Learning a language as a missionary is a fantastic opportunity but it has its own challenges. Jimmy has shared a few thoughts of his experiences learning a new language and has given me the opportunity to share my own experiences and insights. I’d like to focus on how, much as we should be fearless in sharing the gospel, we should be fearless in speaking and practicing our mission language whenever possible.
Why is practicing so important?
Learning a new language isn’t like a spelling or history class, simply memorizing facts and rules and repeating them back. It is more like math, where you learn the rules but then need to practice to make sure you understand the rules and how to apply them. Perhaps comparing this to football would make this more interesting. As I never watched football until I was nearly 30 (soccer guy, myself) I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time trying to figure out the rules. Now that I feel confident that I know the rules, am I ready to play football? Not at all! I haven’t practiced, ever, and the few times I’ve thrown a football around show that the only thing I’m worse at than catching a football is throwing one. Knowing the rules, while essential, is only a single step at being good at something. If you want to speak the language, you need to learn the rules, then you need to get out there and practice.
So why would we, when we have this fantastic opportunity to learn a new language, not be fearless in practicing? What’s holding us back? While there are many reasons, and nobody’s are the exact same, these are two that I’ve seen frequently in myself and others.
Fear of failure
In President Uchtdorf’s January 2014 Home Teaching message he states, “We almost certainly will fail—at least in the short term. But rather than be discouraged, we can be empowered because this understanding removes the pressure of being perfect right now. It acknowledges from the beginning that at one time or another, we may fall short. Knowing this up front takes away much of the surprise and discouragement of failure.”
You will make mistakes, there is absolutely no chance that you won’t. And because of that, it is expected not only by you but by those with whom you speak. They know you are learning and almost all will be incredibly patient and understanding. Most people also love to share what they know and are honored to help provide feedback and explanations of any difficulties in their language. But they can’t do so unless you speak with them and, just as importantly, make some mistakes with them.
Fear of offending
Religion is a controversial and sensitive topic and the additional difficulty of trying to discuss the gospel in another language can be daunting. I was often concerned that I would unintentionally say something offensive and turn people away from the gospel. I learned, however, that if the spirit was with us while we taught, we would not offend.
When the spirit is in a conversation, that feeling of love will be felt by those with whom you speak. If you say something that is misunderstood or seems offensive, that feeling of love will let them know that you have no ill intentions. This will allow you, or your companion, to clarify what you meant or, in some cases, they will even gently correct you and tell you how to say what you meant.
On occasion, things will go wrong. You will offend, you will meet mean people, and you will be embarrassed. In these rare instances, you will need to work through them with the help of the Spirit and your companion. However, as you continue to practice, you will be richly blessed and become a more powerful instrument in the hands of God.