Overcoming Monolingualism 15 - Must I Become a Linguist to Learn a Language?

Published by: Anonymous
April 20, 2012

I came across this quote the other day, "Missionaries would benefit greatly from a thorough study of language theory..." (359)

Does this mean that in order for me to learn a language I have to first become a linguist? Linguistics is the scientific study of language itself. Often linguists will know many languages but because of their linguistic training they can also make intelligent commentary about languages they do not yet fully know. So, the easy answer to the question is, "No, you don't need to be a linguist to learn a language." What, then, does David Hesselgrave mean by the comment above?

To know some basic principles of linguistics (e.g. phonetics, the study of speech sounds) is a "beneficial" tool for breaking out of our monolingual box! There are more speech sounds used by the languages of the world than are contained by the English language. To have learned the international phonetic alphabet or examined some of the basic grammatical layouts of other languages can help us. After all, we're not children, we're not experiencing general brain development at the same time as learning a language. We can "cheat" and use things like linguistics to help overcome barriers that children must simply wade through with all their smile-producing gibberish.

So, while we as adults can use these tools to help us advance, in the end they are not the same as language learning. The possession of a tool belt does not guarantee a well constructed house. It helps, certainly, but Hesselgrave goes on to caution us quoting Eugene Nida, "Linguistic training is of great help but it is no substitute for cultural submersion" (363). Hesselgrave writes further, "To learn a language is to learn a complete set of linguistic habits. The interesting thing about habits is that they are habitual! In other words, most of our behavior is so natural to us that we engage in it without thinking and are at a loss to explain how we learned it. Actually we learned it by watching and listening to others in varied situations and by responding in similar situations accordingly. Language is a part of that behavior" (358).

In a recent interview with linguist Bruce Alan Johnson, he made this comment, "There is absolutely no substitute in language for the ability to think in it…thinking in the language removes the technical aspect and that's where you start getting the mastery." So, let us use the tools available to us in linguistics and language theory but never let them get in the way of actual language acquisition.

[All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from: Hesselgrave, David J. Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally. (2nd Edition) Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 1991.]



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