How Missionaries Learn Languages

by David Peach · Print Print · Email Email

Many missionaries work in a language that is not their native language. This requires that they study a new language. While there are various ways that a missionary can go about learning a new language, here are some of the common steps in the process.

Missionaries and language learning programs will put more emphasis in different aspects of these suggestions, but to some degree they all exist. There is also quite a bit of overlap in these different methods. None of them stand alone as the only way to learn languages. It is best to have a combination of all of them.

Language School

Some language schools don’t teach any language; rather, they teach a set of principles that will help the student learn any language. Those schools teach how to make every possible sound one would encounter in modern language. The students are instructed on how to listen to and mimic native language speakers.

However, most language schools are language specific. Some missionaries are able to attend schools that cater to Christians. Others attend language programs that appeal to a broader audience. Though I could have chosen a Christian language school, the one my wife and I attended was more geared to businessmen and diplomats. Fortunately I had a teacher who was willing to teach me some of the less common language constructions found in the Bible.

The length of time one would need to spend in language school depends on the language. But most programs last about a year.

Immersion

Whether you choose to use a structured program or try to learn at your own pace using a tutor, your training time will be much more productive if you can immerse yourself with the language. The easiest way to do this is to live in an environment surrounded with the target language. This is best done by living in a country that speaks your new language. But it can be simulated using audio CDs, Internet radio, podcasts, and online chat sessions.

Do all you can to surround yourself with the target language. There are many resources that will help you with this. You can read websites in your new language or participate in one of the many online language communities that are available.

Listening

Learn to listen. As mentioned, there are some language programs that don’t teach a specific language, rather they teach how to learn languages. The biggest part of this is learning to listen. A friend of mine who runs a language school like this says that even when his graduates go to learn a specific language he encourages them to spend three months in the country trying to listen and figure out the language on their own before they begin formal training. This helps the students learn to speak more like the people they meet on the streets rather than simply obeying a set of rules from a book.

Reading and memorizing verses in the target language is a good way to lock in some language patterns.

Reading and memorizing verses in the target language is a good way to lock in some language patterns.

Reading

There are so many great things a missionary can read while learning their new language. At first some of the best material will be material that is familiar to the student. For missionaries this would be their Bible. Reading and memorizing verses in the target language is a good way to lock in some language patterns. Maybe you don’t know how exactly to say what you want to express but you know a Bible verse that says something similar. With a little vocabulary substitution you can construct sentences that are based on a verse you have learned.

Reading the local newspaper will also help increase your vocabulary and grammar skills. I am not normally a newspaper reader, yet I have found some great language helps in the newspaper. Because the articles are short, focused on one topic, and are current events I learn new vocabulary and natural ways to word my sentences. I also know what types of things people will be talking about when I interact with the public.

When reading I like to circle any words I don’t know, then try to figure them out based on context before consulting a dictionary. I also highlight verbs that are used in a way that I either do not understand or that I think is interesting. I do the research needed to figure it out why that particular verb construction was used. Sometimes I resort to just asking someone vocabulary and verbs, but the ones I can work out on my own tend to be the new words and usage that stay with me better.

As silly as it sounds, I have learned quite a bit of culture, vocabulary, and language construction from reading comic books. A children’s comic book uses short sentences and idiomatic expressions that everyone in the culture knows. Because these are written for younger readers the language is simple and culturally relevant. Also it is easy to figure out what the words mean from the pictures even if you don’t know all the vocabulary.

Writing

Making the effort to write in your target language can be invaluable. You are allowed the time to think and correct your writing before someone looks over it. Your grammar skills are put to the test. Then have a friend or teacher correct your written work. This exercise (combined with reading with purpose) will really skyrocket your grammatical skills. Writing and speaking are not exactly the same, but taking the time to think through on paper what you want to say verbally will help you say it right more often.

Tutor

Some people either prefer to use a tutor or have no choice in attending a language program in their target language. It is nice to have a tutor that already has a lesson plan prepared. However, if you are working with a language that has no formal program you can train your tutor to teach you. Spend as much time with them as you can. Ask lots of questions. Listen to them interact with others in their language. Try to mimic what you hear.

Tutors can be even more effective after you have had formal training and need someone to help you clean up certain problems. Use a language school to teach you general language skills. Then hire a tutor to polish up your rough edges.

One way to do this is to have your tutor pick out two or three things that they hear you struggling with in your language. This might be the way you use a certain verb or a tense of the verb. Have them point out just a few things at a time. Do personal focused work on those areas. Return to the tutor with a mastery of those things and ask for your next set of focus points.

Language Learning Tips

Attend language school or do self study in a different place than where you plan to minister. This will help you focus more on language training during your time there. Otherwise it is easy to get so involved in ministry that you jeopardize your future effectiveness.

Learn the language as well as you can when you get started. The better you are at the language today the more effective you can be 25 years from now.

Spend as much time as you can at the beginning of your training learning to listen. The better you are at hearing the language the better you will be at making yourself understood. This also helps you focus more on the practical usage of the language and less on the rules. The rules are important and vital, but spending all your initial time in learning grammar is usually a hindrance to speaking well and interacting comfortably.

If you feel like you have a good handle on the grammar but your pronunciation is not improving along with it, consider seeing a speech therapist. They are used to working with children who struggle with pronunciation. They can offer some tips to you to help you make the sounds. Your mouth is as capable of speaking the target language just like a native speaker. Yet, sometimes someone needs to point out a different way to think about the sound to help you say it properly.

Don’t be afraid to be laughed at. You will make mistakes. Getting upset about your language mistakes only frustrates you and makes everyone around you feel uncomfortable. When this happens they are less likely to point out future mistakes you make. That means the mistake you make today may still be the mistake you are making 30 years into the future. Lighten up and you will enjoy the process much more.

Those who have learned multiple languages often say to throw out the grammar books until you learn how to communicate. I have to agree with them. My grammar books mean much more to me now that I know how to speak the language than they ever did while I was learning. Certainly you can’t learn everything you need to without learning the structure of the language, but new students should learn to trust their ears more and simply try to communicate. Grammar will come in time.

Life-Long Process

Learning a language is a life-long process. After speaking English for more than 40 years I still find new words that I did not previously know. The dictionary on my Kindle gets a regular workout. The same will be true for you when studying a new language as a missionary. I went to language school 10 years ago, yet I feel like I learn new words and usage just about every day. Even though I don’t currently live in a Spanish-speaking country, I am reading, listening to or practicing Spanish every week.

Work to improve your language and don’t become complacent with where you are today. No one will be offended because you speak your new language well. However, your language skills can be the reason some people don’t want to hear the important message you have to share.

Here is another article on Missionaries you might enjoy:

10 Famous Christian Missionaries

Resource – The Holy Bible, King James Version

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

David Cox October 5, 2013 at 10:57 am

I like your article. I too am a missionary, speaking Spanish fluently. A couple of observations about your article. You speak of a linguistics program that is not language specific. This is a good help, but not a substitute for a language specific class/school. It should only be seen as “a help”.
Immersion/Listening. I would agree with this, but with a caution. Be careful to whom you listen. I picked up some cuss words my first year in Mexico from “listening” to taxi drivers, which the brethren here had to “unteach me”. At times, what is “inappropriate” for one person is okay for another. Among Christians, this can vary. In Spanish, the word “idiot” (not a cuss word in English) is not used by Christians here. I do not see why not, but it is very greatly frowned upon. My wife is a native Mexican from Oaxaca, speaks little English, and she doesn’t like me using that word at all. I suppose it is strong even in English, but point is that some people consider it as always improper. Moreover, you must be extremely careful about “listening” to people because many people have a lower education, and simply put, they don’t speak their language correctly. You may learn what is commonly said (like “ain’t” in English), but it may not be proper grammar for your language. I would disagree with your suggestion about living 3 months in the environment before you start formal lessons. The improper language you are referring to is often language teachers that are not teaching their native language, i.e. an American teaching Spanish isn’t going to have the accent, grammar tweaks and quirks, etc. You need language teachers that speak that language as their mother tongue, and also have at least a college degree (professionals).

You are serious about language learning when you can speak the language a little bit, and you go out and leave the dictionary at home. Ask what a word means to a native speaker, and then understand his explanation. Very often, you just don’t get the gist of the meaning of a word from one language to another by pure translation. People in culture use a word/concept differently than we do, and as such, a pure translation leaves a lot to be desired. Also, consider it a great triumph when you think, form discussions, and understand without back translating everything into your native language. You should work on NOT DOING THAT AT ALL!

TUTORS – Yes definitely! But I would be careful. A tutor is a great help to fine-tune your language skills, and basically you need to go through regular language classes for a while before a tutor is involved. Note: There is a difference in discussing things in your target language with a native speaker, and a tutor. The first one is simply someone to converse with, which helps you on conversation skills (thinking rapidly in the other language). A tutor is somebody who should well taught in the grammar of the target language (best if they have at least a Bachelor’s degree in anything, that level of education), and they are specifically analyzing your speech for errors and faults in your understanding. A tutor should have 100% liberty to tear apart anything you say, and that is the objective, helping your grammar and conversation skills on a professional level. You can talk with a lot of common people but 1) They won’t always know their own grammar sufficiently well to help you, i.e. they pass over all your errors without commenting, 2) they will have their own grammar errors, i.e. when they “correct” you, their correction may not conform to the grammar taught in school of their own language. 3) they will explain correctly, but not give the correct reasons. In other words, what you said “sounds” wrong to their ear, but their explanation of why may be off.
I have seen missionaries who don’t take time to formally learn the language in a language school, and they usually have a strong American accent, and their grammar is atrocious. I would suggest separating “your formal ministry” from language training, and do the language training before.
Grammar is the backbone of a language. I would disagree with your comments about throwing out the Grammar books. I have taught Greek to Mexicans so I am familiar with these issues on another level. Everything revolves around the missionary’s understanding of his own language (how good he is in grammar in English). If you know your own grammar, you quickly can pick up Grammar in another language. If you are not that great in grammar in English, listening and communicating can be another way of learning the language. The great problem here is that we are creatures of habit, and once we “learn something” one way, it is extremely hard to unlearn it, though it is possible. There is no reason to learn things incorrectly in the first place. A formal teacher and classroom is essential in learning a language, and for those who wish to go the no-teacher route, you can take field linguistic classes to learn just by hearing and questioning. That is a valid field. But to learn a language that way you pretty much should have PhD in field linguistics beforehand. There is no need for that if there are schools, grammar books, and teachers in your target language.
Overall, your post was good.

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