Monday, February 6, 2012

what did you say?!

Did you ever speak "pig latin" as a kid?  You know, the "language game" where you take the first letter away from a word, add it to the end of the word and say "ay" with it.  (For example, my name would become "olene-Jay.")  I played this with my friends and cousins as a kid, and it made me feel smart... like I really knew another language.  It sounded so foreign and was just silly, childish fun!

Fast-forward to the adult years and sitting in language school.  Let me tell ya, the process of learning a language is not that simple!  In fact, the teachers in our language school did not even speak English.  (Unless you want to count the word "adjective," that they mispronounced.)

So, how do you go about learning a foreign language when you can not even understand your teacher?  From experience, I can tell you that it is complicated!

As a continuation of this series The Missionary Wife's Perspective, I want to list some things I have thought, observed, and taken note of in the last ten years on this topic.  These thoughts are not words of wisdom, by any means.  They are just a recording of a missionary wife's perspective on surviving learning a new language.
1.  How many of our supporters and prayer partners give much thought to the need of the missionary to learn a language?  If you silently agreed with me that you are in that category, I can assure you that I was there at one time too.  When I thought of becoming a missionary, I thought that language learning would go a lot like this:

Bible college?  Check.
Deputation?  Check.
Airline tickets? Check.
Learn the language?  Check.

It wasn't until I was "in the trenches" that I realized how many missionaries get stuck on that last point.  A surprising number of missionaries never do really learn the language of their people.  This point alone is such a source of discouragement, that many have packed up their bags and gone home, feeling like failures for never truly adapting to their field.  So heartbreaking!

2.  To me it seems that the missionary's wife usually faces the biggest discouragement in the area of language learning.  This is especially true if she has little ones at home to care for, or if she is homeschooling.  While her husband is out mingling with the people, she is home and unable to see much progress in her own language development.

3.  For us, we feel it is better to learn a language from someone who does not know your native language.  Now, I could have really argued this case with you years ago whenever I truly thought our teachers needed to know English in order to explain themselves to me.  However, I have since come to see the benefit of being forced to understand them.

4.  Spend your first year on the field dedicated full-time to language learning.  Don't jump with two feet first into the ministry that first year (just "one foot" is sufficient in the beginning).  The results will be so much better in the long run.  We were advised to do this and are so grateful!

5.  I remember our first few weeks in Ukraine, sitting in a park, observing people speak Russian.  We just could not believe how beautiful the girls were... until they opened their mouths and started speaking.  Russian sounded gutteral and harsh to us back then.  Obviously, we don't think that anymore now that we speak it.  I remember wondering how difficult it must be for mothers to comfort their babies with such rough words.  And how did boyfriends propose to their girlfriends with gentleness?!  [On the other hand, ask a foreigner what they think English sounds like, and you just might be amused to hear their answer!]

6.  What is the hardest language in the world to learn?  The one you are studying, of course!  I checked with Wikipedia, and their experts claim these languages to be the hardest to learn:  Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean.  I'm pretty sure that Russian was supposed to make that list!

7.  Any missionary can tell you that, over time, we seem to forget some of our own native tongue.  Not only do I find myself grasping for the right word in Russian, but when I visit "back home," I find myself drawing a blank when I'm looking for the right word in English!  Apparently our brain storage for language capacity can only hold so many file folders per language!

8.  Learning a new language can be very humbling.  Here you are an adult, trying to speak, and you can almost feel someone reach out and pat your head with a sympathetic "good girl, at least you are trying" touch.  Just like a baby, you are starting at the bottom, and unfortunately, for even the smartest students (which is not me!), there is the "toddler stage" that we all have to go through.  Stringing three or four words together and hoping with all of your heart that they formed an intelligent thought is completely normal!

9.  You will never speak with your family the same way.  Your words and sentences will always be sprinkled with "flavors" from both languages.  How much richer your vocabulary becomes when you have more than one "language dictionary" to choose from!

9.  There is a light at the end of the tunnel.  For every new word you learn or for every grammatical ending you learn to say correctly, you are that much better because of it.  So, little mama who is at home with her little ones most of the day, baby steps are steps.  Don't give up!  Nearly 10 years into this journey, I am still learning.  Like learning to play the piano, it is a long process and we all have different rates at which we learn.

10.  Being that "little mama" at home, I learned to face the fact that my home situation was not going to change.  I am going to be needed at home for many, many years; therefore, language school was only an option for me for a short while.  But, I learned to overcome this setback in a different way.  I hired a young lady to come to my home (one who did not know English) and work in the house with me and talk to me as we worked.  (The key here is that she is not a maid, but rather someone to work and fellowship with.  Busy mamas do not have time to "just" sit and study, but this method is so much more effective anyway.)  "This is a broom and right now we are sweeping the floor."  "This dough needs to rise for 30 minutes."  These are the types of conversations that have taught me to speak Russian.

11.  Some of the very dearest friendships I have in this world are with those who do not speak English.  All of our conversations take place completely in Russian.  And my life is so.much.richer because of these friendships.  Was it worth those long, frustrating hours of learning?  Oh, you better betcha!

12.  When I am "back home," I now have my own secret language.  No more childish pig latin for me.... I can speak a real, foreign language!  And, best yet, I can share the Gospel in another language!

So, prayer partner, pray fervently for your missionaries who are learning a foreign language.  And missionaries, don't get discouraged, even if your language was not on Wikipedia's list either.  {smile}

You can do it!


  1. Thanks! I needed that! I am struggling with this.

  2. Oh, Jolene! How I wish someone had told me these things before we went to the field! I won't go into details, but our language acquisition has been such an uphill battle - maybe all missionaries feel like that, though?!? Thanks for the reminder to keep working at it, and thanks, too, for encouraging us to pray for each other!

  3. I really enjoy your blog posts!

  4. This is so me, and I don't have little ones at home, but I do homeschool. I can understand them when they talk to me but I just can't seem to get my thoughts out in Russian. And sometimes since I also know Spanish I really get confused. But I am still working on learning and Jeff keeps encouraging me talk more at church. So I will be praying for you and please Pray for me. :)

  5. What an incredible post!

    We were not missionaries but military sent to Germany. Now I must have been so young not too worry, because I pleaded with my husband to request we were permitted to live off base. You see I thought if I am in another country why should I live like I already know?

    We began our journey living on the economy~as it is called when one does not live on base. I too was a young mother with one wee one and pregnant. As you may know, that was a conversation starter, as most Germans have one child.

    I changed my life patterns and mirrored what my neighbors did. They shopped daily for fresh produce, so then I did too. I began to walk the neighborhood, sit on the benches, and chat(well both in our own languages)with others. I loved every moment. I was at the advantage instead of my husband because I was able to mingle amongst the people, whereas my husband was with his military unit.

    By my third child, I petitioned to have my baby in the local small German hospital instead of in the large American base hospital. Many of our friends were shocked, but I had fallen in love with everything about my temporary home.

    My care was in German which truly helped me pick up even more of the language.

    I love that I was fortunate enough to have lived in Germany and that we were able to travel about Europe. My world and my views are far different because of this.

    As you have shared, the language is picked up in the field by both not knowing the language and slowly teaching the other. I shared my customs, cultural differences and then we realized how much we were the same even though the languages weren't. Now the root of English/German was easier than you have had to learn, but I am certain you have discovered these things as well.

    For my boys, they had no idea that they were speaking in English and German in the same sentence until we returned stateside and people took note.

    Ironically my in laws are from Mexico and they LOVED hearing the multi linguistic grandsons!

    You can count on prayers from me. I am delighted in your sweet precious family and love how willing you are to serve.


  6. Exactly!! We've been in languages school 4 weeks now and I totally understand the baby stage! If I can say 3 words together and get it right, I'm happy! Just the other day I tried to introduce my husband but used a wrong word and called him a "thing". :) Thanks for your encouragement!!!

  7. Although we don't have a language to learn, it's still sometimes hard to understand an Australan speak their English version. They have different words for things too. I cannot imagine learning a new language, which we may have to down the road when we are able to work in the bush with the Aboriginals. I'm definitely praying for those learning a language!

  8. Great post! Thank you for the reminder to include "language learning" in our prayers for our Missionaries!
    I enjoy your blog so very much!

  9. Great points to remember! Another thing to remember is that you are going to make mistakes!

    When we arrived in Ukraine, our language skills in Russian were very basic. I remember us coaching our son to introduce himself to a boy at the playground. Instead of saying "My name is Luke," I think the way we said it sounded like, "I am an onion." The boy gave him an odd look and walked away.

  10. Jolene, We have been on the field about 18 months. I was only able to attend language school 9 weeks. I know I am probably doing well. I have been able to teach Sunday school and do ladies meetings, but somedays it just seems like I'm not understanding anything, then somedays its like I'm fluent. I know some of it has to do with how many other things I have on my mind and how much Spanish I have been speaking vs. English. I guess this is all normal. Has this been your experience too. BTW - Spanish is on the "easy" list.

  11. I learned to hear the language a long time before I got up the nerve to speak it, and I think for about six months people looked at me blankly while I spoke. I understand the isolated feeling when you just can't dive into the ministry like you want to, and your ministry at home hinders your natural desire to jump in and work. It's an important stage-humbling, yes, but that's not a bad thing. I still think it's a miracle when someone understands me in Spanish.

  12. Jolene, this is SO TRUE! Would you mind if I repost this on my blog? I'll link it back to yours.

  13. I would sure like to repost it on my blog too if you don't mind. I think Swahili is supposed to be on the easy list too. Not for me though!

    After a year and a half, I gave in to BJ's suggestions to hire a girl to help me around the house. The main reason was to have someone to talk to me in Swahili, but she has been a great blessing in helping me in other ways as well.

    What you said here was so true: A surprising number of missionaries never do really learn the language of their people. I've seen that here in Kenya because it is so easy to fall back on English here. Even though I get discouraged with my "baby talk" so often, the fact that BJ and I determined to speak Swahili and not English with the people has been the only thing that has kept us going in the language. You can't give up!

  14. Yes! After 10 years, I'm definitely still learning. However, I have really learned to LOVE the "great and mighty Russian language." :-) In heaven I'll speak it perfectly, without any accent.

    Somewhere I saw a chart that had Russian up near the top of hard languages. I wrote about it way back then, but now the link is gone. It was something like Chinese, Arabic, Russian in order of hard languages. I'm trying to find it again....

    Where did you go to language school? I've always wished I could have had a year or two to really focus on Russian. If I had another life to live, I'd go to university and major in Slavic languages. (Although, I love my life as it is, of course.)

  15. Well, my language IS on the HARD list! Korean, We've been here 6 years and still plugging away! I encourage myself by thinking I know more today than I did last month. Thanks for the post. I've really been praying lately about how to better learn while being a stay at home homeschooling Mom.

  16. So, SO true, friend! Language learning takes TIME!!! No matter what language--I am convinced our brains have to have time just to absorb it all before we can start spitting it back out.
    Oh, and our lang. doesn't make the list either, but it's def. enough of a challenge for me. ;)

    Thanks for sharing your insights!

  17. Yes, yes, yes to everything you said. I started taking music lessons right away, but it was a couple years before I could understand my teachers. I always felt like a little kid. I had good pronunciation, but my grammar was wrong all the time.

    While on furlough, it was really useful to be able to talk to each other in front of our American friends. "What is this person's name again?" My parents did that, too. "You kids better straighten up, or..." It was nice in college, too, to be able to talk to family without other people listening to the conversation.

    Love, Hannah

  18. A German girl married an American soldier, moved close to us and we became a good friend. Came time for them to move to Amarillo, near an Air Force base. We went to visit a German family nearby and my friend was was explaining this to the grandmother, who spoke no English. All of a sudden she turned to me and asked,"How do you say Air Force in German?" "Luftwaff," was my immediate reply. Later we both laughed -- that she had to ask, and that I knew the answer!

    When my son met his soon-to-be-wife, there was a language barrier -- she's deaf. Now, after a cochlear implant, she must learn language, as well as how to hear and speak it. Your encouragement goes beyond missions.

  19. number 4 and 10 were SO good...if I am ever a missionary someday, I will remember them! Great points--thank you!

  20. I forgot to say that I found #7 to be comforting. I was starting to think something is wrong with my brain. How can I be forgetting my native language?!? I guess it's normal. (An American came through here during the summer, and I couldn't even answer his question about how many children we have! I ended up showing him on my fingers, like a little child.)

  21. Wow --- that was very good, Ms. Jolene:)) My sister, Holly really wants to be a missionary one day and I'm gonna print this off for her b'cuz I know that it will be a very big encouragement to her one day;))) Thank you!! <3 God bless you:)))) You're a wonderful lady:))) <3

  22. Mrs. Sloan:
    This comment has NOTHING to do with this blog post, but we have been praying for Mrs. Campbell and her family as she goes through this battle with cancer. I was wondering if you have had an update on how she and her family are doing??

    In Christ,
    Veronica in Virginia, USA

  23. I found my info again. It was something like this:
    Russian isn't the second hardest language, but it's in the second group. That's still encouraging to me, even if it's encouraging in a weird, twisted way. :-)

  24. I agree that learning a language is much better (and for me it was even easier) when your teacher and NONE of your classmates speak English. I've done it both ways and I learned German much easier and faster than I did Spanish because uf that.

  25. I always enjoy reading your articles. I think of you often and pray for you all! Hope are paths can cross again sooner than later! Love ya!

  26. Another great blogpost! I always enjoy reading them!

  27. Great post! Thanks once again for sharing your heart... and the heart of us other missionary wives. ;)

  28. Thank you for sharing this Jolene, I never really thought about how hard it must be, I too would speak pig latin as a child and still do today my sister and I love to speak it, we even taught our children. I guess in our mind we thought we were smart because we were speaking something not everyone could do or understand lol!!!"

  29. I do not think we have ever met, but I was directed to this post from the blog of another missionary family I know. I am a missionary myself, I am about 6 weeks into my first term and about a month into French language school, and I'm starting to think French should be on that list! Why do they have so many exceptions to every rule?? LOL. Thankfully I am not starting right at the beginning, as I did a lot of study on my own before coming here, but I am far from fluent. I often feel frustrated trying to communicate with my French friends and participate in Bible study discussion times at church - it is hard to have a conversation on an adult level with a 6-year-old's vocabulary. Thank you for the reminder that communication difficulties will be lessened with time and diligence!

    1. Oh, Anna, I feel your pain! You keep up the great work, though. Each day brings a little step of progress, and eventually, all of those little steps add up to one big leap!

  30. What's the quickest way to find the next post in this series, without clicking one-by-one through your archive list?

    1. Here is the introduction:

      Part 1:

      And this is part two, where it ends. Sorry I never got farther in this series!


Thank you for your encouraging comments! "As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country." Proverbs 25:25