You CAN learn a language!

14 Oct 2020

An encouragement for people pondering cross-cultural ministry who doubt their ability to acquire a new language.

If you are someone whose heart has been gripped by the call to serve God to the ends of the earth, welcome! If you are someone who is invigorated by new experiences in order to share the light and truth of God’s love with others, welcome! If you feel like you are all these things, but a corner of your heart is holding back with reservation at the thought of having to learn another language, welcome! Grab a cuppa, sit down, and let’s have a chat.

Language and culture learning on the field is the predominant pastime of most first-term field workers. It is an exercise in humility, faith, perseverance, self-reflection and seeking the Lord in many moments of newly felt emotions. If you are apprehensive about this first, very necessary step to life on the field, let me be the one that (hopefully!) puts some of those anxieties at bay.

It would seem presumptuous of me to say, “Everyone can learn a language”, but I believe it to be true. Let me caveat this by saying it would be presumptuous to hold everyone to an unreachable, mastery of the language. There are a select few that have the natural ability to do it better or faster than others, but often lightning speed is not of the essence for field workers. There are others who find traditional methods of language learning unsuccessful, but there exists a myriad of alternatives. If you can function normally in your own language and culture, you have the ability to do so in another.  Furthermore, numerous Second Language Acquisition (SLA) studies over the past 50 years have failed to conclusively show any direct correlation between the age, aptitude, or ability of language learners and their ultimate level of success. In fact, when I hear someone say, “I can’t learn a language OR I don’t think _____ can learn that language”, it is a good indicator to examine some underlying assumptions. So, let’s take a look…

What are your expectations for learning a second language? If you are hoping for native speaker-like ability, you may be disappointed. But that doesn’t mean you cannot learn or gain ability to communicate in a second language. Perhaps you didn’t do so well when you learned a foreign language at school? Often the environment and content of formal classroom learning is not an accurate gauge for language learning ability. Furthermore, there are many dimensions of a language that are not addressed in the classroom that are very helpful for communication ability.  There are many alternative ways of learning a language that can be explored. In fact, if classroom leaning is your only mode of learning, you are missing out! Do you feel like you are too old? H. Douglas Brown asserts that “A fifty-year-old can be as successful as an eighteen-year-old if all other factors are equal”. Realistically, all other actors may not be equal, but the assertion still remains. Success for older learners requires tailoring and time. Though younger adults may possess cognitive sharpness, older adults have a better understanding of themselves and ways they can learn best. There are benefits to every stage in life. Moreover, age is only one of many learner variables.

Each language learner has a unique set of aptitudes – past experiences, learning style, attitudes toward language learning and personality strengths and weaknesses. It is a gift to have a good language aptitude, but it does not determine whether one is successful at being able to communicate. The way you have been fashioned by the Father is inherently beautiful. Understanding how you are wired, identifying your soft spots and the places you excel are so important when crafting your language plan. “In order to make the most of the aptitude we do have, we need to learn to identify our strengths and weaknesses and develop the strengths while compensating for the weaknesses” (Broersma 2000). You can learn a language! Lastly, according to numerous studies, the determining factor for most successful language learners is motivation, and ours is a heavenly, transcendent, joyful motivation that can work toward a gospel fluency with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author, and perfector of our faith. With realistic, reachable goals, a good understanding of yourself, your learning style and attitudes, a Godward motivation, and the encouragement of team mates and leaders to help you reframe your learner situation, you will be on your way in no time!

-Kimberley Chan Forney, Language Coach and Consultant (North Central Europe)

Is God calling you to join the mission field? Get in touch.

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