What is the best way for me to learn a language for ministry?

“Go to language school and practice in the culture.”

The normal pattern for those of us working in other cultures is to go through the hard slogging of learning another language. It’s a lot of work and takes a lot of time, but it has significant benefits. As we work through a language, we learn both intellectual suppositions and cultural niceties of those with whom we desire to communicate the gospel. 

A language school addresses both the language and the culture and usually provides a disciplined timeframe, something most of us need. Many of us feel it is false economy to rush too quickly into ministry opportunities before receiving an ample grounding in the language we’ll be working in. (Also, some of us take longer than others to become adequately fluent!)

Answer from Jack Voelkel, former missionary-in-residence with the Urbana Student Mission Convention; originally published on the Urbana website. Previously, Jack served thirty years with Latin America Mission in Peru and Colombia.

“The best way to learn a language depends on the language and on your learning style.”

The right method for learning a new language depends on two key factors. 

First, it depends on the nature of the language. For example, Spanish is not nearly as difficult to learn as some other widely spoken languages. Because Spanish is easier, many learners can make considerable progress using tutors, language helpers, or even LAMP (Language Acquisition Made Practical). But other learners beware: Do not treat all languages the same. Not all languages are easy to learn, and anyone who advocates one method for all the languages spoken on earth is failing to understand the differences between languages. 

Second, consider your individual personality and natural ability to learn. The approach you choose should also take into consideration your learning style, which usually has to do with how your mind processes new information. Understanding whether you are an auditory, visual, or perhaps an analytical learner is a plus. Similarly, and more importantly, your ability to learn a foreign language (expressed as “language aptitude”) must also be taken into account. I recommend that you take a good language aptitude assessment in order to understand how you learn languages.

Answer from Marc, who has served sixteen years in Russia and Ukraine with the Institute of Strategic Languages and Cultures.

“Take a course and use a language helper.”

Many people still advocate using the Language Acquisition Made Practical (LAMP) method, which majors on memorizing useful phrases and then repeating those phrases to twenty or thirty strangers. Through repetition, you learn the phrases, and you make new friends. This method, however, is increasingly falling into disfavor. The LAMP method is useful for standard greetings and phrases, but it does not teach you how to be creative and develop sentences you’ve never before spoken. You speak only from a list of memorized phrases. 

Newer methods suggest that you spend more time working with an individual language helper or assistant. This way, you receive personal input rather than just listening to speakers use large amounts of vocabulary you don’t know. Then, spend more time talking and interacting with a small circle of friends rather than parroting memorized phrases quickly to a large number of people.

Answer from Mike, who served ten years in West Africa and North Africa on a Bible translation team with WEC International.

“Ask others to correct your language mistakes.”

Ask people to correct your language, your pronunciation of words in the language they are teaching you. Don’t be timid about asking, “Did I say it right?” They will readily correct your language, but only if you’re willing and ask. 

I remember hearing about an older woman who’d been a missionary for years in Africa. She consistently bungled the language those people had been trying to teach her, but she thought she was doing a wonderful job. One day a young African man had the boldness to correct that woman’s language. She drew herself up to her full height and looked up at this tall Nuer man. She said, “Young man, I was speaking this language before you were born.”

Don’t follow that woman’s example. Instead, ask people to correct your language, your manners, and your way of life, because there will be all kinds of new manners you’re going to have to learn. Identify with people whenever possible in order to eliminate distractions. I am tall, white, blond, and blue-eyed. The Indians in the jungle of Ecuador are not tall, white, blond, or blue-eyed. There was no way I could change those things, but in every other possible way, I tried to identify with them. The first thing I did was to wear Indian dress, a simple navy blue skirt and a checked blouse.

Answer from Elisabeth Elliot, who worked with her husband Jim Elliot on translating the New Testament into the language of the Quichua Indians in Ecuador. Later, as a widow, she lived and worked among the Aucas.

“Get trained in language acquisition.”

Many missionaries have profited from specialized training in language acquisition. Few sending organizations find it worth their while to do this training on their own when it can be so easily and effectively outsourced! Most of the programs are taught in an intensive format, a couple of weeks long, several times a year. 

Check out the options for training in language acquisition available from Missionary Training International in Colorado, Mission Prep in Toronto, TRAIN International in Missouri, and Center for Intercultural Training in North Carolina. Also check out the Institute for Cross-Cultural Training at Wheaton College in Illinois.

After completing such training, you won’t know how to speak the language of your host country, but you’ll have the skills to make a good start at learning the language(s) once you arrive. Such skills are especially helpful for those entering a community that has a distinct dialect for which specific language-learning materials are not available or may steer you in the wrong direction. But the training is also helpful for those planning to learn any kind of language.

You might also search online for “Fun Ways of Learning a Foreign Language as a Family”.

Answer from Marti, who has served in missions for twenty years and currently serves with Pioneers.

“Learn by immersion and interaction.”

I am a missionary to East Timor. I did not know the language before I came to East Timor. I did not study their language ahead of time. Rather I learned it through my immersion with the local people. It took me two months before I was able to speak their language. I realized that my best teachers were the children. My constant encounters with them helped me become familiar with the words and the patterns of their dialect. I only have a small book with me to glance at once in awhile. So, what’s the best way to learn a language? Interact with the local people often, especially with the children.

Answer from Emmanuel, who has served with CFC in East Timor for nine years.

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