The Language Learning Mother

by Rachel Pieh Jones on March 16, 2016

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?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.

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