When people find out that I teach ESL (English as a Second Language), they often ask me the same question: “How can you teach international students if you don’t know all those languages?” Actually, you don’t have to be able to speak the languages of your students to teach them English. They’re in the class to learn English, and if you constantly speak their language, it defeats the purpose. Having said that, you do have an advantage if you understand the basics of your students’ language. You can predict some of the grammar and pronunciation challenges they will face, and you can understand where some of their errors come from. For a language teacher, it helps to be a language student. If learning a language is helpful for a language teacher, it is even more helpful for Christ-followers who desire to reach the nations.
“But,” you protest, “I don’t have any language learning ability. I can’t tell the difference between a noun and a verb. Why should a ‘normal person’ like me learn a language?” Here are a few key reasons:
1. Language learning is an act of love. When someone takes the time to learn my language, it speaks to my heart. It shows me that someone cares enough to try to communicate with me. Love reaches out to touch the heart of another. Language is a primary tool to communicate that love.
2. Language learning is bridge-building. Language can be either a barrier or a bridge. If I don’t know your language, and you don’t know my language, there’s an invisible wall between us. On the other hand, if we share a common language, we can cross the bridge of communication and understand one another—and eventually the gospel can cross the bridge, too.
3. Language learning is cultural orientation. When we study someone’s language, it helps us to appreciate nuances of their culture that we cannot grasp otherwise. Our culture shapes our worldview, and our worldview is expressed in our language. If we gain language proficiency, it can unlock the door to other people’s worldview.
In my experience with international students, I have found that when I try to speak their language, it creates a connection between us and makes their eyes light up. No matter how much or how little experience you have with international people, even learning a few phrases can have a great impact.
So how can I get started with language learning?
Once you decide on the people group you want to reach out to, begin to look for tools or opportunities for language learning. Here are a few ideas to help you get started.
1. Download the app. You would be surprised how many language learning applications for smart phones are available. Many of them are free or very reasonably priced. Of course, some apps (like some teachers) are better than others. Try out a few and see which ones work well for you.
2. Learn online. With the advent of the Internet, we no longer have any excuse for pleading ignorance about a language we want to study. You can find many online resources about any language you want to study. Go to YouTube and search for “_________ language lessons.” You can find several thousand videos on languages ranging from Tagalog to Telegu, or from Somali to Swahili.
3. Take a class. Many community colleges and social organizations offer language learning courses for a nominal price. It’s fairly easy to find classes that teach languages that are more widely spoken in the U.S. (e.g., Spanish), but if you look hard enough you can find courses in Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, or Russian (just to name a few).
4. Start a class. You may not be the only person in your church or small group who wants to learn a language for the purpose of reaching the nations. Why not start your own language class? Invite a teacher proficient in that language to offer lessons to your group. (Of course, you’ll need to pay them.) Learning a language together with people you know can lead to greater success with the language.
5. Offer a language exchange. Immigrants to the U.S. would love to share their language with you if you would share your language with them. Offer to be a friendship partner with an international person who could help you learn their language while you help them learn yours.
6. Study a book on the language. I once found a book entitled Yes, You Can Learn Korean in 45 minutes. While the book didn’t exactly live up to its name, reading and studying it did offer me insights into how the Korean language works. You probably can’t master a language by reading a book, but it can be an additional resource to help you along your journey.
When we humble ourselves to become a language learner, we’re following the example of Christ, the incarnate Word, who humbled Himself to become one of us and to lay down His life for us (Phil. 2:1-11). Taking the posture of a language learner can be a powerful illustration of the gospel. As God has revealed His heart to us through the medium of language, we build bridges through language to communicate His love and reveal His heart to the nations. Language study may not seem very fun now, but one day we will rejoice together when every nation, tribe, people and language are gathered around the throne of God (Rev. 7:9-12).
Note: William Haselton considers language one of God’s most fascinating gifts. He hasn’t learned all the languages in the world yet, but he’s working on it. He would love to sit down and discuss grammar with you sometime. Strange, but true. Follow him on X (Twitter) @wthaselton.