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How to Hit the Ground Running in Language Learning, Part 1

Many missionaries start out motivated to learn and engage in the new language and culture around them. Unfortunately, those aspirations can quickly be cut short by three common things:


1. Missionaries arrive overseas with unrealistic assumptions and expectations.

Most missionaries have unrealistic expectations about what becoming a language learner will be like. They don’t realize or fully process the fact that it takes hours of intentional time every day spent on learning, studying, and going out to use their new language to reach their learning goals. They assume that because they are immersed, they will just learn, but the reality is, it doesn’t work that way.

As the ability to use the language increases, so will the expectation that the person is going to use it appropriately.

Those going to language school may assume the school will teach them everything they need to know. Unfortunately, even the best schools can’t prepare someone for everything. One commonly overlooked topic is sociolinguistics, or how to do things appropriately in a new language. Someone may learn the correct words for a greeting, but if they’re not delivered appropriately (with the proper bow or shake or glance), it can be interpreted as offensive or disrespectful. As the ability to use the language increases, so will the expectation that the person is going to use it appropriately.


2. Missionaries haven’t spent time preparing to be learners.

Most missionaries don’t have a plan for language learning. They may value it and want to learn, but they often fail to answer some important questions. For example: What do they want to be able to do with their new language? How will they get to that level? What aspects of the language do native English speakers find the most difficult? How have others worked through those challenges?


Additionally, they often don’t have clear strategies in place for learning vocabulary and grammar or practicing listening and speaking. They don’t know how to organize their learning—the process, their materials, their resources, or their studying. They don’t know how to find resources, and they don’t know how to find people to help.


3. Missionaries don’t take care of their health.

Most missionaries don’t get enough rest. They forget that it’s common to need one-to-two extra hours of sleep a night during their first year overseas! And they have unrealistic expectations for how hard they can push themselves.

When expectations aren’t met, when learning gets challenging, and when the body and mind aren’t healthy, it is hard to maintain the motivation needed to persevere in learning a new language.

They also don’t think about their diet. They live off whatever is fast and easy, like muffins from 7-Eleven and iced lattes from the vendor outside their apartment, instead of what will really fuel their bodies, like protein, fruits, and vegetables. If they’re in a warmer climate, they often don’t drink enough water, which can cause fatigue. And they forget to move their bodies. Exercise not only helps us have more energy, but it also helps relieve stress and helps us sleep better at night.


When expectations aren’t met, when learning gets challenging, and when the body and mind aren’t healthy, it is hard to maintain the motivation needed to persevere in learning a new language.


So, what can you as a missions pastor do to help them?


1. Talk with your people and help them process their expectations.

Before going, they probably weren’t even aware of their expectations. Now that they’re on the field, their frustrations, disappointments, and exhaustion can be good indicators of expectations that aren’t being met. Some questions you can ask include:

  • How much time are they spending on language, and what are the results?

  • What is their learning environment like, and how is it helping or hindering their learning?

  • What steps do they need to take to get more opportunities to learn, study, or go out and use the language?


2. Help them see themselves as learners, and help them think through ways they can prepare for or settle into that role.

For many missionaries, the last time they were in school was years ago, and it may or may not have been a positive experience. For those coming right out of school, being a learner may not be something they’re excited about immediately continuing. It’s important to process those experiences with them, but then also ask:

  • Do they understand why learning language matters for kingdom impact?

  • How have they spent time learning about their new language and culture?

  • What do they hope to be able to do with their new language? How will they get there?

  • Who can help them (in the US and in the new country)?

  • What second-language acquisition courses are available?

  • What resources have they discovered, or how are they going about discovering new resources?

  • How are their personal organization and planning skills? How can you help them develop these before they go or once they’re overseas?


3. Don’t put too many additional expectations on them.

Their priorities once they arrive are to take care of themselves (and their family if they have one) and begin to learn and go out and engage in the language and culture. Lots of ministry, extra meetings, speaking engagements, travel, conferences, other course work–those things can and should wait. Adjusting to a new culture and language is enough. Encourage them to discover what is truly restful and to sabbath well. Especially at the beginning, ask them questions that encourage them to prioritize language, culture, and wellness instead of questions like, “How many people have put their faith in Jesus this week?” Ask what they learned about the language and culture that week and how they used that information.


If missionaries get started well, they will be set up for long-term success as healthy beings who are comfortable in their new place in the world and can engage well with local people in the local language and culture.


Thanks for joining us for part 1 of this topic. In part 2, we’ll talk about the things missionaries do well with language and culture learning and how to imitate them.

 

Andrea W. is the Language & Culture Director for the missions organization Campus 2 Campus and works for Cornerstone Church helping send missionaries overseas. She is also the co-founder of Acquire: Language Acquisition Training & Coaching. Andrea has lived and served overseas in multiple locations. She is passionate about equipping and supporting missionaries as they grow in their ability to effectively communicate in a new language and within a new culture.


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