Pray, Give, Go… But how will I learn the language?

Anyone who has spent time learning a local language might be tempted to respond to that question with a smile and just three words, ‘with great difficulty.’ But that’s a fairly negative way to begin this column and not always true either. There are so many days when language learning feels like ‘wonder and delight’… as well as hard work and persistence.

But how do we begin to learn a new language? After many years of learning Nepali as well as watching others learn it, the biggest thing I discovered was that we all do it differently. And we seem to do it according to our learning styles and personality types. The extroverts, like my husband Darren, like to get out in the bazaar early on, using every new phrase and grammar construction that they’ve learnt. The LAMP method works really well for them because they’re encouraged to go for a walk in the community, repeating certain phrases with whoever they meet. The introverts on the other hand, like me, prefer to spend time alone practicing phrases and vocabulary before we’re ready to have genuine conversations – preferably with genuine friends! Those with an eye and ear for detail enjoy documenting vocabulary on their palm computers, constantly adding in new information. Darren loved memorising new phrases and words as he pored over the dictionary every evening. Others of us who enjoy the bigger picture and the ‘feel’ of a language, tend to put ourselves in situations where it will wash over us. I loved Nepali church for that very reason. I could just sit there for hours, letting the language seep into my thought life, my prayers and my being. Those with preferences for the bigger picture also like to understand the grammar and the system into which every verb and construction fits. In fact, some people seem so wired to capture the system that they spend years inventing a new one because the current system doesn’t seem adequate. Still others seem to learn the entire language through word association. And others plaster their bathroom walls with vocabulary lists while their friends insist that they’ve never made a single list or any kind of written documentation. There’s such a range of language learning styles!

And perhaps the more we recognize the range, the less we’ll be tempted to compare ourselves with others on the mission field. We’ll stop listening to our eloquent friends (in dismay!) and instead, start appreciating the unique way God has made us and the unique ways he wants us to acquire the new language. And the more we realise our own tendencies and preferences, the more we’ll be motivated to put in the hard work and persistence that we need to, in order to communicate well.

But you still haven’t told me about the ‘wonder and delight,’ I hear you say. Well, here’s the best bit. Language learning feels like wonder and delight because praying and singing and crying and laughing and cherishing in another language not only gives rise to infinitely precious local relationships, it also gives rise to a whole new way of seeing and responding to God’s world and God himself. And what could be more wonderful and delightful than that?



Naomi Reed is a former Interserve Partner. She is also a bestselling author and gifted speaker. Her latest book, The Plum Tree in the Desert shares stories of faith and mission from Interserve Partners over the last 25 years. Naomi is also speaking on the Australia-wide Unfolding Grace tour. For more information, see Unfolding Grace.