Language learning is not a new thing for me. Having lived overseas for over 12 years it's definitely something I've done, and done again (and again and again and....). You get the idea. It's not a new concept and with some languages (like Arabic), it's really never done. There is always something new you can learn. I posted HERE several years ago about the humility required for learning a new language, especially as an adult. All this to say, this is a block I've been around several times. So many times in fact that I am often dizzy when I think of all the hours I've invested in language and how precious little I actually have to show for it! Maybe someday soon that will change!
So this post is meant as a pep talk of sorts- to myself: a reminder to look back on when I'm frustrated and just wanting to throw up my hands and give up, and hopefully an encouragement to others who are also on the language learning journey.
Obviously, when you move to a foreign country with a different culture, there are plenty of obvious reasons for studying the language of your new home- getting directions, grocery shopping, knowing basic greetings to name a few. Those aren't the reasons I want to focus on. As I've prayed through jumping back into language learning, here are 3 less obvious reasons that God has impressed upon my heart. These are somewhat personal to my situation, but I hope that principles from each can encourage others. I know in the weeks and months ahead as I jump back into language learning, I will be coming back to this list to remind myself why I'm doing what I'm doing!
1. Learning language helps me to be me. Huh? One of the biggest challenges in studying a foreign language is that, for a season, you are hopelessly unable to truly express your heart in the language you are learning. You truly go all the way back to preschool level. This is one of the reasons I've heard many language learners with young kids say how much they love taking their kids to the playground. You get to interact with people who you can sort of understand and can be encouraged when they can understand your very basic sentences: what's your name? go there. give me that. throw the ball. come here. It's a great place to start! But it's simply a place to start. Eventually you become frustrated again because as an adult language learner, well, you're not a preschooler and you have deeper things that you want to express, more important topics that you want to talk about.
When asked why I want to continue to study a language when I can already pretty well get myself around in that language and when so many people in the place where we live actually speak English, I've realized that it's because I want to be able to really be me in Arabic. And right now I can't. I can't joke around with people (well at least in a way that makes sense...), I can't talk about the deep heart level issues that really define me and more importantly, that define the people I am seeking to become friends with. And yes, many of them can switch to English, but then, often the reverse becomes true for them. Now THEY aren't truly being themselves and truly expressing their heart issues. It's a constant lesson in humility for sure.
I've heard it said that it's hard for your true personality to come out in your second language and I'm finding that to be true. In a situation where I might normally be empathetic or able to offer advice or simply be a good listener and cry with a friend, I'm often so busy trying to process what is being said that too much time passes and the moment is gone. Or worse, I find myself nodding and agreeing with something because I think I'm understanding context clues and it turns out it's not actually something I would nod and agree with at all! It's hardest, I think, in a group setting where I'd love to be talking and laughing and joking with a group of ladies and I'm mostly following their conversations, but not at a quick enough pace to join in and talk myself. This is where I think the perceived personality change comes in. You find yourself labeled as quiet or shy when that is not at all the case- your brain is just having to work too hard to process everything that's happening around you!
As language learners, we often face an identity crisis of sorts. I don't think I realized, before I started studying a foreign language, how much of my identity, I wrapped up in my accomplishments whether professionally or simply as a wife and mother. Countless times in the process of studying Arabic (and French for that matter), I've wanted to throw my arms up and say, "I'm smart in English! I know stuff! I'm a registered nurse, I take care of sick moms and babies! I organize my home and the activities of 4 active people and I teach them about life. I'm smart! I know stuff!" So as I enter this season of Arabic study, I'm praying to get to the point in Arabic where when I speak, I'll be able to be myself and maybe, as an added bonus, I'll sound like I know stuff, but, on the other hand, I'm also praying that I'll approach language learning with the knowledge that my only true identity can be found in Christ, not in how much I actually know. It's a delicate balance.
2. Language/cultural learning gives staying power This relates a bit to the need to be able to really be myself. In my experience and in talking to many folks who have lived overseas for a significant period of time, it seems that those who are most successful and have the most positive experiences, are those who are fully invested in the cultures in which they live. They have local friends that they can look to for emotional support, help in cultural problem solving and day to day living questions. In this day and age, it is far too easy for the connectivity provided by social media to let friends who are thousands of miles away be our "go to" when life gets tough. That's ok to an extent. It's important to have folks we always know we can count on, but at the same time, I feel like it can be a crutch to actually digging in and fully investing in the communities where God has placed us. One of my prayers for new friends coming overseas early on is always for a heart level local friend. And yes, this takes a deeper level of language learning.
I feel like this concept is also true for families as a whole. When kids see mom and dad fully connecting with life around them, they are much more likely to want to do the same. Kids who are thriving in their second cultures seem to do so when they are most fulling experiencing that culture. This can be hard for parents because sometimes it might require us to make decisions that just might break our own rules. Called to homeschool? Might have to sacrifice that for a season so kids can be in a school that exposes them to the language their family is learning.. 8:00 PM bedtime? Maybe not if the culture you live in comes alive at 10 PM. So how does all this relate to language learning? It's these decisions that we make as individuals or as families that effect our ability to fully absorb the language and culture around us that will truly make a different on the days when we're just ready to throw in the towel. Remember God called you to this place (I'm preaching to myself here!) and is fully aware of your families needs and dynamics- trust Him with these details! When things get tough, and we want to retreat into our comfort bubble and surround ourselves with what's safe and known, we're far less likely to want to jump on the next plane to the US if we have invested in the language and the culture around us, and our safe place involves local friends, those who we can converse with in their heart language so that our hearts are more fully understood. It's far easier to not just survive but thrive in the place where you are called to serve, if you are able to connect on an emotional level with locals around you. Complicated? Definitely! Worth the sacrifice? Undoubtedly!
3. Language learning enables me to be a better "stay home mom" Again, huh? Ok, so maybe it's better to say that language learning enables me to better fulfill my calling as a wife and mom. It may seem a bit counterintuitive to say that language learning and being a "stay home mom" can go hand in hand. I think the two can co-exist but a season of sacrifice is definitely required. To fully and effectively study the Arabic language, if you have small children, there will undoubtedly be a season of childcare, or house help or whatever the case may be for each family. In our stint overseas, I've had to remind myself time and again, that God called us as a family and will therefore meet our families needs while enabling us to do the tasks He's called us to. It was heart-wrenching to drop my 4 year old off day in and day out at a French school where she understood not a word and stubbornly refused to even try to make friends so that I could go to language classes. Looking back was it worth it? Yep, and I would even do it again. Why? Because God told me to do it and lovingly told me to trust Him with her. Now, 10 years later, we all laugh about it, and she has a very solid foundation in French. Of course, each family's situation is unique, however what I've learned is to look at things in seasons. Yes, God has called me to be a stay home mom, to be the primary care-giver for my children, and yes, he's also called me to a life overseas where, to be most effective, I need to study the language and culture at a pretty in-depth level. How do these 2 things coincide? I must regularly trust Him with the details of that. There may be a season where I am in class and my girls are in school and/or childcare. For another season I might can study at home and juggle our other family needs around that.
For me, being a stay home mom means that I (along with Jason) am the primary caregiver for my girls and we are the primary sources for meeting their emotional, spiritual and developmental needs. This is a precious calling and I don't take it lightly. Planting our family overseas is also a calling and learning to communicate and function effectively in this culture is part of that calling. Sometimes there is a tension between these two callings, but I think it's a healthy tension. Teaching our girls to embrace other cultures and learn something beyond their comfort zone is so important in giving them a heart for the nations. Being called to be their mom and being called to this life overseas, means that I must teach them by example how important language learning is. If I want them to learn how to be "all in" in the place where God has placed us, what better way to do than by placing value on the ability to communicate at a heart level with those we live among. Discipling them by making them a part of our ministry as a family; explaining that mom is studying Arabic so that our family can more effectively fulfill our calling here in this place; choosing school situations that expose them to more language and culture and therefore putting in more hours at home to stay caught up in English; all of these things are things I can do as mom to teach the value of language learning. In this season of my life, I am so amazingly thankful that God is showing me how language learning is something that helps me fulfill my role as mom. Isn't that just like Him, to know just what my heart needs?!
" Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving."