Monday, April 27, 2009

Learning The Lingo #3: Social Contact

Languages are best learned by people from people.

Kind of sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, many of us try to learn language without involving other people, for some reason. We buy books, tapes, videos, flash cards and other lesson materials. Those are all fine and good. But the biggest ingredient needed is social contact with native speakers of the language.

That’s right—social contact. I’m not just talking about learning from a language teacher. I’m talking about interacting with speakers of the language who are not trying to teach you a lesson, but are just having a conversation with you, trying to tell you a story or a joke, or just doing life together. One of my favorite quotes from the LAMP (Language Acquisition Made Practical) method people is the following:

“If you set out to learn a language you will possibly fail, but if you set out to have a deep relationship with people, you will learn their language.”

-Thomas Brewster, Bonding and the Missionary Task

The point is that if we have the mere goal of learning a language—and if we subconsciously think we can do this without building friendships with any native speakers—chances are we will fail to speak it fluently or we will find it extremely difficult. However, if we make it our goal to form a friendship with at least one or several native speakers (preferably someone who speaks little or no English) then in the course of that process we will pick up a great deal of the language. Not only will we have the language learned, but we will have a good friend, too. So this approach is ideal for ministry, too.

Of course, if we see the people we’ve come to reach as simply “subjects” then we probably won’t want to build friendships with them. “We want to help them; not hang out with them!” If we are afraid of them and view them with suspicion, we probably won’t be allowing them to get too close to us or our children. If we fear giving up our lifestyles, eating their food and doing things with them that they enjoy, then we will probably only try to build friendships with those few who are brave enough to come into our big luxurious houses and eat our strange Western food—not too many, if any.

So, how we view people can end up being a big factor in how well we learn the language. That is because how we view the nationals will mostly determine how much social contact we have with them. How much social contact we have with them will greatly determine how much of the language we learn.


  1. Hey! I've been playing catchup on all the language posts. Finally I'm caught up enough to comment.

    This is fascinating stuff for me. It jibes with what I've thought about language learning. I learned Spanish in school. As in, really studied it. Majored in it, actually.

    After my sophomore year of college, when I'd already taken a few advanced courses, I went to Guatemala on a short-term trip. I was the only team member who knew any Spanish, so I was appointed translator. ;)

    THAT is immersion and social contact rolled into one. All my years in class had given me virtually NO construction vocabulary (if you can imagine), so I had to pantomime and describe everything. Very very helpful.

    I think I learned more in those 14 days than I had in the previous six years combined. That's because I transitioned from performing Spanish tricks for teachers to communicating in Spanish with new friends.

  2. Hi Steph! Thank you for commenting. (I think this is your first comment in the Koffi House, right?)

    Yes, yes you are right! The key word you used: communicating. Using language for real communication is the key to learning a language fast and well. Thank you for sharing your story!!

  3. If you were to fall head over heels in love, and the object of your affection spoke another language, you would be motivated to learn their language so that you could communicate with him or her. So, if Jesus commands us to love one another, if we find ourselves in a situation where we are surrounded by people whom we are commanded to love, learning their language is the next logical step. We should be motivated by love. In all things - not just learning a language.

  4. Maybe I'm a bit naive here, but isn't the point of missions a) befriending the natives and immersing yourself into their culture? And b) not just 'Americanizing them' or making them like us? Seems to me that the latter would garner more resistance and (a) would garner more respect, thus more relationships.

    Ok, that wasn't directed at you Koffi - just my common sense at work. At least I THINK I'd practice (a) if I were a missionary. But I've not been there / done that....

    I do know that when in Mexico (or around my Mexican friends here) I try to speak as much Spanish as I can. It's worth a good laugh anyway. And when I start saying 'mas despacio por favor' to my friends they start talking faster..ahhh...good fun at my expense.

  5. @katdish--Right on. The problem is that many view the nationals not as objects of our love, but subjects of our pity. In fact, many mission agencies actually have policies forbidding Westerners from marrying the nationals. There might be some good reasoning behind this, but I think it sets a bad precedent.

    @Annie K--Yes, befriending people and sharing God's love with them is the point of missions. But I am not kidding--a majority of missionaries are caught in living their "expat lives" rather than integrating with the national society. And yes, they tend to be pretty ineffective because of it. They tend to focus on the project they administer--and the good it does--rather than relationships they build themselves. Some hide behind the idea that a foreigner should not be the one doing evangelism, but should be sending nationals out to do it. I agree with this idea in general, but seperating ourselves from the nationals certainly doesn't help us disciple and send, either.