Perhaps with the exception of natural linguists or extreme extroverts, language learning for most people is slow, hard work. We often feel like we are progressing at the rate of two words forward, one word back.
When we arrived at Bangkok airport eight months earlier, we had committed ourselves to working as Interserve Partners in Thailand. We were reasonably well prepared having previously spent time in Thailand as OnTrackers, and were eager to get started. But several months later, Dan is still doing full-time language study, while I am looking after the kids, studying language part time and helping out at the kids’ school.
We still can’t understand a sermon at our Thai church, and while I can read the hymns, I can’t read and sing them at the same time, in time with the rest of the congregation. Even on a good day, I often struggle to converse fluently with my Thai friends in their language. And then of course there is the unavoidable embarrassment of language faux pas. Surely they just cause misunderstandings and offense!
So why put ourselves through the embarrassment, literal pain of fortnightly exams, headaches and sore eyes (Thai script is very intricate!)?
Well for one thing, language learning teaches humility. I am not sure that when Paul exhorted the Christians in Philippi to have the same attitude of humility as Jesus Christ he had language learning in mind; however, it does remind us that God chooses to work through the foolish in the world to shame the wise, so that our boast may not be in ourselves but rather in the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 1:27-2:5).
Secondly, language learning demonstrates and tests our commitment to the people we wish to work with and live among. As most foreigners living in Bangkok do not learn much of the language, people are often pleasantly surprised to learn that we can converse with them to some extent in their own language.
Testing our commitment to discipleship is also important. One of the main goals of language learning is to be able to disciple people. When we feel frustrated and perhaps question whether it is all worth the effort, then we need to look to the cross and be reminded of God’s love and commitment to us. (If you are not sure how to pray for Partners in language study, please pray that we would continue to be compelled by Christ’s love to persevere through what sometimes feels like a testing of our commitment to serve overseas).
Learning the local language also helps our understanding of the culture. The vocabulary and sentence patterns used in language often give insights into what a culture values and the way its people think. A common phrase “mai bpen rai” means “it is nothing” or in Ausse: “no worries” – God is certainly teaching me to be more gracious and flexible through this process!
Finally, time spent in language study also gives us time to build relationships. Time in language school is allowing Dan to get to know the team he will be working with before he has to manage team projects. For me, practising language is an excellent excuse to meet up with a Thai friend for coffee, chat to taxi drivers or talk with the lady who looks after Lilla while I teach. It is only after relationships are built that discipleship can effectively take place.
We are building relationships, practising humility, demonstrating commitment and gaining a better understanding of our new culture through language study so that we ourselves will be better disciples of Jesus and better able to disciple others as followers of Christ.
Photos by Kathryn Cooke and Cheryl Emms