei, I came up to one of the city’s crowded intersections and waited to cross. As several lanes slowed for the light, a lady on a scooter was unable to stop and broke through the pack, sliding several feet on her side. She wasn’t hit by anyone, but she was slow getting up. My first thought was to run over to her and see how she was. I didn’t make it, though. First of all, by the time I could cross the street, she was back on her way, though pushing, not riding, her scooter now. And second, I didn’t know what to say.

Yes, I knew the greeting “How are you?” but that’s not the right question for someone who might be hurt. I knew how to say several other things, too, but none of them seemed appropriate. I could imagine the woman’s horror having me, a foreigner, rush up to her in her time of need, letting loose with my vocabulary of “Hello. How are you? I’m an American. What part of Taipei are you from? What’s you’re favorite food? I like pizza.”

It’s one thing to be able to say the equivalent of How are you? Howdy, or What’s up? It’s another to go beyond trite formality, to ask caring questions and expect heartfelt responses.

G. K. Chesterton writes, “The traveller sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” If I could add to Chesterton’s observation, I’d say, “The resident sees what can’t be seen.” Or that’s what should happen. There are many things hidden from the outsider, tucked deep in the souls of the people. And the best way to see behind the curtain is to ask. One of the simplest yet most profound questions we can voice is “Are you OK?” It shows caring. It shows that we know all may not be well, and yet we ask anyway. It shows that we are truly willing to step in and be a part of the community around us.

Help!

The second phrase isn’t a phrase at all. It’s just one word, but what a word it is. It’s a word that became the focus of my thoughts one day because of a leaky air conditioner.

At one point, we lived on the third floor of an apartment building, with a barber shop below that had a fiberglass awning over its entrance. Under normal circumstances, the condensation from our AC unit would travel down a plastic tube to the street. But of course, circumstances rarely seemed normal, and the water from our AC did not drain into the tube. Instead it drip . . . drip . . . dripped . . . and dripped . . . and dripped onto the awning. We knew this because the barber told us. I set out quickly to fix the problem—which involved climbing out on a window ledge and stretching as far as I could to reach the air conditioner. I did this when my wife wasn’t at home, mostly because I didn’t want her to talk me out of it. But as I had to step closer to the edge, clinging to the bricks with one hand and trying to grab the AC with the other, I thought, “What if I slip and end up hanging over the alley by three fingers? How do you yell ‘Help!’ in Chinese?” It simply hadn’t come up in my language class during the unit on common food items at the grocery store.

It’s not that I hadn’t asked for help before: “Excuse me, could you tell me if I’m on the right train?” “Can you help us take our photo?” “Do you have these shoes in a larger size?” But I’d never thought about shouting “Help!” because I’d never before thought about needing to be saved.

It’s an odd thing for a missionary to think about his own need for salvation. Isn’t that what we came to offer? But spiritual salvation wasn’t what I had in mind. I was thinking about the kind of saving you need when you’re deeply afraid, when your child is struck by a car in the crosswalk, when you face a mugger in a dark alley, when flood waters are rising, or when loneliness grabs ahold of you and won’t let go.

Knowing how to call for help, though, is not the same as admitting that we need real, meaningful help from those around us. And it’s not just the security guard or the policeman or the nurse who can answer our pleas. It might be the student next door or the businessman hurrying to work or the homeless lady sorting through the trash, whoever is close by as you dangle from the ledge.

Those of us who go to other countries to help must be able to receive help, too. We need to be willing to rely on those around us, to learn, to take advice, and to share our needs—even our emotional and (gasp) spiritual needs. This, too, shows that we want to be part of the community.

People of the Cloth

We talk about the “social fabric,” and it’s an apt metaphor when it comes to needing and being needed. They’re the warp and woof of community. For many, it’s easier to ask “Are you OK?” than to cry out “Help!” but we must be vulnerable enough to say both, to be able to allow someone to voice what’s wrong before we offer a solution and to be able to acknowledge our reliance on those around us.

Take a look at the tapestry that surrounds you. Do you see yourself as a seamstress or tailor, mending the neighborhood according to a pattern of your own making? Or are you, yourself, a part of the fabric, a thread woven in by the skilled hand of the one who knits hearts together and makes all things new?

It may just be that we need to expand our vocabulary.

[photos: “helping-hand,” by Faith @101, used under a Creative Commons license; “Connections,” by scrappy annie, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Language Learning Mother

I moved to Africa with two-and-a-half year old twins. One of the first things people ask me about that year is how I learned language, because I did. And I don’t feel like I abandoned my kids or neglected my husband in order to do it.

I’m focusing on the Mother here because I typically hear from moms. I don’t hear many dads wonder how they can learn the language while breastfeeding or potty training. A father has never asked for tips on getting through a language lesson while in the throes of morning sickness. I know dads have their own struggles to learn, my husband spent the early years working way over full-time as an English professor. I also know single men and women work loads of hours and lots of moms do too. But, all those caveats aside, here I’m writing to moms, especially moms with young children. Here’s what you do:

  1. Hire help
  2. Talk with your husband
  3. Use your kids
  4. Trust grace

language learning mother

On help: Pay people. Give them jobs, give yourself a break. If you want to learn the language, you’re going to have to put in the time and if you have little kids and need to cook meals from scratch or sweep up the dust several times a day, you need someone to help. This is not a bad thing, it is more people to love your kids. After my youngest was born, I paid three women: house helper, nanny, and language tutor. They also ran errands or came with me to hold the baby while I shopped. They not only helped with the kids and home but provided relational outlets and cultural learning. Those are still precious relationships for our family and I wouldn’t change those years or the money spent for anything.

On husbands: For me to learn language and spend time with people, especially when the kids were young, meant that my husband had to also value that and help me do it. We had conversations about personal goals and family goals. We talked about lowering expectations. We ate peanut butter and jelly for dinner for years. We had a less than stellar clean house. We didn’t have a lot of decorations. It is valuable to have a home that feels welcoming and comfortable and families need to decide what the priority will be in those early years. It can not be: elegant home, delicious meals, no baby-sitters, and language fluency. Talk about it. Make decisions. Sacrifice for each other. If you and your husband want language learning to happen, you both have to make it happen.

On using your kids: Maybe a better way to put this would be ‘incorporate’ your kids, but either way, you’ve got little people who are cute and friendly and can break the ice. I used to sit outside our gate and when I saw a woman walking up the street, I’d order (ahem, ask) the kids to run up to her and say hello. Since they were little and a donkey cart could come run them over at any time, I would have to follow to keep them safe, and would find myself stumbling through an awkward but friendly conversation with a neighbor.

Above all, trust grace. Trust that the struggle to learn language and balance a healthy family life has value. We’re all a mess. We all wish we could have it all, we’ve all prayed for language ability that descends like it did in Acts 2. But then we would miss out on the humility, perseverance, joy, relationships, and marital conflict resolution skills that come hand in hand with language learning. So press on, moms with young children. Press on, warriors.

Moms, how did you learn the language?

Dads, what have you done to help your wife learn?

Other more general language learning tips?

When All You Can Say is “Sí! Sí! Sí!”

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

Barcelona

“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/

Language Learning Methods – Whatever It Takes

There are all kinds of language learning methods. LAMP (Language Acquisition Made Practical), GPA (Growing Participator Approach), community education classes, hiring tutors. Some methods require people to only listen for a set period of time, no speaking allowed. Some require classroom study. Some prohibit grammar study. My personal favorite is one called: Whatever It Takes in which you do every possible thing to learn a language.

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To learn Somali I started with a book called Colloquial Somali which came with cassette tapes (yup, I said cassette tapes). I tried to study while living in Minneapolis, in preparation, and there are almost 100,000 Somalis there so it was possible in theory. In practice, I landed in Somalia with about ten useable words. In order to learn a difficult language, I really had to be there. (Later when I emailed the author to thank him for the book, he apologized for all the mistakes, oh well).

Once we landed, in order to learn Somali, I drove my house helper nuts by following her everywhere, pointing, grunting, and writing things down in a miniature black notebook. I also sat on the steps and watched my kids play in the yard and played grunt-and-point with our guard, and wrote things down in my notebook.

After we evacuated and landed in Nairobi, Kenya for a few months, I took an actual language class. The class was taught by a German who spoke thickly accented Somali and we were each assigned Somali tutors. The grunts and points started to meld into actual sentences.

Later, in Djibouti, I hired my first official language helper, several actually, and for quite a few years, it felt like the only people I spent time with, the only people I called friends, were people I paid. We worked through vocabulary, grammar, stories. I recorded our conversations and we listened to them together to be sure I understood it all, they would correct my mistakes. We translated things like The Three Bears or Dheg Dheer (the Somali cannibal woman with a big ear who eats children). I wrote my own stories in Somali and my tutors edited. I listened to the radio, watched the news, read online articles.

Then, my kids started attending a French school. And voila, I had to start learning French.

To do this I bought the Rosetta Stone program, used old textbooks, watched Dora the Explorer and Teletubbies and literally repeated lines from these cartoons, word for word. To kick neighborhood children out, I pulled a line from the Teletubbies: C’est l’heure de dire au revoir, c’est l’heure de dire au revoir. I think they thought I was crazy but they left. I did my first graders’ homework. I did aerobics in French. Eventually I started reading Harry Potter books. I took classes at the Alliance Francaise. We spent six weeks in France at language school.

The Whatever It Takes method included making a fool out of myself, playing like a toddler, getting in way over my head, studying like crazy, devoting hours and hours to language study when I would much rather have done something else, feeding my family terrible food because I was studying, spending money, crying, making friends, giving horribly humiliating speeches which were met with cheers (thank you, friends I paid), and more crying.

People ask if I am fluent and I’m not. I have a really high standard for fluency and don’t expect to ever attain to it. But I’m highly conversational about deep matters of the heart and about practical matters of life. So somehow, over years and with much hard work and great pain, I’ve learned a little bit. The Whatever It Takes method worked for me.

Here are a few keys, in my uneducated and experience-based opinion, to learning a language:

  1. Be with people
  2. Listen with intention
  3. Speak without pride or fear of mistakes
  4. Work hard
  5. Do what works for you
  6. Pile on the grace

How about you? What language learning methods have you used? Loved? Hated? What do you recommend?

Can I Speak Love in English?

Anyone who has spent a fraction of time living and making their home overseas knows what it’s like – the overwhelming, exhausting, inadequacy of language. The learning it, the using it, the not knowing enough of it. And that’s why I love this post by Shannon Malia Heil. Because she takes us to a different place and asks an important question: Can I Speak Love in English? You can read more about Shannon at the end of the post.

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The elevator door opens, and an elderly halmeoni (grandmother) brightens up to see me entering with my three small children. “Aigo!” she sings. “Ippeuda!” And I ready myself for the deluge of words that flood over me like drowning waters. Of course, they come, and I struggle to breathe.

My children look up at her wrinkled face and smile. They listen to her dote on them, let her touch their faces, respond to her invitation for hugs. They listen to her question me eagerly, and they see my blank stare and hear the nervous words that tumble out, surely with a laughable accent. “Mollayo. Shil-lae-hamnida.”

I don’t understand. Excuse me.

The elevator door opens–my escape. And we blow kisses to halmeoni as Mommy hustles the crew out and into the busy city of Seoul.

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“What did she say, Mommy?” Such innocence. My preschoolers still think their mom knows everything.

In truth, my cheeks are flushed with shame. How can I live here and not speak the language? What must the locals think of this foreigner who chooses their city but not their tongue? What do people back home think of me when I shake my head to their comments: “Oh can you speak Korean?”

Then I stop walking as a thought emerges. My children stand at my feet and look up at my face, waiting.

I worry about what people think, but all I need to remember is being faithful with what God has given me. And a tug on my hand reminds me of those gifts.

You see, when we arrived in Seoul, I carried one crawling infant and one growing inside me. Two pain-encouraged births later, I found myself overwhelmed with mothering three at home in a foreign country. Despite the efforts of tutoring and personal study, I could not grasp more of the language than its basics needed for grocery shopping and trivial conversation. It wasn’t just time; I needed sanity. It’s hard to learn a new language when you can barely finish a sentence in your own.

So I had to let it go. Unlike other overseas workers who must speak in the native tongue to socialize or to function in society, almost everyone with whom we interact speaks English. Our service here is primarily to the international community.

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But the guilt clung to my shoulders, slumping them. You can’t speak Korean! it hissed at me, as if that was the test I needed to pass before being deemed cross-cultural or even Christian. You can’t love Koreans if you can’t speak to them! Wait a second. Is that true?

Didn’t my children love that woman in the elevator?

Doesn’t the man at the chun-won store smile every time he sees my family, even passing on the street?

Don’t the cooks at our favorite kimbap place speak with me in a hilarious blend of English and Korean–all of us laughing and apologizing and bowing and…loving?

Can’t I speak love in English?

“Mommy, let’s go!” my four-year-old urges, with a hand tug to emphasize each word. I look down at him and my heart fills. It fills with emotion–with love, with appreciation, with grace–it fills with beautiful things that words cannot contain.

And I feel okay with it all. Maybe my weak motives for learning Korean would have resulted in a prideful heart. Maybe I would have seen myself as the ultimate missionary or the model expat. Maybe God gave me this season of love without words to see–really see–this country, these people, and especially the little ones holding my hands and strapped to my back. Maybe it was by His grace that I was kept from the language.

In His season, I will learn it. But for now, I will speak love in English:

with smiles,

with gestures,

with service,

with openness,

but most of all . . . with humility.

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………………..

Have you allowed your own insecurities to come between you and the people you should love?

How has God merged you into the culture in which you live–and reflecting on that, how was that His best for your acclimation?

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Malia lives in Seoul but her home is with her husband and three children–traveling to and from places and in and out of books. Blending the cultures of her life, she dances hula, eats pancit, says “yalla,” and bows her thanks. She writes more about family, faith, and culture on her blog At Home Abroad.

 

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The Aim of Language Learning

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