By Jessica Dais, former missionary to Mexico — Missionaries who have put in the hard work to learn a second language can attest: There’s something to be said about the special connection that’s forged when you speak in someone’s heart language.
There is a deeper level of empathy on your part, and a stronger sense of trust on theirs. You’re able to move much more quickly from stranger to friend. Nelson Mandela captured this idea beautifully when he said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Learning the local language can help you make a lasting impact in the country where you serve and can help you take your personal relationships to the next level. With the right strategy and tools, becoming conversationally fluent isn’t as hard as you might think.
So, how do you get started? When time is of the essence, the fastest way to learn any language is by immersion. Many consider this method to be a form of “trial by fire.” It involves surrounding yourself with the local language, and not shying away from it.
SEND’s career missionaries generally spend their first two years on the field studying the language and culture, which sets them up for effective, long-term ministry. If you’re already in your host country, seize every opportunity to hang out with native speakers. Go to local events in the community and observe how others communicate, including their body language.
For extreme introverts, it can feel like torture to step outside of your comfort zone in this way. But when you realize that the only thing standing in between you and fluency is yourself, it gets a lot easier to put yourself in an immersion experience.
Bring the learning home
In your free time at home, the learning shouldn’t stop! Watch the news, movies, and YouTube videos featuring native speakers. Even better, turn on the English subtitles so you can follow along. This process is highly beneficial as your mind will start automatically associating words and phrases with their meanings.
If you want to take it a step further, change the language settings on all your devices to the language of your host country. Subscribe to a blog in the language, or try reading children’s books and listening to podcasts.
Make foibles your friends
As intimidating as it may seem, remember that the best way to become conversationally fluent is to put your skills into practice. Don’t wait until you feel comfortable enough to start speaking with the locals.
On the contrary, you should become more and more comfortable with misinterpretations and miscommunications — these are a normal and expected part of language learning. So don’t take yourself too seriously! Accept early on that it’s very likely you will embarrass yourself at some point. Speak anyway!
Thankfully, there is grace in these situations. The locals likely will appreciate your efforts to speak in their language. Be encouraged by Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Harness the power of technology
One final tip: Many missionaries prefer to learn the basics of a language before leaving their home country. This is a great way to set yourself up for success. In this digital age, there are fortunately many free tools at our disposal. Here are just a few options:
- Download an app like Duolingo or Memrise to quickly memorize the basics.
- Take online language classes, preferably with a live teacher. Try the free membership option at TakeLessons Live for starters.
- Use Meetup to find other nearby language learners with whom you can practice your skills.
- Find a pen pal or learning partner on a language exchange network, such as italki.
Do you have any additional tips for fast and efficient language learning in another country, or before going on a mission trip? Share your ideas with us. God bless you on your journey!