Thursday, April 25, 2013

When Language Learning Has Fried Your Brain

Is there anything more frustrating than language learning for cross-cultural workers? My brain has been permanently addled by the languages I’ve studied. I’m a French teach who no longer speaks French. I used to be a totally fluent Spanish speaker, but now I stumble a bit. I’m more comfortable speaking Turkish.

My experience with Turkish goes back 13 years. I remember my first teacher, a 65 year old lady who peered at me through glasses that magnified her eyes. She would make me repeat the same words and phrases 20 times, even when I had no idea how I was saying it wrong. I had to repeat everything until she was satisfied I’d gotten it.  After 13 years I still find myself stumbling through Turkish word order and prefixes. I have to think back to how I started a sentence in order to finish it, and often everything comes out garbled, but people understand me anyway. 

Why Is Language Learning So Hard?

Language learning can be a headache for many reasons. Sometimes there’s no language school; perhaps the language you’re learning is extremely different than your own. (Spanish was much easier to learn than Turkish, but I’m glad I don’t have to deal with Arabic or Chinese.) Parents of small children barely have time for language study.  It’s especially frustrating to live in a country several years yet still struggle to speak the language.

Suggestions for the Journey:

Keep a Positive Outlook

Enjoy as many things as you can about your new country even though you may not know the language perfectly yet.  Resist the temptation to constantly evaluate yourself in terms of your progress in language learning.  Relax, and be patient with yourself. Remember that you’re God’s child, and He loves you and has great plans for you, not matter how well you speak Farsi or Spanish or German.

Don’t Play the Comparison Game

It’s tempting to compare yourself with others who speak better than you do, especially if they’ve been living in-country for the same amount of time you have. Everyone has different gifts and callings, and God can use us all, regardless of our language skills. I’ve met workers here who barely speak Turkish, but manage to share God’s love effectively.

Think Long Term

Remember that language learning is a marathon activity, the fruit of patient diligence over years.  Sooner or later you’ll get it.

Keep Going

Do a little every day, and be consistent. Even if you are caring for small children, purpose to set aside a half hour for study each day.  Try 15 minutes of reading or watch one half hour of television.  Small steps over time lead to big improvements. Slow and steady wins the race.

It you are juggling home schooling or caring for small children with language learning, you deserve a gold medal, so pat yourself on the back.  Join me next week for more ideas about language learning.

What has your experience been?


Choate Family said...

I think evaluating your personality goes a long way toward language learning, too. When I began to learn Lavukaleve, I decided to focus on people and narrow domains of garden, cooking, fishing, mostly things women do. Now, even though my language is about even with a two-year-old's vocabulary, I have great friends. And language learning is still difficult, but it's more fun because I'm with friends!

TJ said...

Great encouragement especially since my brain was fried last night after trying to translate for a friend in my not so go local language. My challenge is that I teach all day in English so have to make an extra effort to speak the local language. Hopefully this summer I can put extra time into this. For now, I will take your suggestion of 15 to 30 minutes a day to work on what I can.

us5 said...

i needed this positive outlook, Olive Tree. i was just praying with not such a good attitude about the possibility of eventual work in a nearby country that would require learning another language. i'm not eager to tackle it, but your post is a reminder that it's doable. ;)

Phyllis said...

"Think Long Term." I often tell myself that I will finally be able to speak perfectly, no accent at all, when I get to heaven!

Kris Thede said...

I feel sorry for the folks who came after the quake and believed that there were much more important things to do rather than focus even a short time each day on language. Now 3 years later they know just enough to get by and cannot connect well with the people. Many leave because of this. Yes think Long term-nothing like close friends who can help you after years to continue to correct, refine and learn new words. This all helps you connect even better!

OliveTree said...

Wow! These are all such great comments. Each of you could write a great blog post for sure. Kris, I think you're right that not being able to connect/speak is a factor in people leaving.

Barbara, I can only IMAGINE how you feel at the mere possibility of tranferring to a new place and language. May the Lord be in control of that.

TJ, good luck with the 15 minutes a day!

B said...

Language learning has come easier for me on the whole, but it still fries my brain! I have noticed myself not having much sympathy for others who don't learn like me or as quickly...thanks for encouraging us that this is so important, but also giving me more understanding for those to whom it doesn't come as easily.