women, girls, talking


This post is our introduction to a series on language learning. Whether you’re learning now or planning ahead, we hope you’ll find these helpful on your journey. Senders and supporters… this series is for you, too! May it give you insight into the topic of language learning and enable to you to better guide, encourage and pray. I’m no expert, but I’ve found some helpful resources along the way and look forward to sharing them with you. Enjoy!  – Grace 

Imagine you open a conference room door for the first time.

Inside is a large group of people gathered around a table. A meeting is in full swing, conversation flying back and forth between those gathered. Not just one, but several conversations, as people whisper an aside to each other, pausing occasionally to interject something into the main conversation. It’s evident these people know each other well. That there is a wealth of shared history that undercurrents the discussion.

Meanwhile you stand in the doorway in total confusion, not understanding a single word. Did I get the wrong room? I think I’m meant to be here, but joining this meeting looks impossible… You take a tentative step forward and let the door close behind you.

At the sound, someone from the group looks up and smiles “Ah, welcome!” and beckons you over. She pulls an extra chair next to hers, just outside the inner ring of the table. Relieved, you approach and slide into your seat. There are a few polite acknowledgments of your arrival – a smile, a wave – but for the most part the chaos continues.

Your hostess points to the person at the head of the table, then to the agenda in her hand. You pick up on a few keywords, and start to get a sense of what’s happening. With time you begin to laugh and nod at the right points. “Ah, yes” and point to agree with someone who has spoken. Those around you gradually direct their conversation to you, slowing down and gesturing to help you understand. Your hostess continues as your guide, clarifying things in asides to you, making openings in the conversation so you can join in.

Slowly you grow in boldness and start to initiate new ideas, even change the direction of the conversation, just as others do. Over time you begin to be seen as one of the group – though perhaps its quirkiest member. Now you have a full seat at the table. Part of the conversation. Sharing a growing history together.

When we talk about language learning it’s important to start from the big picture.

Most language learners – myself included! – would rather jump straight into the tools of the trade.

  • Which method do you use to learn a new language?
  • What does it really take to achieve fluency?
  • What should my expectations be?
  • Know any hacks to speed up my learning?

The truth is that if you’re willing to spend several hours on the internet, you’ll be able to find some answers to these questions. But before we go charging off to apply a new technique, it’s important to fix our eyes on the horizon. Where are we headed? Clarifying the end goal helps us know which roads will get us there.

Language learning is a microcosm of the struggle to contextualize.

It’s a metaphor for our approach to entering a new culture. See, the image many local people perceived from foreigners over the centuries, particularly Western foreigners, was not often that of a learner. The message was more like this:

“Learn English so you can read our book! Come to our meeting! Take on our habits! Come be like me so you can follow Jesus.”

It’s why 21-year-old Hudson Taylor’s decision simply to wear local Chinese clothing was such a shock to the system in 1853. We are British! We go to serve and teach and lead and give. Now you’re “going native,” Hudson?

Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor

(I highly recommend Lex Loizides’ blog Church History Review for more on Hudson Taylor, including this powerful story.)

Lest we shake our heads at that imperialist thinking as product of a bygone era, we should take a careful look at our current setting.

This paradigm of entering a new conversation also applies if you’re thinking of starting a church ministry to a subculture in your own home city. What is your approach when you start a new outreach? a new community service? How much listening and learning do you do before the helping begins?

The interview with Bryan Mowrey on racial tensions in Ferguson, USAillustrated the importance of listening so well:

“The biggest change in [our church] is recognizing the need to listen. It has helped us with evangelism. That before trying to rush into a new community, especially one resistant to outsiders, we really need to try to understand and hear them first. Listen and understand. Then try to present the gospel’s answers.”

In his post on cross-cultural evangelism AM emphasized that you can’t give answers until you know the questions. “Sharing the gospel is a dialogue, not a monologue.”

When we talk about language learning as a way to immerse in a new culture, we’re talking about becoming part of a new conversation.

You’re entering a new-to-you group that had history together long before you arrived, and will carry on after you leave. It’s what Greg Thomson describes as a “languacultural world.” This mentality is why Thomson named his language learning approach the “Growing Participator Approach” (GPA), to emphasize that language is a new life to be lived, rather than information to be acquired. [Note: I highly recommend GPA for learning language. Stay tuned for more on that and other methods in an upcoming post in this series.]

Unfortunately for many of us, our only experience of language learning was in a classroom setting. Language was a subject to learn, just like spelling or chemistry. You learned concepts, looked for patterns, memorized, and tried to retain it well enough to do well on the test. Some of us did well in that context. Others of us failed miserably. Many of us struggle to remember anything at all from those years in the classroom! Not much of the traditional classroom model prepares us for immersive learning in a new culture.

Our story

When my husband and I first decided to move overseas one of our main questions was how we could learn a new language. I wished for a research-based book that laid out all my options. Instead I was cast in the role of detective, picking up tips and people’s throw-away comments, reading short bits here and there, trying to work backward to understand the bigger picture. And I’ve found that many other language learners’ experience is similarly cloudy. You know “language learning is important”, but the path ahead is often murky.

While the road to learning was murky, the obstacles seemed clear! We had a toddler already and another baby on the way. We knew that language learning meant spending money, and we weren’t sure how long our savings would last. My husband recalled his frustrating years trying to learn French as a teenager and despaired. I – ever the optimist – had visions of working hard and discovering I had some innate talent. Maybe other mums with young kids struggled, but I was going to be different. I was going to be awesome! I was hoping immersion was the key. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we were both wrong. The truth was somewhere in the middle.

It turns out learning a new language is possible for most people. Even people with little kids. Even people who were “bad at language” in school. In his book Lambs Dancing with Wolves, Michael Griffiths writes:

“Readers may classify themselves as linguistic hares or plodding tortoises, but language learning is a field in which the plodder will always arrive successfully. I have known only one couple who totally failed to learn an Asian language (out of 2,000 whom I knew over 20 years with OMF)” (p 31).

It also turns out that very few learners make mental leaps without logging hours upon hours of hard work. Immersion can get you to the “buy fruit and vegetables” level, but it takes more than just hanging around to learn to say what you mean and understand what you hear.

Now at the 5 year mark, we have both done well in language – though we still have language goals we’re pursuing. We can spend an enjoyable evening with friends, communicate in pressured situations, and worship from the heart in our new language. True to personality type, my husband has to work to maintain confidence about his abilities, while I have to fight the temptation to just “wing it” and hope for the best. We’ve helped each other meet somewhere in the middle and keep plodding forward. No shortcuts.

Now imagine that same conference room scenario above, but this time instead of slowly becoming a member of the group, what if you stood in the doorway and shouted out a memorized speech?

Time is short. The message is urgent. Surely a message this important should be shared as quickly as possible! So you shout across the room. And people hear you and look up. Do they welcome the interruption?

Maybe you push your way into the room, distribute flyers to everyone with your written sales pitch. Someone approaches you and asks what you’re doing, but you don’t have the language skills to reply. Perhaps (best case scenario) the group listens politely for a moment to your shouted, memorized speech, and maybe they even thank you for the informative flyers. Then you head out the door, the meeting’s hubbub commences again, and your proclamations fade from memory – to be remembered in passing as a humorous anecdote over lunch.

Unfortunately, many cross-cultural encounters follow this “shouting” model. Time is short. The Message is urgent. The slow encounter model takes time, humility, and a long-term vision. But the truth is this: If we want to build something of significance across cultures, the slow road is the way forward.

Language is not a subject to be mastered. (How many of us would claim to have complete mastery of even our native language?) It’s not simply gathering clues to solve a puzzle, or getting enough grammatical structure in place to build perfect sentences.

At its core, language is about communicating.

But even communication is merely the vehicle for something greater.

  • On the job, communication is about being able to work toward shared goals.
  • In friendship, it functions to build relationships between people.
  • Ultimately, for the Christian believer, good communication is key to sharing the news of Jesus – the greatest story ever told. Our hope when we share Jesus is not that someone will say, “Wow, your grammar is amazing!” but “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked?” (Luke 24:32).

This is why it really doesn’t matter if the student next to you in language class can parse verbs in his sleep. Or if another friend has a stack of vocab cards stretching to heaven. Or even if you can score 100% on your next language test (although I’m sending you a high-five across the internet if you do!).

Are you growing in communication? Are you making steps forward, listening well as you enter your new languacultural world?

Literary theorist Kenneth Burke famously said “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.”

Photo Credit: Rakesh JV via Compfight cc Modified by ToWinSome

Photo Credit: Rakesh JV via Compfight cc Modified by ToWinSome

According to Burke, the primary aim of rhetoric is not to win an argument but to make a connection. After all, many argumentative styles do more to entrench people in their own positions than to actually persuade! A truly persuasive encounter is less like a duel, more like a courtship. It’s why indirect speech can be so helpful in many cultures.

When you think about your language journey, here are some questions to ask to evaluate your progress:

  • How well am I joining the circle?
  • Am I listening well?
  • What percent am I really understanding people?
  • How well do they understand me?
  • How am I viewed by the other people in the conversation?

It was asking myself questions like these last year that prompted me to push ahead again in language study after a break. More time. More money. But also so many more benefits. There’s a path to becoming an insider – to entering a new culture, and being accepted into a new world. It’s the hard work of listening and learning, of “identifying your ways with theirs.”

Understanding these issues will shape how we send and support people.

It changes our expectations of how the first years will look and gives us ways to support and pray. We can extend grace and take the performance pressure off. At the same time, we can prepare people to work hard in the right ways.

Church leaders, when someone comes to you wanting to head overseas, what are that person’s expectations?

Are they hoping to take an evening language class once a week and start preaching in the native language a year later? (Without a miracle, that won’t happen!) Have they got a great idea for a new cross-cultural church plant or business, but haven’t done much research or made local connections? These are opportunities to adjust expectations but also encourage the next steps.

Perhaps that person should take a trip expressly to try to make connections, to get a feel of the task ahead and what might be welcomed by the people already there. Maybe you need to discuss together how to raise a significant amount of money for language learning – not just for the classes, but to pay the bills while you’re giving up work hours for learning hours.

Conversely, what do you do when you Skype with someone on the ground who is very discouraged about the slow pace of progress?

How can you encourage them based on this paradigm? Maybe in that season learning is coming slowly, but the worker there is doing everything she can. Encourage her to hang in there – to stay in a learning posture and keep putting one vocab word in front of another. If she puts in the time, she will get there!

If you regularly pray for people who have moved across cultures, pray prayers of blessing over their learning time.

Ask God for humility and perseverance for the language learner. Ask that God gives him or her mentors, local people who can act as hosts and help include them in the cultural conversation. Pray that God keeps providing for their financial needs so they can improve in language. Don’t underestimate the power of godly advice and faithful prayers!

As believers living cross-culturally, our motivation to learn language comes from wanting to be like Jesus.

He laid down his heavenly throne, was born into the world he made, and took on the nature of a servant (Phil. 2). His example was what Paul imitated, saying “I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible… I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:19, 23).

We want people to experience Christ’s riches at our expense.

Yes Jesus, I will choose to work hard so my dear friends can receive your life freely.

The hope is that one day we’re seated at the table, engaged in discussion with friends and colleagues, and we get to present a new agenda item. Jesus becomes the topic of conversation. And the lively conversation continues long after we leave.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts in our language learning series. Yes, we will get practical also! And if you have any questions on language or issues you think we should address, please leave a comment or connect on Twitter: @ToWinSome. Click here for the next article: “3 truths and a lie: What it really takes to be fluent.”

Grace Henry

Grace moved to the Middle East on a God-adventure with her husband and 2 kids in 2010, and is accumulating a long list of stories to tell her grandkids one day, where God is the hero. Twitter: @bygracehenry