Overcoming Monolingualism 09 - A Personal Look: Arabic
[This material comes from an interview with a Bethlehem global partner whose family has gone through the arduous process of learning Arabic. They're now in the process of acquiring another major national langauge of their host country.]
Q :: Having grown up monolingual, briefly describe what it was like to acquire a second language as an adult?
It’s very humbling, like becoming a child again, really more like becoming a newborn baby again. The experience has the power to force one of two responses: either curl up inside and run away, or move forward headstrong and ask for grace. The challenge for me was to feel really little and feel like a failure over and over again. I often found myself trying to map out the sentences beforehand and trying to anticipate all the possible responses. My wife didn’t seem to have that problem though, some of it is personality. So, just be OK with laughing at yourself and making mistakes.
I studied in language school but my wife did everything by the LAMP method, working with friends and tutors in the community. Part of this has to do with our different family roles and part of it has to do with our different learning styles. But because of the way we learned, her learning curve shot up very quickly and then leveled off. My progress was a little more slow and steady.
Q :: Having brought your children with you into this language learning process, how did you perceive their experience learning a second language?
This children almost had no struggles at all. Their main exposure was having a house helper who spoke no english. But playing soccer with other children everyday and finding something kids enjoy doing and using these activities as a bridge for your child to be with other children sharing an activity is very important. This is part of the cross-cultural parenting responsibilities, language learning was a call on our whole family.
Q :: What did you find most exhilarating about learning a second language?
I’m a problem solver and like figuring things out. But really it was finally being able to communicate the gospel to people around in a meaningful way that was most exhilarating. Being able to then have a meaningful conversation about Jesus and begin correcting their long-held misperceptions of him. It took about 3-6 months to cross that barrier of simple gospel communication.
Q :: What did you find most frustrating and difficult about learning a second language?
There is a continual tension, even after reaching relative fluency. Sometimes I’ll have 30 minute conversations with people at natural speed and not miss a beat. At other times I’m either lost in a mess of unknown vocabulary or something in my mind is just not connecting with what’s coming out of the person’s mouth. We have to take a long term view of the process. In the short term it is a constant up and down but keep an eye on the overall trajectory. Reading is also very time intensive and often frustrating, but so fruitful for gospel ministry.
Q :: What would you do differently if you had the opportunity start over again? What advice would you give to another monolingual American embarking on their first second-language acquisition experience?
Regardless of learning style preference, face time is everything, make sure you are with people (especially if you’re one of those who have the introverted and analytical personality). Don’t deceive yourself by thinking that you know a lot but are not regularly out to use it and keep growing in that knowledge. Learning from different people in different situations expands more than just a linguistic base, it helps with culture and community, relationships. And for those who are more relational, have tolerance for learning some grammar structures to get past the plateaus. Know yourself and where you need to push yourself, and find someone to keep you accountable there.
Q :: Why is language learning so critical for gospel ministry in another culture?
The process of learning the language helps to encourage the worker long-term and have a long-term perspective on their ministry. Not being able to communicate, in the long-haul, will more and more seclude the worker from the general populous. Language learning is simply encouraging to the soul as it allows you to love and know the people around you. Language helps connect with the heart of the people around you.