Steps to Becoming a Missionary: Learning the Language by Patrick Henry
This week we have a special guest post from my friend Patrick Henry. He and his family have been in Argentina working on the language and just recently started a church! To find out more information about him, his family and their ministry visit www.advancethegospel.net.
Steps to becoming a missionary: Learning the language by Patrick Henry
We arrived in Argentina on March 26, 2017. I remember the ride from the airport to the apartment we would be staying in. It was over an hour drive with a man I barely knew who only spoke Spanish. I knew a little Spanish and was excited to show him how much I knew. I quickly realized I did not know what I thought I knew. The ride seemed to never end as I tried my best to make conversation. I knew I was not as strong in the language as I thought I was. Looking back with my friend (the man who picked us up that day), he said we spoke more trying to make symbols with our hands than with words on that day. I am thankful for that day, because it exposed our need to learn the language.
We have lived in Argentina for over a year now. We are still learning the language. I guess we will always be learning the language. I am able to converse. I preach 3 times a week, lead the church services, and lead discipleship lessons with a few who are attending church. I have days when I speak very well in the language and then there are times when I struggle. I believe this to be part of the process. So the question is, “How do you learn a language?” A few thoughts…
• Learning the language is not an option! Learning the language is extremely important. You will not make any lasting relationship without being able to speak in their language. God can obviously still use a man who does not know the language, but God could also do the work without that man, so I don’t believe that to be a reason to not learn the language.
• Learning a language is more than just learning the rules. Languages have rules, and they are important, but a person can learn every rule of the language and understand the mechanics of it all but still not be able to converse. And that is the whole point of learning the language, to communicate!
• The keyword to learning a language is “PRACTICE!” You must talk and you must listen. It is much more than just having the local news channel on in the background. You must give 100% of your attention to each conversation. You must get out of your house and talk with others. Practice, practice, practice! It is the same old thing every day. At first you will think it is not working. Before long you will be talking more and more, then you will hit a “plateau;” you must keep practicing. The way you practice is by talking and listening!
• Learning the language is making friends. I know a man who was a missionary for several years. He can somewhat speak the language of the country he was in. But while he was learning the language, he said that there was no one in the country that he could practice the language with. That is obviously not true. I will give you my life as an example. Every neighbor around me speaks Spanish. The people at the fruit/vegetable store, butcher shop, bakery, barbershop, restaurants, super market – they all speak Spanish! Everyone speaks Spanish. Most people are very curious about why we are here, which makes conversing even easier! Almost everyone in the country speaks the language that you are trying to learn. You just have to get out of your “comfort zone” and talk to them!
• Learning the language is living by a schedule. You must purposely set a schedule to practice the language and live by that schedule. This is more than just going to “language school” each day for a few hours. It is what you do before and after that class that matters most! My schedule started in the morning with watching a Disney show in Spanish on the television. I did this because the content was for very little children so the words would be more on a beginner level. Even so, I still had a hard time understanding for many months! After watching the shows, I would go to the local butcher shop (it is 2 blocks from my house). I spent from around 9:30am to 1:00pm with them practicing my Spanish. It was awkward at first but they have grown to love us. I am thankful for that relationship. They closed shop at 1pm for siesta, so I went home, ate lunch, and then we went to language school. We usually arrived back home from language school around 5:00-5:30pm. I would then go to the local seminary and join in a few classes. This was from 7:00-10:00pm. My life was learning the language. Every day was different but each day involved talking and listening.
• Learning the language is a life-long process. I remarked earlier that we will always be learning the language. I meant it. Unfortunately, I will never get to the place of “all-knowing,” “completely fluent,” Spanish speaker. The truth is, I am still learning English, even though it is my natural language. I was reading a book in English, while on deputation, and came across a word I had never heard of before. I have spoken English for well over 33 years now and I still don’t know everything. I don’t think I will ever know everything about Spanish either. Learning the language is a life-long process.
There is much more that can be said. I am nowhere near the proficiency I would like to have. I still struggle trying to find the correct word. I still mis-conjugate a verb from time to time. I still walk away from a conversation not exactly sure what the other person just said. It happens, but it is happening less frequently. I close this article with two books I suggest every language learner should read. Language Acquisition Made Practical (LAMP) and Fluent in Three Months. Both books are great. LAMP is much more exhaustive and is not easy to find, but is worth the trouble of looking for it! Fluent in Three Months was written by a polyglot (a person who speaks multiple languages). He is an atheist, something as missionaries we obviously don’t agree with, but he sets forth good principles to learning another language (spoiler alert: you will not learn a language in 3 months unless it is your third or fourth language). They both teach some of the same principles, but the LAMP book will explain step by step how to learn a language. Lastly, learning a language is an adventure, so don’t take yourself too seriously and enjoy it!