Overcoming Monolingualism 10 - A Personal Look: Russian
[This material is taken from an interview with a couple who undertook the difficult task of learning Russian for the sake of ministering the gospel in a Russian speaking culture. Their answers are differentiated by #1-wife and #2-husband.]
Q :: Having grown up monolingual, briefly describe what it was like to acquire a second language as an adult?
1) The best way I can describe it is that it is like becoming a child again. I did not begin to make progress until I humbled myself and accepted that I was going to make mistakes, often embarrassing ones, I would be misunderstood, and people would laugh at what I said. This was frightening for someone who prided herself on being able to write and speak eloquently, but God used it to teach me part of what Philippians 2:5-11 means.
2) It is very hard if you are not a gifted linguist. Prepare to be embarrassed and to look like a fool for several years. [i.e. don’t glamorize the process, it’s tough!]
Q :: Having brought your children with you into this language learning process, how did you perceive their experience learning a second language?
1) It was different for each of the children because of their ages and personalities. The middle two got the most out of it, being highly relational and willing to try. The oldest found it painful to speak and avoided all but transactional type conversations. The youngest, I believe, had some baggage that made her unwilling to learn: she had been adopted from the country where we served and did not want to relearn the language. We had to learn not to badger them, but to seek to put them in situations where they would have to survive as best they could. They spent a lot of time together and became each other's closest friends, so I won't say their lack of fluency was completely negative.
2) Every child is different, and, of course, both the child’s age and his commitment to cross-cultural ministry greatly influence the process. In the case of our family the child who had the greatest desire to have Russian-speaking friends was the one who made the greatest progress.
Q :: What did you find most exhilarating about learning a second language?
1) For me, it was being able to read literature and poetry and talk about them with native speakers. This gave me a point of connection and helped me make friends, and also helped me understand the culture better. Also exhilarating was the realization that I had a new personality in the new language. It was a lot of fun to speak and act in ways I would not in English.
2) The joys are many. There is the joy of mastering something that is hard, the joy of reading books and watching movies that you could otherwise never access, the joy of understanding English and my own culture better by having another language and culture to compare it to, the joy of seeing aspects of my personality flourish in this that I never knew I had, and the joy of being able to communicate with people and have true friendship with people who I would otherwise not be able to know this side of heaven.
Q :: What did you find more frustrating and difficult about learning a second language?
1) Honestly, it was feeling like a moron, day in, day out. Developing a new "language ego" is a long, hard process. You don't have the same resources and props for your self-approval that you used to. God blessed us with a teacher who helped us through this by relating to us as competent adults and responding to the content of our communication at least as much as to the form. But there were days when just trying to buy potatoes was enough to make me cry. I had to keep running to my Strong Tower and remember that anything that hurts my pride is good in the long run!
2) It was the jazz great Wynton Marsalis who said, “The humble improve.” What he did not say is how painful it is to be humbled. A child learns a language by hearing things and repeating them. Often a child will mispronounce a word or says something completely out of context and people will smile and laugh. For a small child this is funny. When you are forty years old and people laugh or give you a blank stare it is not so funny. And still there is no other way to make headway but to swallow your pride and press on ahead.
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?
1) As far as language learning, I don't think I would change a thing, except to recognize earlier that only the humble improve. Advice: make a friend who speaks the language you are learning. Nothing will help you learn like longing to communicate with someone you want to get to know. Seek out opportunities to practice while you are still in the US. Start with going to an ethnic restaurant or shop and trying out a few phrases. Make a friend and get invited to celebrations. Use all the language you get. Spend some time every day listening, speaking, reading, and writing (assuming the language is written, of course). Watch your target culture's films if there are any and see what you can learn about the culture, and ask your friend questions about it.
2) The main thing I would do different is to find the aspects of language learning that are fun. After a while sheer memorization gets overwhelming and your brain shuts down. That is a great time to take a break from the unpleasant part of language learning and watch a cartoon or read a comic book in the target language. The simple sentences and rudimentary vocabulary are easy on the brain and fun because you actually understand something! Music and film are also great ways to not only (somewhat) passively absorb new vocabulary but to gain greater access to the culture. It is amazing how many cautious glances from strangers hearing my accent became broad smiles after a well timed quote from the poet Pushkin, a snatch from a popular song, or a line from a well-known movie.
Work hard but also find ways to make learning fun. You do not want to have only negative associates with your target language.
Q :: Why is language learning so critical for gospel ministry in another culture?
1) I am often struck by the fact that God has always come to where we are in order to help and save us. He gives us his word in language we can understand, and talks about himself in anthropomorphic language so that we can grasp who he is. We imitate him when we immerse ourselves in another culture and become like them as much as we can so that they will understand our message. If we are able to share the gospel only with those who speak English, we will attract only those who are drawn to our culture and are willing to meet us part way. But we want indigenous churches made up of people who can reflect the glory of God from within their own culture, and for that we have to go to where they are culturally and linguistically.
2) I would not say that it is essential for every person and every task. There are many missionaries, for example, those who work with “The Jesus Film,” who travel around the world from one country to the next. Obviously they are not learning a new language every year yet God accomplishes great things through them. However those who are called to pour their lives into a small group of people as Christ did with the apostles must follow His lead and bridge the gap between themselves and those they wish to minister to. In a very, very small way the cross-cultural missionary’s task is like that of Christ who left a place of comfort to visit a people far away’ He spoke with their words, and He lived among them.