The Realities of Language Study

khmer-scriptLearning a new language is one of the most fun and rewarding things I have done in my life. However, it is also one of the most difficult. Let me quickly say that although I may use past tense in this post, I by no means am indicating that I have arrived, or anything remotely of the sort. I have not. However, I realize now that I did not come to Cambodia with a totally accurate view of language study. So, in this post I hope to point out some of the realities and/or misconceptions I have seen (particularly in my own mind) in hopes it will help some of those that are preparing to go the the mission field and learn a new language.

First of all, basically every language is very, very BIG. If you are reading this blog, then English is most likely your mother tongue. There are so many words in English that we are familiar with but never use. And, beyond those, there are thousands upon thousands of other words that we do not even know, even in our mother tongue! Since this is the case, perish the thought that the language you are going to learn is any different! The difference is you have been learning your mother tongue since you were less than one year old. You must learn a new tongue from scratch as an adult. My view of Khmer up until I came to Cambodia was small. It was akin to standing in a head (bathroom, for you non-seamen) in the middle of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. It was impossible to see how big it was! Whatever language you must learn, realize before you start that it is much bigger than you think it is. This leads to the following points.

It will be HARD. The Lord instructs us in Luke 14 to count the cost. The cost in this case is definitely worth the prize, as I said in the first sentence. We still, though, must count the cost. The couple of years of foreign language in high school are not comparable. Really learning a language to become fluent is HARD. It takes much time and study. NOTHING can take the place of steadfastness, patience, and diligence in language study. Nothing whatsoever. Please do not fool yourself into thinking it will be different for you. Prepare to put MUCH time, prayer, and frustration into the study of your target language. Various methods of language-learning may help you learn a language more correctly, but it will not diminish the time or diligence needed to do it. Exceptional ability or a “knack” for learning languages will not take the place of time or diligence. You will not be the exception. The nature of the language you will be studying does not have much of an effect on the time and diligence needed to learn it. Your language will not be easy. My point is none of the three things above will make it easy. Learning a new language is HARD; it is not easy. The only way to learn it is by investing major amounts of time, energy, study, prayer, and diligence. This is REQUIRED.

You WILL BE discouraged. Do not be surprised if you spend four hours a day or more in formal study, then hours after that talking to people and studying vocabulary, all this five days a week, and after six months still have a hard time expressing yourself. Do not be surprised if you spend two full years in formal study. It will be discouraging. It will seem like you will never learn the language. Deuteronomy 7:22 comes to mind in regard to language study. It will come a little at a time. Do not be disheartened. The nature of learning a new language is little by little. The process is so gradual that it may drive you into frustration. I know a number of missionaries here in Cambodia that really do a great job in the Khmer language. However, they still find themselves frustrated and in the pupil’s desk metaphorically over and over, even after having lived here for 10 years or more.

Lastly, if your goal is to be proficient in the language you are studying, you must realize that there will never be an “end” to study. You will always hear words that you don’t know. You will will never arrive. You haven’t arrived in English, and you certainly will not arrive in a second language. Preaching in a second language is not an end. In fact, preaching is really the beginning.

These are some of the realities that I wasn’t entirely prepared for when I came to Cambodia. These are some things that I have observed others not being entirely prepared for when going to the mission field. I hope if and when you start your study of a second language you will have a realistic view of what lies ahead of you, NOT to discourage you from marching forward, but to prepare you store up the diligence needed to continue when it seems like it never ends.

Author: Adam | May 16th, 2010