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A Simple Trick to Learn a New Language Fast!

I was talking with a volunteer and our talk began to literally revolve around talk. We wondered how some people seem to learn a new language fast, while the rest of us take so long!?

Language learning.

I asked and he confessed that he was finding it a pain to learn a new language. He could understand a lot of what people were saying, but when it came time to replying, he was stuck. He didn’t know how to say anything.

I understand, I have taken many beginner Spanish courses over the years and still feel completely inadequate. I would way rather do something else that feels really productive and makes others admire how much great work I am doing.

A post by Donald Miller inspired a thought. Donald suggested when faced with a tough goal, instead of focusing on the unlikable tasks – focus on one key image.

Focus on what it will look like if you succeed.

For example, if you want to lose weight, don’t focus on eating less and exercising. Instead, go ahead and register for a half marathon 6 months from now.

Your preparation for the act of actually crossing the finish line will change your actions so you naturally lose the weight.

 That motivates you like nothing else will.

I told the volunteer this technique and we started to think how it might work for him. He only had a few weeks left in the community before he was heading home – time was short.

Part of his volunteer work was in public presentations and I challenged him to present at least one time in the local language before he left.

It was like I had opened up a new way for him to see the world. I literally saw the change come over him as we talked on Skype, instead of focusing on how boring learning a new language was, I saw him envisioning himself standing in front of a group talking to them directly, not a translator in sight!

He wanted to put himself out there and he could see it in his mind’s eye.

Learning a new language is usually the toughest part of  a new culture.

That is probably why there are tonnes of expats all over the world who have lived in a community for years, sometimes decades and still can’t talk to the neighbours. They are perfectly capable of living in the community, shopping, visiting with other expat friends and even excelling in their jobs.

They are friendly and smile when they pass on the street, but if they can’t ask about the weather, local politics, or gossip about how the neighbour’s kids are holy terrors  … well, your real ability to form real relationship is, to put it politely –  limited, or a little more appropriately. Nada

The truth is that when we say that “they don’t speak English here” we have completely missed the point.

Why should they?

They are not living in my community I am visiting theirs!

When I say something like ‘they don’t speak English’ I am unconsciously saying that they should, that English is the norm and that others must learn to speak my language.

My suggestions? Stop saying “they don’t speak English” and start saying “I don’t speak Spanish”  – or Russian, or Czech, or Chichewa, or Hindi, or … you get the picture!

Talk about ourselves as the strange people with the language problem – not entire cultures we are visiting –  it just might help us focus on memorizing a few more nouns and verbs.

Have you ever said “they don’t speak English here” where were you at the time?

September 13, 2017

7 responses on "A Simple Trick to Learn a New Language Fast!"

  1. Coming to Canada, I spoke very little English. I was frustrated a lot that I needed to learn English to function on a very basic level. The reality is, we need to understand that people have a language and a culture of their own, our job isn’t to bring Canadian traditions to Mexico, it’s not even to bring Jesus to Mexico, Jesus is already there, Culture is already there…. what can we do to interact, communicate and adapt to the culture? What can we do to do those things well? Learning the language is just the first step, but it is such a vital one. Imagining yourself living life alongside the people you’re going to, and being able to understand them…. who wouldn’t want that? Only someone extremely narcissistic would suggest that this would be something to be admonished.

  2. This is such an important point. My relatives on my mom’s side are Korean. When we get together I just tune out because I don’t speak the language. I get bored wanting them to switch over to English. The thing is, I am the one with the problem not them. They have done the work to learn English but I have not done the work to learn Korean. If I went to Korea people would wonder what is wrong with me. I really respect missionaries who take the time to learn the language. It means that they have dealt with the embarrassment of not knowing how to express themselves, say the wrong word, or mispronounce something. Probably the best way for us to say that we love a people is that we do the painful work of learning their language.

  3. I have definitely said, “they don’t speak English there.” After being on a missions trip though, and reading more about how to view STM, I’ve changed my views on that concept.

    I think that before I went I was aware that I should learn the language but didn’t have the resources, nor put enough time into it. When I arrived at my destination I realized that my ability to make relationships was limited because I could not speak their language. I thought that most people would be able to speak English but some were completely unable to speak it.

    This hindered my abilities to be relational because there was nothing to talk about. Even worse than that was the image that it presented: it seemed as though I did not care about them because I did not bother to learn their language before I went. Learning the language, or at least some of the language, before you go is crucial because it shows that you wanted to be able to communicate with them. It shows them that rather than expecting them to speak MY language, I was humbling myself to speak in their language.

    When going on a STM we want to be the most effective we can be. By learning the language we show them that we are trying to relate to them on as many levels as possible and that is important to effectively witness to them. Take Paul for example. He most likely would have spoken Hebrew or Aramaic. The New Testament is written in Greek. Paul wrote the New Testament in Greek because he was the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” He wrote it in their language so that they could understand. It was more effective this way because they would not have been able to understand the other languages.

    We should take Paul’s example and try to learn the language because it is the most effective way to reach the people.

    Caitlin Giles

  4. I have definitely said, “They don’t speak English here.” I spent a year at Pan Africa Christian University in Nairobi, Kenya, for my Junior year of Bible College, and although the majority of residents in Nairobi speak English well enough, as soon as you leave the city borders, there is little presence or need for English-speaking. I’m certain I felt at times that they should be able to speak English, especially since so many do in East Africa. It’s certainly a way of “lording it over” them.

    One of my biggest takeaways from living in East Africa for a year was that the way we do things in North America, in Canada, in Ontario, in Toronto, around Dufferin & Lawrence…the way we do it “there” isn’t necessarily the best way to do it. It’s also not necessarily the worst way to do it. There are other “proper” ways to do it that are perfectly acceptable. I find so often we’re quick to judge that we in more developed nations know how to do everything the best way. But that couldn’t be further from the truth…that also speaks to church and evangelism in non-Western cultures–but that’s a whole other discussion.

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