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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.

Sigrid Watkins January 22, 2020 at 8:19 am

Thank you David, I enjoyed reading this post. I’m a language tutor working with missionaries. It’s encouraging to hear you recommend many of the techniques I use, which my students find very helpful. Listening and mimicking the language first is very important in my opinion, and I have found it to be a very effective tool. Thanks again for your advice.

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