In part 1, we went through some mistakes missionaries often make with language learning. Now let’s look at the missionaries who succeed and how to imitate them. If you’re not a missionary yourself but are, say, a missions pastor or support staff, you can use these suggestions to help your missionaries before they leave and once they’re overseas.
1. Missionaries who succeed plan and prepare well before they go.
Planning and preparation are crucial. A lot of missionaries and pastors aren’t even aware of things like pre-field language acquisition training, where you learn how to learn a language as an adult. There are also pre-field language assessments you can take to help know yourself as a learner. And there are culture courses that help you learn how to adjust to living somewhere new.
It’s important for missionaries to clarify language expectations with both their supervisor and their teammates already on the field. What language learning options are available? How much time is set aside for language and culture learning? What else will be on their plate?
Missionaries who do well also do their own research on the language and culture they’re going into. They find people who have lived there—both locals and foreigners—and ask them questions about their experiences. If they are talking to locals now living in the US, it can be insightful to ask questions like, “What stuck out to you when they came to the US?” “What has been hard to adjust to?” “What’s been a fun change?”
With other foreigners who have lived in your new host country, it’s as simple as asking what they’ve found challenging and enjoyable about the language and culture. Maybe so many people speak English that it’s hard to feel the need to learn the local language. Maybe it’s been hard to adjust to local foods or the absence of certain products. Maybe so few people speak English that it’s challenging at first, but it forces you to learn the language quicker.
One common challenge is adapting to communal living, especially for Americans or others who come from an individualistic culture. When I was in Russia, I noticed that when someone bought a candy bar, they were expected to offer a piece to everyone in the group. There was freedom to decline, but there was a cultural expectation that it would be offered. I liked it when they offered me some, but it irritated me when I was expected to do the same. Every. Time.
I also found it irritating that we were expected to do everything in groups when we went on vacation together. I remember one day when I just wanted to mail a postcard—on my own, when I wanted to—and I got so frustrated that I was expected to give up my desires so that we could decide on a plan as a group, a plan that may or may not have included my trip to the post office.
Learning to adjust expectations early can help the missionary not be caught off guard or get overwhelmed when they happen.
Most of these challenges are not immediately solvable, but learning to adjust expectations early can help the missionary not be caught off guard or get overwhelmed when they happen. Learning about one’s host culture ahead of time can have the double effect of building excitement before going and helping reduce stress later when cultural differences arise.
2. Missionaries who succeed have skills and strategies for learning language once they’re on the field.
Most missionary learners I talk to are used to either cramming for tests or learning the material just long enough to check it off and move on. Now that they’re overseas, they have to work hard to change that mindset toward learning. Language learning is not about checking a box; it’s about growing in knowledge that you will then be able to put into practice. This new mindset needs a new set of attitudes, skills, and strategies. Here are some examples:
Learn a little, use it a lot. Learn a little more, use it a lot. A head full of things that you kind of know but can’t or don’t use is not helpful.
The first person to 1,000 mistakes wins. We’re playing a different type of game. You win by going out and trying and by being willing to make mistakes and learn from them.
Learn how to run the learning cycle G.L.U.E. - Get language, Learn what you got, Use what you learned, Evaluate.
Work with a language coach. This person is not going to teach you the language, but they will teach you how to learn a language as an adult. They can give you specific skills and strategies for listening, speaking, grammar, vocab, fluency, etc., and they can help you maintain motivation when it gets hard.
Language learning is not about checking a box; it’s about growing in knowledge that you will then be able to put into practice.
3. Missionaries who succeed recognize they’re starting a marathon, not a sprint.
Those who persevere in language learning know it’s better to go slow at the beginning and invest time and energy in language learning. It’s always easier to reduce time spent on language than to increase it. Once rhythms are established, it’s hard to back off things like work or ministry to spend more time on language, especially if you’ve learned to survive with just the minimum.
Learners find ways to work through challenges and maintain motivation. They focus on the positive and what they can change. They work with a coach. They go out and explore new parts of the culture. Maybe they try learning a local instrument or join a club. They reflect and evaluate, making changes where they can. They know it will take time, but they put one foot in front of the other and keep going.
Whether you’re a missionary preparing to go overseas, someone already overseas, a missions pastor, or support staff, there’s always room for learning and making changes.
Learners find ways to work through challenges and maintain motivation. They focus on the positive and what they can change.
If you’re a missions pastor or support staff, I would encourage you to help your missionaries prepare well to enter into and learn a new language and culture by going over some of the above suggestions with them. If they’re already overseas, ask good questions to support their learning.
If you’re a missionary preparing to go overseas, slow down and take the time to prepare well. If you’re already serving overseas and feeling overwhelmed, reach out for help. And if you’re overseas and feeling well supported, look around you and see who might need a little more help and encouragement.
We’re in this together.
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.