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Language Learning Without Losing Your Mind

October 21, 2022

Karen Hedinger

Before reading this post, take a minute and think back over the past 24 hours. How many times did you communicate something to someone? You could write down a few instances and make a list of the interactions that you had with other people.

Now, take each example and think about what was communicated. Was there an exchange of facts like where to meet for coffee or who just came down with Covid? Did you express how you were feeling about something? Did you request help with a task or extend an invitation to an event?

One source of great mental anguish, anxiety, and frustration is not being able to communicate things that are important to us. For the beginner language learner, this feeling of helplessness is often quite acute and disconcerting. As someone said in our language class, "It feels like I am at zero when it comes to expressing myself and understanding others." It's not a comfortable place to be.

When we first arrived in Mexico after nine months of an intensive Spanish course, I thought I might speak like a five-year-old. That was until a five-year-old child of a coworker came up to the Mexican man sitting down next to me and rattled my learning. My heart sank.

Language learning is stressful, especially when you depend on the still-new-to-you language for your social, business, and ministry interactions. In this post, I'd offer three suggestions that language learners on any level can use to motivate themselves to keep moving forward and lessen anxiety and stress.

Rely on your relationship with God.

For global kingdom workers, our starting place is always God. He is the one who has called us. Think about the amazing promises that he makes:

  • I will never leave you or forsake you. Hebrews 3:5

  • He who began a good work in you will continue until the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:6

  • He will equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight. Hebrews 13:21

  • He has given us the ministry of reconciliation as ambassadors of Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

God, the author of language and communication, invites us to depend on him as he shepherds our hearts and guides us in our relationships and language learning.

Develop relationships with others.

A few years ago, Dr. Kelli Harding, MD, wrote a book about the importance of relationship to our physical and mental health. In The Rabbit Effect, she explores why two people with the same diagnosis could have two very different experiences. Through years of study in medicine and psychology, she made a groundbreaking discovery. One of the most important keys to good health is healthy relationships.

She says, "Ultimately, what affects our health in the most meaningful ways has as much to do with how we treat one another, how we live, and how we think about what it means to be human than with anything that happens in the doctor's office." (page xxv.) Harding identified "hidden factors" that affect our physical and mental health and put them in the figure shown here (page 12). As you read through the hidden factors, notice how many factors have to do with relationships.

So what does this have to do with language learning? Are there relational factors that are intertwined with language and language learning? Staying connected to people at home and with coworkers where you live can provide encouragement and deep times of sharing. But be wise. Too much time with those at home or in expat company can keep us from moving forward in language learning, building relationships, and ministering where we are.

What about relationships with those where God has placed you? Understanding what healthy relationships look like and developing relationships accordingly can foster a sense of belonging and open opportunities to live and share life at a deep, heartfelt level. When we connect with others, our brain waves actually sync and we experience deep satisfaction. This should motivate us to continue learning the language we need to communicate on that deeper level.

Create a language learning plan.

Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz are two cognitive psychologists who specialize in linguistics. They wrote a book, Becoming Fluent, to help adults learn a foreign language. They discuss the importance of thinking about the process needed to reach a goal instead of focusing on how it will be when we achieve the goal. They state, "Not only does such process-focused planning result in a greater probability of actually reaching the goal it also reduces stress along the way." (Pages 15-16)

At CultureBound, we have language learners create a language learning plan that takes several aspects into account such as difficulty of language, learning styles and attitudes, available ways to learn, and available time considering other responsibilities. Developing and following a realistic plan that keeps language learners moving forward can reduce anxiety and increase confidence as learners work through their plans and find themselves communicating more clearly.

We can't eliminate the stress of language learning. In fact, we probably wouldn't want to! There are some good things that come with stress, too. But we can reduce the stress and make it manageable. May deepening your relationship with God, building new relationships with the people you live among, and being deliberate about your language learning plan transform language learning into a joyful adventure with eternal outcomes.


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