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. Because she takes us to a different place and asks an important question: Can I Speak Love in English? 


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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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.”


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