Missionaries preparing to work in another country often have to learn a new language. Speaking the language of the country where they live and work is important for practical reasons like taking care of daily living but it is also important for building friendships with neighbors and ultimately being able to share the Good News about Jesus in a language people can understand.
One of the most amazing developments of the last century is the incredible pace and diversity of global migration. The nations are now on our doorstep as this process of global migration has brought people from all over the world to the United States. All Americans now have the privilege of befriending people from other countries which can be a great incentive and opportunity to study a new language!
As an incentive, read Acts 2 to see what happened when the apostles began speaking in many different languages! Now imagine the delight of those in your community when you take the initiative to try to speak to them in their own language.
What language should you learn?
OK, so you are excited to learn a new language but which one should you learn? Ethnologue data suggests there are 7,099 spoken languages in the world so that is a lot to choose from so let me offer two suggestions.
In my (non-expert) opinion, the best language for you to learn is:
1) One that you want to learn (for your motivation and enjoyment) and
2) One that you can use (practice makes perfect and communication is the point!)
Only you can answer number one above as different people may be interested in different languages. As far as use and practicality, for the average American the obvious choice is Spanish. According to a 2016 survey by the US Census Bureau, Spanish is the primary language of 40.5 million people in the US, around 13% of the total population. You can find Spanish speakers all over the US so if learning Spanish sounds good to you, then you will have plenty of opportunities to practice.
If your language interests lie elsewhere, there are still other practical options, although what they are may depend on where you live. In my neck of the woods, Oregon, the most commonly spoken, non-English language after Spanish is Russian. So fellow Oregonians could learn Spanish or Russian and have a good chance of finding opportunities to use their language in the community. You can do a quick search for something like “non-English languages spoken in X” where X is your city or state.
The Benefits of Language Learning
I have studied several different languages both because I enjoy language learning and for ministry reasons. I have discovered a few great things about learning a language that have really benefited me and I think they could be an encouragement and benefit to you if you decide to learn another language.
1) It helps you make new friends. People LOVE it when you speak to them in their own language. (For those who have travelled outside the US, recall your joy when you discovered someone who spoke English!)
2) It will give you a new appreciation and sympathy for immigrants who come to the US and are trying to learn English. It’s hard!
3) It will keep your mind sharp. Studies indicate that bilingualism may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
4) If you can read the Bible in another language, you will discover new insight from passages you may have read many times before.
5) You can discover other points of view. For example, I am able to read internet news sites from French speaking countries, this helps me discover different perspectives on world events.
6) You can make new friends. Even in our smallish Oregon city I have found people who speak French and German as their native language. Even though they also spoke English, being able to speak to them in their own language created a special rapport.
7) It can be fun. Yes, it can also be hard but I think you will surprise yourself and discover that you are capable of learning a new language.
I could probably think of other benefits!
How can I get started?
OK, I hope some of you are convinced to give this idea a try! But maybe you are wondering how to get started. Here are a couple suggestions:
1) Free apps. Yes, there are tons of language learning apps and some that even turn it into a game. DuoLingo is one I have used. Sure, an app on your phone isn’t really going to teach you a whole language but if it helps you start learning some common phrases and you discover it is possible and fun, then go for it. It’s free, what do you have to lose?
2) Software. Rosetta Stone is the best known language learning software and for good reason, it is probably the best out there. I have used Rosetta Stone for French and Modern Standard Arabic. It is a great program. They have the classic download or CD-ROM versions or they now have web subscriptions too so you could give it a try. This is going to teach you more than a free app will.
3) Language courses. If you live near a community college, then chances are there are language classes that you can take. Many community colleges will let you audit courses for a cheaper tuition rate or there are adult education courses. Taking a class can be very helpful since not only will you be learning the language but you will have opportunities to use it and have an instructor help you. Search your local community college website to see what they offer.
4) Books. You can get many bi-lingual children’s’ books these days, especially if you are learning Spanish. I have seen Spanish-English children’s’ books at Goodwill and our public library has many as well. Children’s books are great because the vocabulary is usually useful and basic and you have the pictures to help with comprehension.
5) Practice! It will be hard to learn a new language if you don’t find opportunities to use it. Find people in your community to practice with. This will really help you learn plus you may make some friends in the process! Don’t worry about making mistakes, you will make them…probably lots of them, but that is part of the learning process.
Well, I hope this gives you some food for thought. The benefits are many and I’m not really sure there is any downside. Give it a try; what language do you want to learn?