Tips for language learners


Tips for language learners

  1. Aim high, not just to get by.  Don’t aim at just getting by so that people understand you in everyday situations, but rather to speak like the way the nationals do.  Compare: learning English in school or in OM in order to understand and also to speak with fellow-OMers and learning to speak the national language.  The difference is that now you are going to communicate God’s message and truth which demands of us the highest motivation possible.  Therefore, you should not be satisfied with low standards.  (Those who will be working primarily in an English-speaking environment will not need or be able to achieve the same level  as those whose primary ministry is to and among the nationals.)
  2. Lay strong foundations.  Start well.  Begin slowly.  The way you begin will strongly affect your language facility for the rest of your time among the people God is sending you to.  Therefore, take it slowly at the beginning.  Take time to master the fundamentals before trying to talk about complex or spiritual subjects.  Don’t allow yourself to fall into bad habits, e.g. allowing your language to be heavily “contaminated” by a foreign accent or foreign grammar constructions.
  3. Listen lots.  Put on a keen listening ear wherever you are — in buses, when you are shopping, at church etc. — even if you can only understand one or two words at the beginning.  Believe that you are taking in far more language than you are consciously aware of.  Even when you feel brain-weary, resist the temptation to tune out or to slip your mind into neutral gear.
  4. Get out and about.  Don’t learn language primarily from books but from people.  Get out of your flat or the safe haven of team life and mingle as much as possible with nationals — especially where they “hang out”.  Try to get among them in situations where you will hear their colloquial, everyday language.  In this way, you will pick up far more than the language.  You will learn lots about the local history and culture.
  5. Open your mouth and speak.  Try talking with people even if you can’t yet say it perfectly.  Be like a child who isn’t worried about what people think of his grammatical construction.  Throw off your adult hang-ups, inhibitions and the fear of being laughed at.  If they laugh at something you say, try to laugh with them at yourself.
  6. Have fun.  Be serious about learning the language well but also not too serious.  You will probably learn a lot more that way and enjoy the process a lot more. 
  7. Be inquisitive like a child.  Be eager to learn more and more and more and more!  Want to know how they say different things.  Find out new words, especially those you have already heard or read or seen on several occasions.
  8. Learn and master basic sentence patterns.  Practise and drill them until you can say them without thinking of the individual words.  Until they become the automatic response in particular situations.
  9. Mimic the nationals.  Don’t worry if you can’t understand the grammatical rules or the word order.  Just learn to put your words together their way, even if it all seems to sound very odd to you.  In the initial stages, focus less on comprehending the rules and more on saying it their way.  Resist the temptation to ask the question “why?”, e.g. about different or difficult grammatical constructions.  It’s hard for a national often to explain why, and it’s also very difficult (except if you have been trained in linguistics) to understand why.   Mimic the nationals.  Be focused more on speaking than upon understanding all that you are saying.  Understanding generally comes later or you stop thinking about such questions. 
  10. Seek help.  Be open to correction.  Ask your language helper and friends for it.  Don’t expect everyone to correct you, or even that every mistake you make will be corrected.  Rather ask specific people specific questions, e.g. Did I say that correctly?  And never, ever brush help from a national when he or she tries to help you, or argue with them as if you knew their language better than they do.  If you do, your reputation as being proud and defensive will spread around the community. 
  11. Beware of “missionary-speak”!  Don’t use other missionaries as your language helpers, except for the occasional question for clarification. Make all the nationals your language helpers.  If you have questions, take them to your language helper or to other nationals.
  12. Be ready for hard work.  Learning the language will tax your self-discipline to the max.  But there is no other way to gain a solid grasp of the language.  There are no short-cuts.  Language learning requires just sheer persistent, hard work over many months, not just the first few months.  You do not have the right to speak about deeper spiritual issues until you have proven yourself to be interested enough to learn their language.
  13. Be in control of what you learn as much as you can.  Learn to speak both for moving around in the community in everyday relationships, and also for ministry.  Try to steer your language helpers into teaching you the language you are needing rather than language that is basically outside of your realm.  Note down the sentences that you want to say and bring them with you to your next language lesson.
  14. Have realistic expectations of yourself.  Know yourself — your limitations, your own style, your strengths as well as your weaknesses in communicating.  Don’t compare yourself with others, even wives with husbands etc.  Some get there slowly, while others take longer but perhaps become even more loved by the people in the process as they witness just how hard you are working.  Throw off any desire to be better than everyone else or expectations to master the language in the first few months or even the first couple of years.  Realise the inevitable struggle and times of discouragement.  When these hit you, remember that you are normal.  We’ve all been through this before many times.  Press on.  Let the tears come.  Talk about your struggles with a fellow-missionary.  Pray with them.  Ask them to support you in prayer.  But keep going.
  15. Get set for the long term, not just for the first couple of years.  Who knows?  God may be calling you to stay there much longer than you expected.

Graham Roberts

Director, Missionary Training School,
OM Central Europe

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