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How a Missionary Learns a Language (by Ben Johnson)

Learning any language is difficult. It takes a lot of work and frustration to speak a language and speak it well. As a missionary to China, I am often asked if we already know Chinese and/or what language school looks like. As with all the posts in this series, most are based on what we have learned, not necessarily what we have done. Though we have learned some Chinese in our internship, we are by no means fluent. But here is what we know about learning a language.

IHard-Languages-To-Learnmmersion

The best way to learn a language is to be forced to have to use it, sink or swim. Learning it in America generally handicaps a missionary because he is not around people who speak it constantly. When one has to learn it or starve, it tends to help.

One on One with a Native Speaker (No English!)

Even when a missionary speaks another language, and even when he thinks he is saying it right; he isn’t. That’s why he needs a native speaker to correct every little thing he says wrong. It is also best to have someone who knows no English so, like immersion, he is forced to learn. The person hired needs to be patient enough to be able to listen to him say the same thing again and again.

One on One

I repeat this to emphasize that a classroom setting is not the best place to learn a language. To effectively learn a language, a missionary needs to be doing 80% of the speaking during the time with your teacher. A classroom setting will not allow that kind of interaction to take place. A class of 5 means he will only get 1/5 of the speaking time.

Speak

The goal of a missionary is to communicate the greatest of all truths. If he cannot speak, he cannot give the Gospel. To learn a language, he must focus on speaking. Again, 80% of the time is how much speaking he should be doing. The faster he can speak, the faster language school can be done. In learning a language, a missionary uses new muscles. A good day at language school means his jaw is sore.

Grammar

Learn to love grammar. Grammar is essential is speaking correctly. Vocabulary is good but one can know all the correct words in a new language but if one can’t link them together in a sentence, it means nothing. That is why it is important to memorize sentence patterns, not just words.

Lots and Lots of Time

To learn a language, it will take time. When a missionary lands on the field, after having set up home, his job is not ministry, it is language. That is a full-time job. To become an expert in anything, it is said it takes 10,000 hours. A missionary needs to be an expert in his new language. At least 4 hours one on one, five days a week. Then time with a tutor after that. That’s how a missionary puts the time in.

Memorize Bible Verses

A missionary not only needs to know how to speak but he needs to know the Bible. Learning the Bible helps him know words he may not learn in normal language school.

Never Be Satisfied

A missionary should never get satisfied with his language ability but always look to improve it. Even after finishing language school, he is not done. He needs to learn not just how to say things but how to convey subtle meanings. There is still a lot of work once he is “finished” with language school.

 

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