Language Learning: Practical ideas, and some reflections

…In which I use a great deal of English to elaborate on learning a little bit of Burmese (Or Myanmar language, if you will. Since the language I am learning is the native tongue of the Burma people group, I will refer to it as Burmese for the remainder of this post. For more on the distinction between Myanmar and Burma, check out this link.)

A picture puzzle from the kids' funny pages.
A picture puzzle from the kids’ funny pages.
Language learning is a great way to become childlike.

“Am I ever going to be able to communicate with anyone?” That is probably the question Jim heard most from me last year (followed by, “How is it that you say ‘yesterday’, again?”). I struggle to remember things if I haven’t seen them on paper, which made for a lot of struggling in the past year. I have needed to hear things dozens of times before I could start calling them to memory without help. Now as I watch my daughter beginning to develop her linguistic skills, I understand why kids ask you to say/do things repeatedly until, as Chesterton put it, “the grown-up person…is nearly dead.” Learning language requires an inordinate amount of repetition, and the humility to ask someone, as many times as it takes, “can you say that again?” And as I struggle to retain this language, I am reminded that just as I need the Burmese for “Thursday” on repeat in my ear, I have not outgrown my need to hear the gospel in the simplest terms, again and again.

Learning the language is the long way, and the best way to start learning about the culture.

Putting effort into being able to communicate in the local tongue with a broad range of people will give you the end result of being able to see a broader picture of the culture. It is much, much harder and longer work than simply reading a Lonely Planet guide to local culture, but it will produce more accurate results, and thus a healthier view of things.

Learning language well involves being willing to do things that might feel like a waste of time:
  • Stopping for every person who is interested in exchanging a few words (unless for some reason the context isn’t appropriate).
  • Taking 30 minutes to walk home when it could take three.
  • Avoiding one-stop shopping and instead have multiple transactions at a dozen different shops for the sake of practice.
  • Taking public transportation in order to talk to fellow passengers.
  • Going for slow walks and greeting lots of people, getting to hear as many different voices as possible.
  • “Efficiency” in learning (like studying alone or trying to learn from videos) can often lead to isolation, and isolation means a lack of language input from those who live around you. Trying to be efficient can be detrimental to learning and developing a good accent.
It is valuable to be able to say a few things well, rather than many things poorly.

I’ll not elaborate on that, so as to avoid spoiling my point.

My list of food vocabulary. My handwriting leaves much room for improvement..
My list of food vocabulary. My handwriting leaves much room for improvement..
If there is a written language/script, you should learn to read it.

Burmese is a tonal language with four tones. From a monolingual English-speaker’s perspective, tones are tough to understand! When I first got here, I Romanized (i.e. using my alphabet to understand theirs) every new word I heard, and I tried to put the tones on paper using my English speaking lenses for language. This makes about as much sense as trying to help a child learn English by using baby talk. (In my defense, I had pregnancy related headaches every day for months, and didn’t have the mental capacity for a new alphabet at the time.)

But since starting to learn the language by understanding the Burmese alphabet, the sounds of the language are suddenly understandable, and pronunciation has become much easier. And might I add, I feel like I’m six all over again, starting to read the signboards all around me—it is so fun learning to read!

Trying to develop an understanding of Burmese by only using one’s understanding of English is a poor way to learn, and begs the question: if you won’t put in the effort to learn a new alphabet, what does that say about your willingness to adapt to and learn about a new culture? And I could go on and on about how important/prudent it is to be able to read the newspaper, understand written humor, and read what people are sharing on social media. Learning to read is pivotal to picking up on the heartbeat of a culture.

Doing is a great way to learn language.

I am terrible at making up small talk, to the degree that the prospect of having people come over simply to talk to me caused me to feel anxious for hours on end. Thankfully, I came up with an option that causes me no stress and yields delicious results: cooking with other women. I find that I can retain a lot more of what I learn when I have the chance to act out the new words, and the kitchen makes a pretty great stage.

Losing the ability to communicate can strengthen one’s other senses.

When you don’t understand what people are saying, your senses gradually become attuned to the way they are speaking, what they are wearing, their physical relationship to you and others as they communicate, etc, etc. Without being very conversant, it is possible to learn about a person’s manners and habits and to develop a basic idea of who can be trusted. Every once in a while, I am reminded that evil can’t be buried within a language, it can be felt, often in conversation with certain individuals. Every time this happens, I have a renewed thankfulness to God for placing me, a “cultural infant,” in relationships with many who are kind and trustworthy, preventing me from walking blindly into dangerous relationships.

Language learning should be important to those who send/support overseas workers—it is a long term investment in the future of a place.

Learning language is not tangibly productive, it puts a pause on the Protestant work ethic that some of us hold so dear, and forces us to find our value apart from being able to give an impressive answer to the ubiquitous, “what do you do all day?”

This May will mark the ten-year anniversary of Jim’s arrival in Myanmar. It is only in the last year that he has taken on an official translation role. Getting to this point meant that he spent years simply talking to people rather than jumping straight into a formal role with an NGO. It is thanks to all of the individuals who supported him for so many years in the seemingly “unproductive” land of language learning that he now finds himself translating materials for people here. If you are in the role of supporting/sending those who work overseas, know you are investing in a long-term commitment. Learning a language takes many years, and your understanding and encouragement can make a big difference!

Language learning is a vital long-term investment for those who want meaningful relationships and a deep understanding of the needs around them.

Without taking the time to learn the language, you will only get to know the people who know your native tongue, which drastically limits the pool of potential relationships (and in a lot of cases, limits you to knowing people who want to move to a country where English is spoken). Learning language takes a long time—it is a slow, slow way to grow into relationships. But in so doing, you learn who the patient people are, you discover the ones who will try to understand you and will be honest enough to correct your mistakes.

I would say language learning is God’s way of building discernment into those who want to work cross culturally. “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger…” (James 1:19). The problems of another culture are complex and difficult to understand, and in our impatience we are often wont to think we can ponder the issues for a short time and find solutions that will solve multigenerational problems. Thank God, we aren’t able to actually soar into a new place and do this! Thank God, language learning forces a major slow down, to engage, learn and understand the culture in ways we couldn’t if we just showed up with money and our own ideas. Granted, there are some huge downfalls and abuses of language barriers—I am well acquainted with them, being married to a translator—but I see it as God’s way of protecting more people from each other, particularly from each other’s resources and poorly thought out ideas.

Learning language means getting comfortable with always being unprepared.

Just at the point where I feel that I have mastered a new set of terms and conversation topics, I inadvertently usher myself into a whole new realm of topics and vocabulary that are beyond my comprehension. Walking away from a conversation with no idea what was said is a regular occurrence. When I first started to learn Burmese, I wanted to feel prepared, and had a lot of anxiety about going out and causing confusion with others. I have since accepted that, for the foreseeable future, I will feel out of my depth, and I must keep swimming anyway. The more I swim, the more I’ll begin to understand, and the prospect of deep water will be less scary.


If you want a fun taste of how much language changes over time, check out this great Youtube video about the history of English–it has fun animation!

And here, the scripts of Asia, personified into cartoons.

3 thoughts on “Language Learning: Practical ideas, and some reflections”

  1. So much fun to read your comments and observations as you live as a 2nd language learner. No, it will never end. I often told new missionaries in Turkey as they faced the daunting task, this is the price you gladly pay for the privilege of telling someone the good news

    1. Thanks, Andrea! Hope the language learning goes well for you! It feels like slogging through wet cement for me, many days. But it is still so rewarding.

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