Sunday, February 19, 2012

What did you say?!

The following post is from Jolene Sloan, missionary to Ukraine. I am posting it here
with her permission.

Did you ever speak "pig latin" as a kid? You know, the "language game" where you take the first letter away from a word, add it to the end of the word and say "ay" with it. (For example, my name would become "olene-Jay.") I played this with my friends and cousins as a kid, and it made me feel smart... like I really knew another language. It sounded so foreign and was just silly, childish fun!

Fast-forward to the adult years and sitting in language school. Let me tell ya, the process of learning a language is not that simple! In fact, the teachers in our language school did not even speak English. (Unless you want to count the word "adjective," that they mispronounced.)

So, how do you go about learning a foreign language when you can not even understand your teacher? From experience, I can tell you that it is complicated!

As a continuation of this series The Missionary Wife's Perspective, I want to list some things I have thought, observed, and taken note of in the last ten years on this topic. These thoughts are not words of wisdom, by any means. They are just a recording of a missionary wife's perspective on surviving learning a new language.

1. How many of our supporters and prayer partners give much thought to the need of the missionary to learn a language? If you silently agreed with me that you are in that category, I can assure you that I was there at one time too. When I thought of becoming a missionary, I thought that language learning would go a lot like this:

Bible college? Check.
Deputation? Check.
Airline tickets? Check.
Learn the language? Check.

It wasn't until I was "in the trenches" that I realized how many missionaries get stuck on that last point. A surprising number of missionaries never do really learn the language of their people. This point alone is such a source of discouragement, that many have packed up their bags and gone home, feeling like failures for never truly adapting to their field. So heartbreaking!

2. To me it seems that the missionary's wife usually faces the biggest discouragement in the area of language learning. This is especially true if she has little ones at home to care for, or if she is homeschooling. While her husband is out mingling with the people, she is home and unable to see much progress in her own language development.

3. For us, we feel it is better to learn a language from someone who does not know your native language. Now, I could have really argued this case with you years ago whenever I truly thought our teachers needed to know English in order to explain themselves to me. However, I have since come to see the benefit of being forced to understand them.

4. Spend your first year on the field dedicated full-time to language learning. Don't jump with two feet first into the ministry that first year (just "one foot" is sufficient in the beginning). The results will be so much better in the long run. We were advised to do this and are so grateful!

5. I remember our first few weeks in Ukraine, sitting in a park, observing people speak Russian. We just could not believe how beautiful the girls were... until they opened their mouths and started speaking. Russian sounded gutteral and harsh to us back then. Obviously, we don't think that anymore now that we speak it. I remember wondering how difficult it must be for mothers to comfort their babies with such rough words. And how did boyfriends propose to their girlfriends with gentleness?! [On the other hand, ask a foreigner what they think English sounds like, and you just might be amused to hear their answer!]

6. What is the hardest language in the world to learn? The one you are studying, of course! I checked with Wikipedia, and their experts claim these languages to be the hardest to learn: Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. I'm pretty sure that Russian was supposed to make that list!

7. Any missionary can tell you that, over time, we seem to forget some of our own native tongue. Not only do I find myself grasping for the right word in Russian, but when I visit "back home," I find myself drawing a blank when I'm looking for the right word in English! Apparently our brain storage for language capacity can only hold so many file folders per language!

8. Learning a new language can be very humbling. Here you are an adult, trying to speak, and you can almost feel someone reach out and pat your head with a sympathetic "good girl, at least you are trying" touch. Just like a baby, you are starting at the bottom, and unfortunately, for even the smartest students (which is not me!), there is the "toddler stage" that we all have to go through. Stringing three or four words together and hoping with all of your heart that they formed an intelligent thought is completely normal!

9. You will never speak with your family the same way. Your words and sentences will always be sprinkled with "flavors" from both languages. How much richer your vocabulary becomes when you have more than one "language dictionary" to choose from!

9. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. For every new word you learn or for every grammatical ending you learn to say correctly, you are that much better because of it. So, little mama who is at home with her little ones most of the day, baby steps are steps. Don't give up! Nearly 10 years into this journey, I am still learning. Like learning to play the piano, it is a long process and we all have different rates at which we learn.

10. Being that "little mama" at home, I learned to face the fact that my home situation was not going to change. I am going to be needed at home for many, many years; therefore, language school was only an option for me for a short while. But, I learned to overcome this setback in a different way. I hired a young lady to come to my home (one who did not know English) and work in the house with me and talk to me as we worked. (The key here is that she is not a maid, but rather someone to work and fellowship with. Busy mamas do not have time to "just" sit and study, but this method is so much more effective anyway.) "This is a broom and right now we are sweeping the floor." "This dough needs to rise for 30 minutes." These are the types of conversations that have taught me to speak Russian.

11. Some of the very dearest friendships I have in this world are with those who do not speak English. All of our conversations take place completely in Russian. And my life is so.much.richer because of these friendships. Was it worth those long, frustrating hours of learning? Oh, you better betcha!

12. When I am "back home," I now have my own secret language. No more childish pig latin for me.... I can speak a real, foreign language! And, best yet, I can share the Gospel in another language!

So, prayer partner, pray fervently for your missionaries who are learning a foreign language. And missionaries, don't get discouraged, even if your language was not on Wikipedia's list either. {smile}

You can do it!


  1. Thank you for posting this. It was a blessing to read. I totally agree with everything on this page. I have caught myself giving the exact same advice, over and over. I was glad to see...3.) learn the language from someone that doesn't know yours. I find this crucial. ...10) for mothers of young ones to have someone work WITH THEM in their homes. You pick up more of the language and respect for the people you work with that way. Thank you for passing this along.

  2. Thank you, Tammy, for reposting this!

  3. I'm looking forward to learning Swahili... I'm not a stay at home mom, but we will definitely try to find a non-English speaking tutor after this advice. Thanks