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I don’t understand—What it means to learn another language

CMS missionary Colin Puffett, serving with Catherine in France, reflects on three ‘I’s of language learning: irritation, identity and importance.

Irritation

The prevailing opinion and experience of language learning is frustration (but ‘irritation’ starts with I, so I went with that). It is much harder to track and feel any progress, than it is to ignore all the times you can’t quite say what you want as quickly or clearly as you want. Many times a day a language learner is faced with situations where we feel helpless, or silly, or frustrated. This is not reserved for those of us who are slower to acquire language, but people of all learning speeds and styles are nearly constantly aware that they cannot express themselves as well as they might like.

Two years in, I can sense still sense my own difficulty in small talk after the church service. Or maybe it’s as I’m leading a Bible study on Romans, and I really wish I could be as sensitive and nuanced as I am in English while I try to express some difficult concepts. Wherever I set the bar of expectation of my competence, it tends to be a bit (or a lot) higher than I can currently jump.

Identity

A few weeks ago I delivered a sermon, in English, at a special bilingual service at our church in Nantes, France. Afterwards some of the church members (who almost never hear me speaking English) commented “Wow, you’re like a completely different person!” Add to that the fact that Cath has also had to assure our French friends several times that I’m not actually normally a silent or boring individual, and you’ll get a little insight into the overall situation here.

It strikes me how much society values being yourself, while Christ calls for us to die to ourselves daily to take on the new character defined in us by the Spirit. Being in another culture and having to express myself in a different language has taken away certain aspects of what I might instinctively call my persona.

More than that it has been an opportunity to shape and prune me in patience, pride, listening, and learning to serve the church in non-teaching roles. Perhaps this is one of God’s good motivations behind some of us taking longer in language learning than others: we have further to go in some areas!

Importance

There are many reasons for the importance of language learning and proficiency in CMS’s ministry, and I couldn’t begin to improve on the explanations that have already been given in the past. But I wanted to share here that I really do see and feel the importance of language for ministry. Many workers have shared their difficulty and discomfort in foreign language prayer. And to me, that’s the point—our spiritual lives are limited/hindered by using a foreign language.

That’s why I’m confident in the importance of the task of language learning for crossing cultures—others shouldn’t have to process or relate to God in an anglophone environment. I don’t want to allow my lack of proficiency to block a smooth, comfortable, natural relationship between them and our great and living God.

Care

Missionaries struggling with language learning often feel culturally dislocated and alien. How could you remind missionaries, through messages or other means, that they are not alone?


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